Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What Reality TV Can Teach Us About Writing

I'm a fan of reality TV. American Idol, The Biggest Loser, Project Runway, Tabitha's Salon Takeover, Tough Love, Hoarders. And when I spend time not writing, I try to think about what my current procrastination activity can teach me about writing. And reality TV has four things going for it that we can apply to our writing: casting, editing, trouble, and high stakes.

The folks who go on reality TV are recruited usually for one of two reasons. They have extreme talent (American Idol, Project Runway) or they are a hot mess (American Idol, Project Runway). The characters on these shows are selected because they are extreme. They are not run-of-the-mill, easy to get along with, happy, well-adjusted people with no special skills or obstacles to overcome. Those people (average folks like you and me) don't make good television. They don't make good writing either.

So make sure your characters are fighting for a dream (American Idol), have awful social ticks they need to correct (Tough Love), or are facing death if they don't get their act together (Biggest Loser).

So many people who come onto these shows thinking they are nice, normal, run of the mill folks complain that the show is edited in a way that makes them look worse than they are. That the show only televised their worst moments and left all the sweet stuff on the cutting room floor. So while I feel bad for these characters because they are real people, I don't feel bad about doing the exact same thing to fictional characters!

You need to show the worst of your characters. You need to show them when they are sweating through an uphill climb, their large flabby belly flapping in the wind. When they lose their shit and start screaming at someone who broke the sewing machine. When a strong, well-composed young man cries like a baby when Simon tells him he's not a good singer.

One of my favorite episodes of Project Runway is the group challenge! In a game where folks usually design their own garments, the group challenge creates a protagonist (team leader) and antagonist (not the team leader). The team leader gets to call the shots and wants to show their vision on the runway. Well, the other guy wants to show his vision too, but he's not in charge. Instant conflict!

High Stakes
On Tabitha's Salon Makeover, she's not just visiting salons that give bad haircuts -- the show also looks for salons where the owner is facing bankruptcy. Usually without the staff's knowledge. But when everyone learns that if they don't start doing better business, the owner might lose her house, everyone becomes invested in a single goal and bonds together. And what higher stakes could their be than death? The Biggest Loser has everyone literally fighting for their life.

So with some careful thought to what type of characters you include in your story, crafty editing, lots of trouble, and high stakes, you have the ingredients for a story that will pull readers in and keep them turning the pages.


  1. Great post, I can't agree with you more. There are so many things that reality tv can teach us about our characters and even settings. LOL At least that's my excuse. :)

  2. Excellent post, Lisa! So obvious in TV, and yet I never thought to apply it to my writing. Thank you for sharing your insight. Love this. Really.

  3. Awesome post, drawing correlation between Reality TV and writing.

  4. Lisa, what a great post (I feel like I'm plagiarizing the other commentors!)

    Your breakdown had me nodding along even as I tried to fight it. Great comparisons...thank you for making look at things from a different perspective.


  5. This really is excellent, and I love that it was born out of a desire to turn your procrastination activities into something productive. You turned a guilty pleasure into a learning experience that makes me feel a little less guilty about taking the day off and watching hours of America's Next Top Model. So, thanks for that!