Seven things I learned about writing from watching reality TV

Okay, I admit it. Just like two million other Australians, I was completely hooked on My Kitchen Rules series four.

What I discovered was, reality TV borrows from storytelling. It takes the fundamentals of stories, strips them bare and reconfigures everything to maximise audience engagement.

So here you have it, the results of my addiction research into writing and reality TV.

1. Characters we love and hate

Sofia and Ashlee were generally seen as the My Kitchen Rules villains.

Sofia and Ashlee were generally seen as the villains on My Kitchen Rules.

Heroes and villains, nice guys and little battlers, mums and dads, tricksters and the naive. These character types are the building blocks of reality television.

Producers of reality television shows choose participants based on stereotypes and the likely assumptions of audiences. Script editors, in turn, edit the shows to manipulate us into thinking certain ways about the characters.

Who did you barrack for in the recent series of My Kitchen Rules? Did you see Sofia and Ashlee as the villains, or as strong and sassy young women? Did you prefer Dan and Steph with their average looks and everyday dreams, or the glamorous siblings, Jake and Elle?

Shows like The Biggest Loser Australia encourage us to love or hate contestants

Reality TV shows like The Biggest Loser encourage viewers to identify with contestants.

Whether you like it or not, your readers will identify with your characters, dislike them, or worse still, not care about them at all.

I’m not suggesting basing your characters on stereotypes so that readers will identify with them. Instead, you may like to challenge your assumptions.

For example, are your characters ‘just like you’ – with the attitudes and beliefs of your class, gender and level of education? Or are they completely different to you, but inauthentic and not grounded in reality because it’s a reality you’ve never experienced?

Examining your assumptions about your characters can be a good starting point for developing deeper, more emotionally authentic characters. It could also lead you to consider how your character could change over the course of the story.

2. Conflict and competition

Reality television thrives on conflict and competition. At times it can seem forced, with endless (and pointless) games and challenges. As viewers, we are constantly reminded that this is a competition.

We want our favourite characters to stay in the show. We want the villains to be eliminated.

This is the same energy that keeps readers reading our stories. A plot-driven story will contain conflict. There will be obstacles for the heroine to overcome. And in stories based on a competition – the Hunger Games trilogy for example – wanting to know who will triumph and how they will do it keeps readers engaged.

3. Suffering and soul-searching

Many novice writers are unwilling to allow their protagonists to endure suffering. But if you take a look at reality television, suffering can be what hooks audiences. Suffering tends to reveal essential ‘truths’ about us. It is not the terrible situation itself, but how we react to it. Do the characters really, really want that prize money? Are they prepared to go through all that hard work and effort for the reward at the end?

Sometimes, it’s not enough for the characters to suffer through starvation, humiliation and physical challenges. Sometimes, contestants are forced to bare their souls or break down in front of the camera. The Biggest Loser thrives on this. Contestants on this show not only endure extreme physical demands, they are then prodded to reveal themselves psychologically on national television.

As the audience, we are then privy to the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters. We find out what makes them tick, what has brought them to this point, and are left wondering if this person has the strength of character to keep going on the arduous journey. We may even feel empathy for a character we previously disliked.

When writing your story, be generous with readers. Let them glimpse into the emotional and psychological state of your main character. Readers want to know. If you don’t believe me, think about how unsatisfying it would be to finish reading a detective story with no insight into why the murderer committed the crime.

4. Themes and morality lessons

The 2013 season of <em>My Kitchen Rules</em> provoked some viewers into strong stances against bullying.

The 2013 season of My Kitchen Rules provoked some viewers into taking a stand against bullying.

Most reality TV shows are scripted to provoke debate around particular themes. In one season of Survivor, teams were divided by ethnicity. In the recent series of My Kitchen Rules, choosing not one but two teams of Asian women to be cast as the villains prompted debates about racism. Bullying was also a theme that emerged from My Kitchen Rules. It inspired some parents to talk about this serious issue with their kids. The show became a kind of morality play, with the audience debating, heckling and commenting on the action.

As a writer, it is useful to think about what themes and issues are important in your story. Being aware of these themes can help you develop your story, and once it is published, provide talking points for readers.

5. Twists and turns

In season four of My Kitchen Rules, there were so many twists, viewers began to complain.

In the recent series of My Kitchen Rules, there were so many twists, viewers began to complain.

Reality television is full of twists and turns. Who will be eliminated? Who will be undermined? Which previously-eliminated character will get a second chance in the competition?

In Survivor, the deviously-plotted ‘blindsides’ are an effective way to build suspense. All too often however, script editors remove all traces of the planning of the twist. This leaves audiences feeling tricked. Don’t treat your readers like this. If you’re planning a twist in your story, make it plausible.

6. Hook your audience with suspense

In Survivor, the twists and turns are gripping.

By the time the Survivor finale is screened, the audience is hooked.

Will your favourite character overcome the odds to reach their goal? Will the villains get their just desserts?

Once the foundation of character, conflict, suffering and themes are laid, as a writer you only need add a few twists and turns – and your audience will be well and truly hooked.

7. Closure

Did The Biggest Loser contestants keep up their healthy regimes? What on earth went wrong for that Apprentice contestant in the final challenge? Most reality shows give airtime to contestants prepared to share how being on Survivor/Masterchef/The Voice changed their lives.

In Survivor, closure is taken to another level – the final episode is a a chance for contestants to have their say about how they were presented, what has happened to them since the show ended, and for audience members to ask questions.

In your story, you may decide to show your readers what became of your main character after the resolution. Whether or not you do this will depend on the genre of your story. But is it worth noting how important closure is for audiences.

Your comments

Are you a writer and reality TV addict? What have you learned about writing from the scripting of reality television?

Tips for young writers: Write in character

West Australian author, Teena Raffa-Mulligan

Teena Raffa-Mulligan

Today, West Australian author Teena Raffa‑Mulligan explains how you can get ‘in character’ to bring your stories to life.

Actors and writers

What do writers and actors have in common? More than you think. Writers create characters on the page – actors create them on stage or in films. Both actors and writers need to present convincing characters their audiences will care about, otherwise the book will remain unread or the movie will be a box office flop.

As a writer your most important role is to grab your reader’s attention from the opening lines and hold it to the final word. Every character must come to life on the page. Just as an actor portrays a character on the screen, you have to make every person in your story seem real, with a unique set of emotions, ideas, opinions and behaviours.

Taking on parts

But while an actor usually only gets to play one part in a production, a writer has to take on every part. You’re not only the star but every other character in your story as well. That might sound like a tough call but it’s actually fun. While you’re writing your stories, you can go anywhere, be anyone and do anything – in your imagination.

My tenth birthday is ancient history now and the only adventures I had as a child were imaginary ones. Yet one of the characters who keeps popping up in my stories is a boy with an inquisitive nature, lots of spirit and a lively sense of adventure. In Mad Dad For Sale, his name’s Luke McAlister and he gets so tired of being in trouble he sells his dad through an ad in the local paper. It turns out the mad professor who’s bought Dad is an alien and Luke has to turn super sleuth to find his father and save himself and his whole family before it’s too late.

My writer friends tell me I get right inside Luke’s head as if I’m a kid. I say that’s because I’m just a kid disguised as a grandma. What I actually do is think myself into the characters in my stories in the same way an actor would when preparing for a role in a movie. For the time I’m writing Luke, I’m being Luke.

You’re not only the star but every other character in your story as well.

Use your imagination

Sometimes actors go to a lot of trouble to get their performances right. Robin Williams was going to play the part of a doctor called Patch Adams. Patch believed laughter was the best medicine so he dressed up as a clown for his patients. Robin spent months before making the movie visiting sick children dressed as a clown. Another actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, lived in the wilds for six months before he made the movie The Last Mohican about a native American. For his role in another movie, Daniel Day-Lewis spent all his time in a wheelchair so he’d know what it was like.

You don’t need to go that far. In your imagination you can stop being yourself for the time you’re writing your stories and ‘be’ the various characters, exactly as an actor does.

Use first-hand accounts to colour your own stories and add a dose of reality.

When you’re watching a movie there’s no description of what’s happening. You watch the story unfold scene by scene before your eyes. If the actors are convincing in their roles and the script writer has penned believable dialogue between the characters, you get caught up in the story. You care what happens so much you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat gnawing your fingernails because the alien’s about to suck the life juice out of the boy and you want to know how the boy will escape. Or you’re cheering out loud when the superhero saves the world with seconds to spare.

As a writer you use words to create the scenes and reveal aspects of your characters. By thinking of yourself slipping in and out of the various roles in your story you can make your writing more alive for your readers.

Remember what it was like

Writing a character younger than yourself is easy. You can remember what it was like to be three years old and scared of the dark, or an eight-year-old whose best friend is moving interstate. If you’re 15 you’ve never experienced what it is to be 25 or 75 so an older character calls on you to use your imagination and project ahead to how you think you might feel, think and behave in the future.

The power of observation

You can also use your powers of observation. You’re surrounded by people of all ages and a myriad of personalities. Become a people watcher. Pay attention. You’ll be surprised how many useful examples of human behaviour from everyday life you can draw on to develop your characters.

By thinking of yourself slipping in and out of the various roles in your story, you can make your writing more alive to the readers.


Sometimes imagination and observation aren’t enough to work with. This is where research comes into the picture. With the internet there is a wealth of information at our fingertips. Were huge crinoline skirts worn in days gone by a nuisance? How much training would someone do before climbing Mt Everest? Google it and see what you can find out.

Delve into the biographies and autobiographies of people who’ve left their mark on history. Read the letters and diaries of early pioneers or the men and women who served during both world wars. Chat with a police officer or firey. Meet a scientist. Hear what disaster survivors have to say about their experiences. You can use these first-hand accounts to colour your own stories and add a dose of reality.

So next time you’re writing a story, try being an actor as well as a writer. ‘Become’ your characters. It’s fun and your writing will improve too.

Cover for one of Teena Raffa-Mulligan's books, Mad Dad For Sale

The cover for one of Teena’s books, Mad Dad For Sale.

Teena Raffa-Mulligan is a West Australian author who writes tales to entertain children of all ages. Her publications include poems, short stories, picture books and novels. She has been fascinated with words since childhood and this led her into a long career as a journalist and editor.

Teena says one of the best things about being a children’s author is sharing her excitement about books and writing through talks and workshops and encouraging children and adults to write their own stories.

She has three grown-up children with families of their own who provide plenty of inspiration for new stories.

For more information about Teena’s books and writing sessions, visit her site for parents, teachers and librarians or her website for kids.

How did you get published? Interview with YA fantasy author, Adam Stiles

Today I’m talking with young adult author Adam Stiles. Adam’s first novel, The Uniques, is fresh off the press from Zeus Publications.

Adam, can you tell me how you came to be published?

Funnily enough the journey began with pictures, not words. During my downtime at university and on my lunchbreaks at work I used to enjoy sketching characters on whatever paper I had available. After I had a decent collection, I began wondering who they would be, what sort of personalities would they have, and how they would interact with each other if they were to meet. If they met, in what setting would it take place? Would they be related? Would they be friends or enemies? Eventually I purchased three little notepads (that I labelled plot, characters and settings) and began to write down all of my ideas and the series grew from there.

Cover for The Uniques

The cover for Adam's new book, The Uniques

The next step was to decide whether or not the ideas were good enough to warrant taking them any further. I told myself that I would start writing, and if the process seemed to be going well and I was enjoying myself, then I would finish it.

In no time it seemed Act I was complete, and within about a month of sending a three chapter sample to Zeus I was signing a publishing contract.

Tell me about the process of completing the book.

The actual writing process only took me a couple of months, but the planning stage was quite substantial. It was during the planning that I became my own main obstacle. I was quite harsh on my own ideas and could never settle on anything, which eventually began to frustrate me greatly.

In the end, to save me from myself more than anything, I launched into the writing process without having finalised all of the world rules or events. It was a risk, but my thought process was that I would let everything evolve naturally while I wrote and hopefully whatever I came up with would feel more ‘integrated’ with the world because they were being defined at the same time.

This turned out to be the jumpstart that I needed, and I am extremely satisfied with the finished product.

What did your publisher expect from you in terms of rewrites?

Zeus didn’t ask me to rewrite anything. They edited the manuscript to their house standards and then (after I made a few final changes myself) it was good to go.

Did you do a book proposal for the book or your projected series?

I just did a proposal for the first book, Dawn, but made it clear that it is part of a series. I’m happy to take things as they come instead of having the added pressure of a ticking clock in the background. I work better that way.

The Uniques is a planned series of five books. I believe this will be the perfect length for me to flesh out the world, story and characters without stretching my ideas thin. I have a detailed spreadsheet with a breakdown of the overall tale across these five books, so I just have to get stuck into writing the rest of them. Having said, I made sure that I left enough holes to allow for story improvisation as I go, since that strategy seemed to work very well for Act I.

 At this stage I am about 35,000 words into Act II.

Why did you choose Zeus Publications?

Becoming an author was never something I expected to happen, so I had little knowledge about how to find a publisher. I did an internet search on Australian publishers and chose Zeus for several reasons. I had already heard of them, which was of course a strong start because I wasn’t aware of a lot of the publishers on the list I found. They are based in Queensland, which is where I live, and I am the sort of person who values being associated with the ‘locals’. Their website and submission guidelines were very professional, and they were extremely quick to respond to my submission and the questions that I had.

Do you have an agent?

I currently do not have an agent. At this early stage I feel I will be able to handle everything by myself. When things start to take off I may consider using an agent, but I will cross that bridge when I get to it.

Did you do anything to build your profile as a writer prior to getting published?

The basic idea was just to tell anyone and everyone about the novel before it was actually released. I am thankful to have contact with a lot of very helpful and supportive people who have been more than happy to help me spread the word, and you can never underestimate the power of the internet.

My friends and I joke about how often I plug my own series in general conversation (the amount of times I have worked the word Unique into a sentence…), but you have to get the word out there by any means.

Tomorrow, Adam explains the strategy behind his online forum for The Uniques.