This article by Nicole Evelina is from the February 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Reality TV has been in our lives since The Real World debuted on MTV in 1992, and the genre as we know it really took off in the early 2000s with the success of Survivor and American Idol.
Up until recently I wasn’t much of a reality TV fan. I watched the first season of The Bachelor (silly me, I thought it was real) and the first season of Rock of Love (I loves me some ‘80s hair bands). But recently I started watching more shows and it didn’t take long for me to realize I was learning a lot about writing by watching these “unscripted” shows. Here are several things I’ve learned about writing from watching reality TV.
The power of editing
In NINC, we are all experienced professional writers, so I don’t have to tell you about how editing can make or break a book. Reality TV is really the best way to see how editing can change a story. Depending on how a scene or episode is edited, an innocent conversation between two friends can be made to look like a cat fight. We need to remember this when we are attacking our own work or working with a professional editor. If an edit changes our original intention, is it worth fighting for your original text? In some cases, yes. In others, that same edit might open your eyes to a whole new possibility for your book you hadn’t considered. Also, think about perspective and the way it alters a story. Depending on whose eyes we’re seeing a scene through, it could be very different than through someone else’s.
Don’t rely too strongly on stock characters, but don’t forget them either
Raise your hand: who has rooted for “the bitch” or “jerk” character on a reality show? I know I have. If you leave out these fan faves (see also the “good girl,” the “BFF,” the “anti-hero,” etc.) your audience could be disappointed, because they love them. However, if you have too many stock characters and don’t give them memorable characteristics, or a definitive voice and/or a reason for the reader to cheer or jeer, you’re going to have a cast of cardboard characters that readers will reject. (See Million Dollar Listing: Hamptons for a reality TV example.) The reason we love the bitch and the jerk are that they inspire powerful emotions in us, usually loathing. But the BFF can do that too, especially if they make us want to have them as our BFF. When you have beta readers read your book or get ARC reviews back, look at how people are reacting to your characters. If that strong emotional tie is there, you’ve likely transcended stock status.
The power of branding
Seasons two and three of Selling Sunset started to introduce branded elements into the show. The cast began carrying around coffee mugs with the real estate firm’s logo. When they did a photo shoot (because everyone does those in real life, right?), they dressed in carefully chosen brand colors—those sitting on the couch were flanked by pillows bearing the company name and logo. But the one that really got me was when they started having Oppenheim Group branded wine at their broker’s open houses. Um, who doesn’t want their own branded wine? Consider where you can put your logo besides your website, Instagram, etc. If you want fun ideas for swag that sells, check out the September 2020 issue of Nink where Linda Gilman leads us through some unique ideas.
Reality TV loves nothing more than to hook you and keep you binge-watching. Big Brother does this in each episode when the narrator says, “Who will win the power of veto?” or “Who will win Head of Household?” Big Brother has such a fan following people sign up to watch “After Dark” so they can get the spoilers before the episodes air. As you plot out the ending to each book in your series, consider if a cliffhanger would work.
In order to keep viewers interested, every so often reality TV throws a curve ball the contestants (and often the audience) didn’t see coming. This one’s pretty self-explanatory, but it’s Big Brother’s double eviction and The Amazing Race’s Phil Keoghan telling the last team it’s a non-eviction round. The key is to surprise your readers, but in such a way that they can look back and see the clues you’ve been leaving them all along.
We all crave fantasy
Have you ever noticed that reality TV always takes place in glamorous locations like Los Angeles, New York or London, or that the shows jet their contestants/characters off to exotic locales? No one wants to watch actual reality. Selling Sunset ups the glam not only by taking place in LA, but by featuring a realty brokerage that only caters to elite clientele. Everyone dresses to the nines, attends really cool parties and tours huge houses. Viewers drool over how the other half lives. No matter where or when your story takes place, what fantasy can your book fulfill for your readers? Romance clearly plays to the human fantasy of falling in love with our ideal mate. Historical fiction takes us back in time and into the minds and hearts of people we’ve studied in school. Sci-fi allows us to dream of a better/different future. Even horror and domestic suspense tap into the dark fantasies we may not wish to admit to.
The ensemble matters
For reality shows to spin off, characters must connect with the readers. Randy Fenoli doesn’t even work at Kleinfeld’s any longer but Say Yes to the Dress can’t exist without him (or Monty in Say Yes to the Dress, Atlanta). However, some spinoffs can have too much of the same thing (example: any Real Housewives or Vanderpump Rules). When a character is popular it is because of a characteristic that makes them stand out from the ensemble; however, what most people fail to realize is the ensemble must avoid being “too much.” On Selling Sunset, over-the-top Christine threw a “Botox and Burgers” buyers open house, and she threw herself a lavish engagement party complete with a live zebra. But without those who temper her, she would be too obnoxious on her own. The same holds for series/books we may write based on secondary characters introduced elsewhere. Make sure you ask yourself how you can provide a foil for that character that will temper them like the original cast did. What will you do to keep their outstanding traits from becoming overkill once they are on their own?
Innovative and controversial = press and popularity
Look no further than Indian Matchmaking to try to understand why anyone in the 21st century would still agree to an arranged marriage. On the surface, this seemed innocent enough, but the show also revealed prejudices that run deep in Indian culture, such as a desire for a bride who is not only tall, light-skinned, and thin, but not too outspoken, career-driven or independent. This, naturally, ignited discussion online and resulted in press coverage, which sent even more people to Netflix to see what the big deal was about. Same for why viewers tune in for Married at First Sight or My 600-lb Life. What these shows reveal is that if we embrace the unusual or controversial in our books, it could lead to viral word of mouth or even media interest, both of which sell books. But we have to be careful because it can also blow up in our faces (because unlike TV, which is designed to incite visually, our books do not have this optical aspect). The innovation has to make sense in the plot and should be treated in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.
Be careful of trying to ride others’ coattails
You know how when one book is a hit everyone tries to write the next one? Reality TV is the same way. After Selling Sunset, Netflix put out a show called Million Dollar Beach House. It may be the worst reality show I have ever seen. It was clearly trying to capitalize on Selling Sunset’s success, with characters who were similar, but not believable, totally forced drama, and arbitrary dips into the cast’s personal lives (that I totally didn’t care about). The only thing it had going for it was the beautiful Hamptons homes. This shows that just because you have the same formula that worked for another show/author, unless you have the passion for it and take the time to make the story work, it won’t necessarily be a hit.
While I still dread calling myself a reality TV fan (but let’s face it, I am), I’m glad my brain needed a break because I learned a lot about storytelling by paying attention to what works and what doesn’t for me. However, just like with books, what I like, you may hate, and vice versa. But next time you turn on the TV to tune in to your favorite “unscripted” show, take note of what works for you and what doesn’t and why. You just might be able to incorporate it into your next book.