What reality TV has taught me about writing

I love reality TV. Love it. Over the years, I have wasted countless hours watching shows such as Survivor, Amazing Race, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Project Runway, Top Chef, The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette. Among others.

But were these hours really a waste of time? For one, reality TV has provided me with a much-needed way to unwind after a long, stressful day. For another, amidst the drama and the scandals, these shows have actually – gasp! — taught me something about writing.

Goal. Interestingly, the only reality shows I watch are the ones based on a competition. From the outset, even before we know anything about the contestants, we know what they want. To be the sole survivor. America’s favorite dancer. The biggest loser. Recipient of the final rose. Their goals are clearly defined, and the entire season revolves around the progression towards achieving (or failing to achieve) those goals. Instant plot, anyone?

Conflict. You put a bunch of people in the same room – or the same island – who want the same thing. And then you tell them that only one of them will get it. Instant conflict! The reality shows take it one step further and eliminate a contestant every single episode, keeping the tension high. Even during the most uneventful episodes, I watch until the very end, just so I can see who’s eliminated. This teaches us the importance of having conflict on every page.

Pushing Players to the Extreme. Reality shows take contestants out of their ordinary worlds and put them into extreme situations. A forest in the Amazon with no food or water. A race around the world. A stage in front of an audience of millions. Why? Because when you take people outside their comfort zones, interesting things start to happen. The emotions most central to humanity emerge – fear, jealousy, rage, love, lust, hope, despair, and joy.

Making Tough Decisions. Time and time again, these shows present contestants with difficult choices. Am I willing to betray my friend for a million dollars? Will I give up time with a loved one to curry favor with my teammates? These dilemmas even arise in shows less cutthroat than Survivor. In the most recent season of Top Chef Masters, for example, a quickfire challenged the chefs to make a dish incorporating insects, requiring them to kill the bugs themselves. One renowned chef refused to complete the challenge, as his religious beliefs forbade him from taking a life. In a classic case of “show versus tell,” this single decision told me more about his character than a dozen interviews. True character is revealed in the decisions that people make. The tougher the decision, the more we learn about a person’s character.

Characters. These shows bring together a myriad of people, from all walks of life. They throw these contestants together and watch them clash. The editing team creates characters, from hero to villain to underdog, to maximize drama. With so many different personalities, I always find someone for whom I can root.

In the end, I think reality shows are addictive because they know how to tell a good story. They set up a clearly-defined goal, build in conflict, put a colorful cast of characters in an extreme situation and ask them to make difficult decisions, and voila! You’ve got a story. And that’s what good writing is all about.

What are your favorite reality shows? Do you consider reality TV to be good story-telling or a waste of time? Or a little of both?


27 thoughts on “What reality TV has taught me about writing

  1. P.H.–In fact there was a workshop at RWA’s conference last week called “Not an Idiot Box: Using Your TV Addiction to Better Your Writing.” I didn’t get to sit in on that one but I would guess that you hit on some of the highlights here!
    My fave reality show right now is Love in the Wild. But my all time fave is Survivor.

    1. Oh wow, Carlene. Great minds think alike, huh? As you know, I unfortunately didn’t get to go to Nationals. Anyone attend this workshop? I’d be curious to know what its contents were!
      I don’t know Love in the Wild, but my fave is also Survivor ! (Well, Survivor and Amazing Race and Top Chef. Ha!) Did you watch the latest season? It was such a satisfying conclusion for me because I’ve been a fan of Boston Rob since the All-Stars season when he proposed to Amber. It was like the third novel in a trilogy to see him finally win!

      1. Oh you bet I attended the workshop because my writing days began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and fan fiction ( like a half a million words of stories) I also have spent time the altar of Jossp Whedon, marveling at his storytelling skills:).

        But the workshop was not just a fan-fest for your favorite TV shows, or Nahan Fillion (sp?)…the panel talked a lot about character development, plotting, and how taking a character or relationship (Bones) down too many twists and turns can piss off an audience, too.

        However, we didn’t quite get to reality TV though. But I do see your point, and am also a fan of some of those competition shows, too.

        1. Thanks for the low-down, Denny! In the end, all tv shows and movies and plays and songs are just stories, and I think we can learn something from all of them.
          Do you still have your Buffy fan fiction? How amazing to have written half a million words! I’ve never written fan fic myself, but can definitely see the appeal. Once a character gets a hold of you, you want their stories to go on and on and on…

          1. I have a freaking website of fan fiction! lol! I still write a short thing occasionally (BBC’s Being Human most recently), but it’s a tough transition from fan fiction to original fiction IMHO. You don’t need to do as much (if any) character background/development. Your audience is reading the fic because they are fans of the characters. You can play with them – but if you hit a cord that doesn’t ring true – you lose your reader…

    1. So cool. I’m totally fascinated by the whole fan fic/role playing world. It may be different from writing an original novel, but it’s an art in and of itself. Plus, what a great place to work on writing craft! Still can’t get over your half a million words. I’d love to see that website sometime.

  2. I personally think you hit on everything, and then some. 🙂
    I love the one of dropping your characters into a situation that’s out of their comfort level. I think you get a real feel for a person’s character when you see them participating in something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you see strength and other times you see a nastiness come out that’s surprising. Either one works for me. LOL. I love to be surprised!
    Great post. Maybe you should teach a workshop next year….just sayin’.

    1. I personally like it when unexpected strength comes out. It just reaffirms my belief in the human spirit, you know? Unfortunately, I think if you were to drop me in an environment where I had no food, little sleep, bugs biting every inch of my body, and no way to get clean, I think you would just see how cranky I can be!

  3. Okay, here is my confession . . . I watch . . . The Bachelor/Bachelorette. *Gasp*. I love Chris Harrison! God if he wasn’t married . . . mmm! Does he ever get tired of “This is the final rose of the evening.” Duh! We can see it!

    But yes, I have to admit I like to watch this because it’s like a train wreck–you don’t want to watch but it’s just so dang fascinating to see what is out there. I’m not sure if I envy the ones who have to choose or sometimes their horrible decisions. Sure they are great looking (after Hollywood has offered them millions to look like they are ready for People magazine) but would I really choose someone with some of their personalities?

    I started a few drafts during one season (can’t remember which) that was a similar venue for a novel but instead of falling for one of the contestants the bachelor ended up falling in love with one of the camera crew and had to decide how to handle it. (Then I realized in one season there was a similar issue. I think I ditched the story then.)

    But yes, there is so much plot, intrigue, characterization– all of it to work with. This is what makes a story, movie, TV show–anything worthy of an audience. Some of it I wonder if it is contrived for the viewers and how much. But someone has to write it? And isn’t the journey of a great romance based on all of the things we see?

  4. Loni, I love The Bachelor/Bachelorette! I watched Trista’s season way back when, stopped watching for about a decade, and then just started again this year with Brad’s most recent season and Ashley’s current season. We got a home gym, and I was looking for TV to watch while I was working out, LOL. But now, I’m completely hooked. Funny how it can happen so quickly! And yes, I know a lot of it is contrived, but who cares? It is so much fun to watch. And talk about extreme situations, the dates are out of this world. It’s easy to imagine you are falling in love during such extraordinary situations, and that’s precisely why they do it. Hmmm, maybe that’s why there’s an entire subgenre for romantic suspense?! Love in extreme situations.

  5. Pintip, I can think of a reality TV show that has all the elements without being a competition–Say Yes To The Dress. There’s a lot of drama, emotion and conflict in picking out a wedding dress. It is one of my current favorite shows.

    1. Oooh, Diane. Great example. I’ve heard a lot of great things about that show, but haven’t yet seen it. Maybe now’s the time to add it to my line-up!

    2. Diane, it’s one of the shows I can’t bear to watch! I worked in the wedding industry once upon a time, I’ve made wedding gowns and I know waaaay too much about being both a client and a vendor.

      (note to self) refrain from writing the wedding scene in any book, self is forever tainted by back room experience.

      1. Susan, That’s the same reason why doctors cringe when watching House and lawyers do the same with Law & Order! However, if you can stomach it, I think your expertise would allow you to write really wonderful and insightful wedding scenes!

        1. You may be right. I’m in the “middle years” of watching 21 nieces and nephew tie the knot, plus one of my own has walked down the aisle already. The young-ish faculty I work with is also producing marriages and babies at an alarming rate. Will have to this over….

  6. This is brilliant! Thank you for validating all the time I have spent watching reality TV:) I think my favorite part of reality shows is getting to see the true nature of characters when they are placed in difficult/impossible situations. It’s really interesting to see who will sell out their teammates in order to save themselves. Which is worse–returning to live with a competitor you have recently betrayed or going home and having to give up a lifelong dream? Sometimes I wonder what I would choose…

    1. That’s a tough one. BUT if your competitor understands that this is just a game and would rather have you achieve your dream, maybe it’s better to betray? I don’t know. I am a big believer that certain of these shows (Survivor, Amazing Race) are just a game, and I don’t think I would hold a grudge if I were betrayed, but you never know.

  7. I will once again repeat to all – read The Hunger Games. If you like reality tv and/or YA books, read it. Seriously!

    I heart reality tv, although I don’t know that everything we label “reality” really fits into that mold, but hey – it’s entertaining. I love Real Housewives (particularly New Jersey and Beverly Hills), The Biggest Loser, The Voice and Project Runway. And I have a fairly unhealthy love/hate relationship with The Bachelor and Bachelorette. 😉

    1. Is it any wonder that The Hunger Games is my favorite book ever? (Oh, okay, so I have as many favorite books as I do reality shows, but still…)
      Sounds like we like the same shows. Will have to discuss the current Bachelorette drama sometime.

  8. I’ve never watched any of those shows – sorry! I watch very little TV but your post might make me check them out.

    I HAVE read the Hunger Games Trilogy and I agree – read them!

    1. Pintip, great post! However, I’m with Robin…I just don’t watch television very often. But even before I read the comments from everyone I immediately zeroed in on similarities to The Hunger Games Trilogy. I think you have some very valid points. You get great conflict when a diverse set of people are in an isolated setting and are competing to achieve the same goal.

      1. It’s so funny, I always forget that Hunger Games is “about” reality tv. I kinda just tune out the reality tv part and focus in on the games, so I was not even thinking about this book when I wrote the post. But you are right! All of those same points could be describing the Hunger Games, which is five more reasons why that book is so great!

  9. Too bad, Robin. You don’t know what you’re missing!
    Just kidding. Despite what I just said in this blog post, they really are an enormous time suck. I was in an American Idol pool for years but finally had to drop out because I couldn’t commit that many hours to watching every week. Now my new rule is that I’m not allowed to watch TV unless I’m exercising!

  10. Pintip, I totally agree with you! I love to watch Reality TV (although not all – not a fan of Survivor or anything with the word Bachelor or Bachelorette in it). I like the singing and dancing ones, but absolutely adore MasterChef, Top Chef, Biggest Loser. Wow! The tears, the happiness, the drama, the backstabbing, the jealousy. Wait. That’s high school, but I digress. LOL. Your idea of exercising while watching TV is excellent because I watch way too much. Great post!

    1. Debra, I love, love, love Top Chef. Combining all that drama and emotion with food? What could be better? Also, The Biggest Loser is great to watch while working out. I see the contestants sweating so much on the screen that it motivates/guilts me into pushing myself harder.

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