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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The ‘rules’ of modern-world sci-fi: A guest blog by Russ Colchamiro

Russ Colchamiro's Finders Keepers

The cover for Russ's book, Finders Keepers

Today I have a guest blog by US science fiction author, Russ Colchamiro. Russ’s first novel is titled Finders Keepers. Here Russ explains how he blended the elements of this hybrid genre story: science fiction, humour, mystery and ‘cosmic lunacy’.

The ‘Rules’ of Modern-World Sci-Fi
by Russ Colchamiro

Mixing science fiction/fantasy elements with the modern world is a dance indeed. It was for me.

My first novel, Finders Keepers, is loosely based on backpacking trips I took through Europe and New Zealand, set against a quest for a jar that contains the Universe’s DNA.

You know … a quiet family drama!

My goal was to write a multi-layered novel that felt epic in scale, yet was simultaneously intimate, while remaining fun and funny throughout. But not long into the writing process, I realized that I had a big issue to reconcile:

How do I combine the ‘cosmic lunacy’, as I like to call it, with the everyday world that you and I know, and invite the reader to accept that this total environment is plausible?

One key element pulled the threads together.

During the early days of my first draft, I belonged to a writer’s group, as many of us do. I received all manner of feedback, but one comment stuck with me from a writer named Brad:

You need to establish the ‘rules’.

At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what Brad meant. To be honest, deep in my gut I suspected he was right. But I wasn’t yet in a confident enough place to acknowledge and accept this confrontation with a key, structural misstep in my storytelling.

During those earlier drafts, I started the action by introducing the hero of Finders Keepers — Jason Medley, a 24-year-old waiter from the NY suburbs — seeing him in the day-to-day of his humdrum life. My reasoning, as far as I was concerned, was quite sound: introduce Jason at his lowest point so that we get to see him during all the phases of his journey — from bummer to reluctant participant to hero.

Now, I really did want to establish the sci-fi tone right away — you gotta give the readers some idea of what you’re up to early on — so I started Finders Keepers with a two-paragraph prologue that hinted at the science fiction theme. This way it wouldn’t be a shock when it finally appeared.

But I saved the more complex ‘cosmic lunacy’/sci-fi elements until a bit later, as a big ‘twist’. Even though I don’t write mystery novels, per se, I like to include mystery elements. Reveal, pull back and conceal, reveal some more. My intention was to get the reader to say, ‘Whoa! Cool!’ when the sci-fi parts really kicked in.

Seemed pretty good to me. It made sense. Only, it didn’t quite work.

Finders Keepers is loosely based on backpacking trips through Europe and New Zealand, set against a quest for a jar that contains the Universe’s DNA.

The problem was that, by the time I unveiled the ‘cosmic’ portion of the story, the readers weren’t really sure what kind of book they were reading. I simply out-thought myself.

What I finally came to embrace was that it’s easier to start big — FATE OF THE UNIVERSE IS AT STAKE! — and then go small — lonely waiter dude whimpers about having no girlfriend — then to go the other way.

After many drafts, I finally gave in and established the ‘rules’ of the world I created with the very first sentence. And in the Finders Keepers world, there’s a jar that contains the Universe’s DNA, lost on modern-day Earth somewhere, and unless it’s recovered in time, the Milky Way Galaxy might go bye-bye.

Once I made this structural alteration, the narrative fell into place.

In the published version of Finders Keepers, the entire 1,457-word prologue is now ‘cosmic’. And then throughout the novel, I slip back and forth between the two major settings:

  • The down-and-dirty details of Jason and his New Zealand buddy Theo Barnes backpacking through Europe — train schedules, hangovers, achy backs, languages they don’t understand, food they can’t identify, girls they want to sleep with.
  • A host of cosmic characters that are in charge of building the Universe’s infrastructure, and are after the DNA jar. Which, of course, Jason and Theo are somehow mixed up with.

The lesson I ultimately learned was this: as long as I show the readers what they’re in for — up front, right away — they pretty much all say, ‘Okay, this is the world I’m in. Universe jar. Check. Let’s roll’.

From the very first sentence, there’s simply no doubt that Finders Keepers is meant to be a fun, sci-fi romp that brings a smile to your face. Establishing the ‘rules’ brought it all together.

Bio
Russ Colchamiro is the author of the humorous science fiction novel Finders Keepers, published by 3 Finger Prints (www.richkoslowski.com). He is now finishing his second novel, Crossline. He lives in Queens, NY, with his wife Liz, his twin babies Nate and Abby, and their gregarious dog Simon.

You can follow Russ on Facebook and on Twitter (@findkeepnovel).

Click here to visit Russ’s website.

To read the Finders Keepers prologue, establishing the ‘rules,’ click here.

And to watch a video interview of Russ at the 2010 NY Comic-Con, where he launched Finders Keepers, click here.

How did you get published? Interview with novelist and travel writer, Cameron Rogers

Today, I’m talking to author Cameron Rogers. Cam has had two novels and two YA novels published. Currently he’s travelling and writing travel articles for newspapers such as The Age in Melbourne. Cam’s unusual background includes being a motion capture model for computer games and a ‘crime management officer’ for the Queensland Police.

Cam, can you tell me how you first came to be published?
The short story is this: in the mid Nineties I’d been writing and trying to sell stories to magazines for a while, so when Gary Crew asked to see some of my stuff I had a catalogue I could show him. He liked what he read, suggested I write something for Lothian’s After Dark series, and it went from there.

I learned years later that, apparently, Gary took to me because I was a Goth but, strangely, wasn’t a wanker. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that. That first publication got Penguin interested, which led to The Music of Razors, Nicholas and the Chronoporter and my current one, Fateless.  I’m hoping that’ll be out within twelve months.

Cameron Rogers near Reykjavik, Iceland

Cameron Rogers, near Reykjavik, Iceland

How did you approach Lothian and Penguin Australia when you started out? Was there a particular method that’s worked for you?
I’m not someone who networks easily. The idea of schmoozing, of meeting new people with some selfish ulterior motive, squicks me out. Then I realized that ‘networking’ was just code for ‘having friends’. We help each other out, it’s all good, and when we’re not doing that – which is most of the time – we’re just doing what friends do.

I keep an eye out for the lateral, the beautiful, the unexpected.

Do you ever encounter obstacles (in terms of craft) when writing for publication?
Only when writing stuff for kids.  They don’t need to be patronized, they’re fine with being challenged, but the parents and librarians who buy the books often don’t seem to think so. So it can be a balancing act.

Nicholas and the Chronoporter almost didn’t see print because part of the plot involved the main character dealing with the death of his mother, for example, and then being presented with the chance to save her at great cost to everyone else. That right there almost killed it.

How do you tackle research for your fiction writing?
I do, and I’ve learned it’s possible to research to a fault.  There’s a real craft to knowing when enough is enough when it comes to info-mining. Too little and the book feels flat or doesn’t ring true, too much and it either paralyses you with choice or you disappear down the rabbit hole of researching the details of your research, ad infinitum.

I fell into that trap working on my latest book, Fateless. A section of the book has to do with the ‘Pals battalions’ raised by Kitchener in WWI.  I was so engrossed by the idea of fathers and sons and brothers and cousins – the male population of entire families sometimes – being recruited and banded together and then shipped off to the front lines, that I felt I’d lost the right to use their stories if I didn’t do it justice. I lost a year on that, only to realize that if I supplied just enough detail the reader would get it; that less really can be more, and that maintaining a good signal-to-noise ratio is absolutely critical.

I have two credos when it comes to travel: Say Yes, and Embrace Random.

It doesn’t matter how fascinating you think the subject is, if too much research makes it to the final page you run the very real risk of fatiguing, and losing, the reader.

Apart from visiting the place you’re writing about, how do you research your travel articles?
I probably do about as much research on a destination as any other traveler. I have two credos when it comes to travel: Say Yes, and Embrace Random. Those two things, I’ve found, have generated more interesting material and experiences than any amount of reading-up and planning.

Everywhere I go I take a Moleskine notebook and a camera. I keep an eye out for the lateral, the beautiful, the unexpected. I note down odd things that are said, little details that snag the attention, and photograph anything that suggests itself: sights, sounds, smells, textures, observations, snatches of conversation. Then at the end of the day I write about it, for myself, using the notes and photos as aids.

I realized that ‘networking’ was just code for ‘having friends.

At some point later I read back over all that material, isolate the articles that seem the most interesting, and then I rework those for publication. It’s really about capturing the immediacy of the experience. At the end of the day all anyone has is the experience of something, and for me the soul and purpose of good travel writing is to convey your experience to someone who can’t be there. That requires an eye for the hidden, the unexpected, the taken-for-granted, the poetic, the lateral. The tiny thing that makes the moment.

I could talk about the Eiffel Tower, for example, or I could talk about gangs of scruffy men on Parisian street corners selling cartons of stolen cigarettes and stashing their supply inside cast-iron art deco lampposts. The Eiffel Tower is common knowledge, shared culture, wallpaper, but you can smell those men. You wonder about them, who they are, their pasts, why they do what they do, how that slots with the life of the neighbourhood. It’s new, unseen … it’s engaging.

I’ll put up the second part of Cam’s interview on Friday. Cam talks about why he used a pen-name, the benefits of having an agent, and what promotions support writers get from publishers.

In the meantime, click here to visit Cam’s website/blog. He’s got some great photos of his travels.

A guide to finding writers’ resources on the web: A guest blog by Tahlia Newland

Today I’m featuring a guest blog courtesy of Tahlia Newland. Tahlia is the author of a new YA fantasy novel Lethal Inheritance.

A guide to finding writers’ resources on the web

By Tahlia Newland

Some people get frustrated with trying to find information on the web.  This is understandable because it is a web with limitless junctions and connections. It is easy to get lost or miss the very thing you are looking for.

From my own experience, I’ve found that there are a few things we can do to minimise frustration and help us find what we’re looking for.

Know what you are looking for
Do you want quick hints or a detailed essay? Do you need help with grammar, punctuation, editing, style, finding an agent or publishing? Are you interested in non fiction writing, speculative fiction or general fiction? Or do you just want general articles?

Frame searches carefully
Be specific. If you want quick general writing tips, use the keyword, ‘tips’. Type something like ‘top tips for writers’, or ‘10 tips for successful writing,’ into your search engine. If you want a quick overview of what’s important in editing, try ‘tips for editing writing’. The last word could be ‘essays’ or ‘novels’ but if you leave off the last word, your search engine will come up with points on editing music and film as well as writing.
If you want something more than a brief list of points, search for ‘how to edit writing’ or ‘how to edit a manuscript’.
If you want to write a novel, search for ‘how to write a good novel’, or be even more specific eg ‘how to write a good fantasy novel’.
When I needed them, the following searches came up with lots of excellent results:

  • ‘writing a synopsis’
  • ‘ writing a querie letter’, and
  • ‘how to write a querie letter’.

Guess the contents of a page before opening it

After you click ‘search’, your search engine will show a list of possibilities. Which do you choose? Yes, whatever is closest to what you’re looking for, but it’s not necessarily the first one on the list. And be careful; check the URL beneath the entry. If the name of the site has no relationship to writing, you may find that it’s just a one line reference in someone’s personal blog or a mostly unrelated forum.

Open links in new browser tabs
This is really important for ease of navigation. Right click on a link and select the ‘open in a new tab’ option. You can easily return to your search results by clicking on your previous tab.

Don’t be distracted
You’ve arrived at a page and it’s full of text, maybe some pictures, advertisements, links etc. They’re all very interesting, but don’t get distracted by them. Remember what you are looking for and find that on the page first.
When you do check the links, consider how relevant they are to your search. If you want to go off into something related that looks interesting, still keep in mind what you started out looking for. Otherwise you can end up wandering aimlessly through a maze of information.

Scan text rather than read it
You might read a page of text and get to the bottom only to find out that it’s not what you’re looking for. Learn to scan. Run your eyes quickly over the text looking for key words. You’ll get a feel for the content, enough to know whether you want to spend more time on it or search elsewhere.

Bookmark as you go
As soon as you find any info you think will be helpful, bookmark the site so you can easily go back to it. Alternatively copy and paste the info into a word document for later study (and copy the link to the site too).

Avoid getting overwhelmed
Be relaxed about your searching. Don’t get fixated. Get up and stretch every now and then.

And lastly, use the history button if you get lost!

Links to useful writers’ resources

These aren’t necessarily the best and there are masses more out there, so I encourage you to do your own searches. I have some links on my blogsite too.

Editing, style, grammar, good writing

About.com: grammar and composition.  I’ve returned to this website many times for clear and detailed info on the basics of writing.

There is a particularly good section on ‘cutting the clutter’

An associated site covers fiction writingThere are lots of tips, for example ‘writing dialogue’There are also tabs with info on getting started and getting published.

Revising and editing

This University of Queensland site has links to info on grammar, punctuation, structure, plot, feedback and so on.

Writing Novels

Fiction Factor contains lots of useful links.

Blogs

There are many blogs offering writing tips and related topics of various depth and you can find them in blogsite listings like Blog top sites, Blogflux, Blogarama, Blogcatalog, Bloggapedia, Bloggexplosion, Bloggernity, OnToplist and Australian Planet. There’s a world of writers like us out there and we have so much in common and so much to share. I have links to my present favourites on my blog

Jackie’s recommended resources for beginning writers

Here are Jackie Hosking’s recommendations for beginning writers – particularly those interested in writing for children. The list was compiled with the assistance of Pass It On subscribers.

1. The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass. Maass gives many examples of each technique he addresses then finishes each chapter with a number of exercises. Not aimed at children’s writers but applicable to chapter books. 

2. Mem Fox’s website talks about creating picture books.

3. On Writing Books for Children by Jenny Wagner, published by Allen & Unwin.

4. Professional organizations such as: the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI), Australian Society of Authors (ASA), The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA), Local Writers’ Centres. There’s a list on Jackie’s blog of these types of organisations, under ‘Useful Links’.

5. Richard Harland has put together a website of writing tips – also available as downloadable PDF. (I notice that he’s got some tips specific to writing steampunk fiction.)

6. Lightning Bug website.

7. Hazel Edwards’ website has lots of useful information for new writers.

8. Jill McDougall has a terrific e-book that can be downloaded from her website called Become a Children’s Writer.

9. Andrea Shavick has also written a book called Get your picture book published – there’s a link on Jackie’s blog to it.

10. Nancy I. Sanders’ award-winning book, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, published in 2009 by E & E Publishing.

11. Rachel Burk’s blog has 27 different categories of writing info listed, with new stuff added all the time.

12. Writing for children by Pamela Cleaver.

13. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

14. How to Become a Children’s Writer by Bren MacDibble, published by Australian Associated Publishing House, ISBN 0-9758004-4-2.

15.Robyn Opie’s website: How to Write a Great Children’s Book. Also available as a published book from Magellan Books.

16. As well as being an annual publication, The Australian Writers’ Marketplace is online.

17. Open Office is free and good alternative to Microsoft Office; it has an inbuilt PDF creation feature. 

18. Aviary is a desktop publishing program which is now free . It’s a good alternative to InDesign and Quark Xpress if you also illustrate your work. 

19. John Marsden’s book, Everything I know about writing

20. Tom Chiarella’s Writing dialogue

21. Tracey Dils’ You can write children’s books

22. Jean Karl’s How to write and sell children’s picture books

23. Joan Aiken’s The way to write for children.

24. Hazel Edwards’ The business of writing for young people.

25. Celia Warren’s How to write stories.