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?

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How did you get published? Interview with emerging author, Amber Averay

Enchantment's Deception by Amber Averay

The cover for Amber's book

Today, I’m talking to author Amber Averay. Amber’s first novel — a fantasy and science fiction story — is called Enchantment’s Deception. It’s the first in a series of five and is published by Strategic Marketing and Publishing under the imprint Eloquent Books.

Amber, can you tell me how you first came to be published?
I had been sending query emails to publishers dealing with unsolicited manuscripts and agents in Australia and Britain. The rare times I was sent a reply it was a polite ‘no, thank you’.

I found an agency in America who said they would forward my email to their sister company, Strategic, and to give them a week to reply. The next morning in my inbox was an email requesting the entire manuscript, and to give the publishers a month to get back to me. A week later I was sent my contract.

I wanted to write something that my then six-year-old nieces would enjoy … they were fans of Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie

How have you developed your writing skills? Have you done any courses or workshops?
I think most of it is self-criticism. When I completed the first draft of Deception, I was supposed to be studying for Year 12 exams, and I handwrote a 93 page story without a title. I was proud of it and myself, and put it away for 6 months.

When I went back to it I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever written. I inserted new chapters, edited existing ones, and removed those which I realised were completely unnecessary.

This process continued for several years, interspersed with critical feedback from my sister, who told me if she thought passages were boring, repetitive or irrelevant. I had the manuscript, by then called Enchanted World, read by a manuscript assessment agency, who were generous with both their encouragement and criticism. Their main problem was the title, which they considered ’too twee’. I tweaked the work where suggested, changed the title to Enchantment’s Deception, and began looking for agents or publishers.

Having never done a writing course or workshop in my life, being told by the agency that I should begin looking to get Deception published as it was a ‘great story that cries out for a sequel, or even a series’ was a huge thrill.

Did you have a deliberate strategy to develop your career as a writer?
No, not at all. Initially it was something I did for fun after school; writing short stories and poetry gave me a creative freedom that I don’t think many schools allow for. Neither my Primary nor High schools offered creative writing lessons, so it was something that I really did for myself. I always wanted to be an author, but never really knew how I would go about it.

When I began Enchanted World, I wanted to write something that my then six-year-old nieces would enjoy as they were fans of Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, to name a few. But as it grew and evolved, I started thinking more seriously about having Enchantment’s Deception prepared for perusal.

Do you ever encounter obstacles (in terms of craft) when writing for publication? How do you address them?
As this is my first published novel, and one which originally I was going to leave hidden in the back of the wardrobe, I don’t really know what it’s like to write strictly for publication. While working on the second book in the series I have found writer’s block an annoying irritant that comes more frequently than I’d like. When W.B. strikes I step away from my work and don’t touch it again for a week or more until I know I’m ready to get back into it.

I know a few people who say it’s best to work through writer’s block, but that has never worked for me.

Do you do research for your fiction? If so, how do you tackle it?
I don’t actually do any research; I think, if it was closer to science fiction than fantasy, I would have to do quite a bit research, but my novel is set on another world, in another galaxy; and I think, realistically, that’s what I enjoyed the most about writing it. I had the freedom to create something that I could sit and write, without needing to refer to other books.

With your novel, what did your publisher expect from you in terms of rewrites?
Well, I really don’t have much to say on this topic; my manuscript was accepted, I was sent a contract, and the publication process got underway. I was told initially that the editing process would take up to three months; I think it was the next day I had an email saying they had no editing to do, which was great to hear.

The only times rewrites or corrections suggested were back in 2007 when the manuscript assessment agency suggested the removal of a chapter, and the extension of another.

Apart from your novel, do you do any other forms of writing?
Over the years I have written the four sequels in the Enchantment’s Deception series, created a book of poetry that will likely never see the light of day, written song lyrics.

I am working on a screenplay with a friend in America when we can both get on the net at the same time, and we’re also currently collaborating on another project, along the lines of a supernatural thriller.

When W.B. (writer’s block) strikes I step away from my work and don’t touch it again for a week or more until I know I’m ready to get back into it.

Do you have an agent? Why/why not?
I wanted to have an agent, but could not get anyone interested. Then, when Deception was published, I tried again to approach agencies requesting if they would be interested in representing me. Unfortunately so far I’ve not had any luck, but I’m not going to give up. I’ve made it this far with determination, the support of my family and luck; I’ll not be giving up until I’ve achieved my next goal.

How do you go about negotiating your contract with your publisher?
I have a set contract with my publisher, which does not appear to be open to negotiation at this time. Before I even consider trying to renegotiate, I’d like to try and build up sales of Deception. I’ve had positive feedback so far, so I’m hoping it will have some popularity in the future.

What’s happened in the past with publicity and promotions for your books? Have you had assistance from your publishers or have you organised everything?
Strategic created a press release for me, and have also made up a book trailer on YouTube. My niece, knowing I’m definitely not very Internet savvy, created a fan page for me on Facebook. My sister and I have worked together making up bookmarks with Deception’s details, which we’ve left with the local bookstores, libraries, and handed out to people throughout the nearest shopping centres.

The bookstore I work for have given me a large window for promotional purposes, and we have posters of the book’s cover in store with ‘Coming Soon: Order Now’ signage. I was also interviewed and photographed for our local Messenger newspaper, which has garnered some interest in the book.

Have you done a book launch, book signings, spoken at literary events and festivals, or spoken on radio?
So far I haven’t been able to get the attention of radio stations, nor have I done any book signings. We have arranged a belated launch, complete with raffle, giveaways, book signing and balloons for children — we are just waiting on the stock to arrive before we can set a date.

Have you spoken to schools or other groups?
Not as yet; it’s currently school holidays, so I am unable to contact anyone regarding speaking to the students. However, several schools have already stated their interest in having Deception included in the school curriculum for next year. When the holidays are over I’m going to be approaching the schools again, and will continue to do so, until I get an answer.

I know you’re not very keen on online promotion, but how do you find online communities such as Goodreads?
Goodreads is fantastic. I’ve joined several online communities, such as Elfwood and Authors Den, but I have found Goodreads to be by far the best. The interaction is fun, informative, and nobody is excluded as you can sometimes feel on certain sites. It was my friend in America who introduced me to Goodreads, and I’d been on it for a week or so I think, when I was contacted by Mandy and invited to the Aussie Reads section. I’m not very confident with the internet, but Goodreads has been invaluable.

In part 2 of her interview, Amber talks about life as a writer and her writing background. I’ll put up part 2 early next week.