Monday, August 13, 2012

What Reality Television Taught Me About Writing.

We confess our T.V. addictions a lot here at Prosers, and this post is no exception.

I'm addicted to Reality Television. Mostly, I'll admit, I'm addicted  Reality Talent competitions. I've noticed something blatant.

And the next American Idol is...

And the person leaving us tonight is...

After the break, we'll find out who...

Reality T.V. shows are experts when it comes to stalling.

 And they have to do that, because once the winner is announced, people can stop caring. What's important, is the audience's curiosity to find the answer to the question. By putting a cost to the curiosity, it increases the importance of the question.

Who will be the next American Idol/X Factor/Top Model/Favorite Dancer/Design Star Winner?

 If you watch one episode, in truth, you've invested one hour into the importance of finding the answer to the question. That investment, that cost, makes you have to care. It's like if I just spent twelve hours watching American Idol,  I guess I'll watch the finale.

How does this apply to writing?

One of the pitfalls I have to watch out for in my writing is wanting to go from 1 - 10 too quickly. POV character meets a cute boy-- instalove. POV picks up a sword--instahero. Send in a query--instapublished.

 (That last pitfall hasn't happened yet, but don't you just hate it when it does? )

Can you imagine what it'd be like, if in the first episode of American Idol, they took a look at the 200,000 posers, and Ryan Seacrest said "Who will be the next American Idol... It's this guy."

 ( Cute brown haired white guy waves at camera, and the season is over.)

Novels are like that. Let's say you want to avoid instalove. Using the formulaic tools of a formulaic Reality T.V Producer, I'll show you how you do it. Characters meet. You delve into back story first, give the audience a reason to care if they succeed, and then show you the potential. Then there's struggle. Ambulances are called, drama ensues, moments of potential. Have a moment of small success- (huge celebration) but don't make the success a sure thing. It's crucial that everything could still fail.

As soon as things happen for sure, it's over. The end. Roll credits.

The Stall

Okay, so we've applied it to plot, but my favorite writing tip from Reality Television applies to the prose.

You can utilize "The Stall" in order to give your power moments more power.

Take for example,

"I love you."
"I love you too."

Power moment if there ever was one. Here are two examples of how I take this power moment, and utilize "The Stall" to make the moment better.

Version 1.
"I love you."  Rain fell against the roof.
"I love you too."

 That sentence of description doesn't actually mean anything to the story. It could be anything. A dog barked. The waves crashed against the shore. An airplane flew over head.

The words in that sentence doesn't actually matter. What matters is the time it takes to read them. When the reader is really invested, they might not even see the words, they will only feel the emptiness in the moment. They'll feel the pause.

One of my favorite ways to strengthen power moments is to get right to the moment you ask the question, add a sentence of description.

            I felt the gun press between my eyebrows. Sweat trickled down my cheek. "Where is she?"

            The last lotto number rolled down the metal chute. I clutched my ticket, staring at the numbers. 14, 14, 14, I repeated in my mind. The lotto lady held up the ball.  "The final number is..." I could see the lipstick on her teeth when she smiled. My cat brushed against my leg. A car backfired outside my apartment.


Version 2.
"I love you." I said. The moment lasted too long, so I smiled, sheepishly, like I was joking, like I didn't mean it, like Oh my Drama I'm such an idiot.
He smiled, "I love you too."
 He said it back like it was a joke. I laughed,as if it were funny, and then walked away.

Another way to do "The Stall" is by  deepening the POV. There's a cost though.

           I felt the gun press between my eyebrows. This is it, I thought, the end. "Where is she?"

           The last lotto number rolled down the metal chute. I clutched my ticket, staring at the numbers. 14, 14, 14, I repeated in my mind. The lotto lady held up the ball. "The final number is..." I didn't want to hope, I didn't want to think of the unpaid bills on my kitchen table, or my dream of raising my children in a safe neighborhood. I didn't want to think about what it would mean for her to hit the number...

The problem with stalling by deepening the POV, is that thoughts often are interesting. Ryan Seacrest doesn't say, "The next American Idol is... and then fill the moment by tap dancing.

You have to watch out for this when using description to do "The Stall" as well. You can't say a UFO flew over my head without people seeing the words, and filling the empty moments with, "What the heck?".

 A pause is empty space. A pause is silence and a shot of the contestants faces as the wait to find out their fate. It's "Shave and a hair cut..." and then nothing.  It's dissonance held, and then resolved.

That's my "two bits."

photo credit: <a href="">Stéfan</a> via <a href="">photo pin</a> <a href="">cc</a>


  1. I'm not sure why, but I never got caught up in the reality competition shows. I should have. Everyone I know watches Idol, and when I was in high school, Survivor was still a BIG deal. I think part of the reason I never cared for them was because...
    I'm not a fan of "The Stall."
    At least not on TV. I'm hooked on shows like New Girl and Bunheads, mostly because each episode stands alone. I don't mind a cliffhanger ending when the season is wrapping up. It usually does the trick and forces me to come back the following season. I just can't take it every episode.
    It's a great point, though. "The Stall" is a powerful tool, when used correctly. (And sparingly.)
    Great post as always, Sheena!

  2. Hmmm, I never thought about the stall being an empty moment. I always have filled it with deepened POV. Very interesting.

    Great Post, Sheena!

  3. I think the stall is neither empty nor off-topic. If you fill with words that aren't interesting, I'll get annoyed at the blatant manipulation ;) But if you veer really off-topic and the tension can't support it, then the bubble bursts and I stop caring.

    So if your first moment is a gun to the head and a finger moving on the trigger, and then you go into a UFO in the sky, I'll probably keep remembering that there's a gun there. If you stall from a moment of waiting to see who gets picked to answer a math question (and haven't set it up to be as tense as being held at gunpoint) then you probably don't want to talk UFOs if you want me to still care whether the character escapes the blackboard.

    I have a huge pet peeve with people who follow the commercial interruption model of reality tv by switching to a less interesting POV on a big cliffhanger. That's one of the dangers of multiple POVs, IMO.

  4. I've never been a fan of reality TV, but recently the kids and I watched a season of The Biggest Loser on netflix. Do you know how silly the stall looks without an actual commercial break?

    Sally, your current weight is....beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, big drumroll music (and everyone looks horrified)...Sally, your current weight is...beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, drumroll music (and everyone looks ecstatic).

    Yeah, that doesn't add much to the conversation, but I agree that doing the stall right is extremely important.


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