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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Real Drama, Manufactured Drama, and Reality TV's Version of the Hero's Journey

By Julie Tollefson

A couple of weeks ago, I inexplicably fell under the spell of a new reality television show. I generally don’t watch reality TV because the drama—the crying, the shouting, the fighting featured on promos for most of the shows—all seems so contrived.

But this show, called Strong, had excellent real drama. Ten women teamed up with ten highly regarded personal trainers and competed against each other in physical trials in a classic hero’s journey. The women left their ordinary world (homes) to respond to the call to adventure (compete on the show). Their mentors (trainers) prepared them for the challenges ahead. I watched the first two episodes in awe of the willpower and strength and determination—emotional, mental, and physical—of the contestants as they pushed their bodies to lift more weight, run farther, climb higher, and achieve more to avoid being eliminated from the show.

But apparently the show’s developers weren’t content with the very real drama of physical competition, and their all-too-familiar solution to bump up the tension was to sow seeds of forced discord among the contestants. The cameras peeked in on teams as they schemed to create alliances or betray friends to get ahead in the game.

That’s where the show lost me. The hero’s journey collapsed under the weight of manufactured conflict.

How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat
(2003, Daniel & Daniel Publishers)
I stopped enjoying the competition and began, instead, to analyze why the narrative didn’t work for me. I turned to Carolyn Wheat’s How to Write Killer Fiction, an excellent resource for mystery and suspense writers.

In it, she writes, “Piling one sensational event upon another is not the key to a great ending; it’s a recipe for creating a dissatisfied reader” (p. 123).

Yes! Rushed,over-the-top, manufactured conflict doesn’t resonate for me. The few minutes of each episode devoted to character development, those brief glimpses of contestants and mentors talking about their hopes and plans, don’t truly give the audience time to get to know the contestants and their motivations. So when one team turns on another, the betrayal is as contrived as the quick camera cuts from one fake-shocked face to another fake-angry face.

In a good suspense novel, Wheat writes, “Let the emotions, like the actions, build by showing simmering resentments underlying the shouting matches…Anger alone does not a conflict make” (p. 146).

In the artificial conflict of reality TV, nothing simmers. I don’t believe.

Still, analyzing my disappointment in the show was a good writerly exercise, especially as I work on revisions to my current manuscript. It’s helped me look more closely at my characters and their interactions. Are the situations believable? Do their actions and reactions feel contrived, forced? Do they have enough depth? Would they meet this test, again from Wheat: “Even when it seems the tables are turning, we believe because we’ve seen enough aspects and facets of character to make the twists and reversals credible” (p. 127).

I want every bit of my story—the conflict, the trials throughout the journey, the eventual triumph—to be solid and believable. And if watching TV’s version of reality now and then helps me see the way, I’m game.

Do you enjoy reality TV shows and, if so, what aspects are most fascinating for you?


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I've seen snatches of the Amazing Race, probably while I'm folding laundry. I enjoy the exotic locations and challenges, raw grit and ingenuity in overcoming obstacles. I mute the manufactured drama.

Warren Bull said...

The Amazing Race is the only reality show I ever watch. There are real challenges along the way. Interestingly, most people eliminated say positive things about their experiences.

Julie Tollefson said...

Oh, yes, the Amazing Race is a good one. I haven't watched it in awhile, but I did find very real tension in most of the challenges. I couldn't stomach some of the food trials, though. I think that's the main reason I quit watching.

Gloria Alden said...

The only reality show I've watched is when I've been with my California daughter, and she's watched The Bachelor or similar shows. I wasn't impressed by it. I know that the show you mentioned had a girl in it from a town close to where I live, and she was written up in our local newspaper, or maybe she was on The Bachelor. I wasn't interested enough to remember. It seems to me from what I've read reality shows aren't real reality shows, but only partially real.

Shari Randall said...

Some of the original reality shows - The Amazing Race and the early Survivor - were really good because the producers hadn't yet felt the need to amp up the drama - there was plenty there already. I haven't watched Survivor in years because I don't like the cheap focus on attention seekers. I still like The Amazing Race. You're right, Julie - some of the food trials are really hard to watch!
My current favorite is American Ninja Warrior (I admit it!) It such a pure show - athletes pitted against a monster obstacle course. Interestingly, the competitors bond and cheer each other on, which is a reality I like to see.

KM Rockwood said...

Interesting analysis.

I don't think I've ever seen a "scripted" reality show, unless "Cops" counts. That's not been nearly so interesting since they can no longer show video inside houses, etc. and it's mostly traffic and street scenes.

Daveler said...

To be honest, I really watch reality shows when nothing else is on. It makes good background noise. I find that you don't really have to pay attention, don't have to have seen all of the episodes, but is just enough mental chewing gum to focus my mind.

I realized a long time ago that trying to artificially shove in plots and inorganic motivations was one of the biggest reasons I'd get bored writing my books. Once I started to really identify what I and the characters actually cared about, things got a great deal easier.

Julie Tollefson said...

Gloria - The reason I turned Strong on in the first place was I'd read that a local woman was a contestant. In the two episodes I watched, I was impressed by her.

Shari - I remember being intrigued by early Survivor. A local woman won one of them (can't remember which), and sometimes when I see her around town I wonder what it was REALLY like behind the edited for TV pieces. I may have to tune in to American Ninja Warrior and see what I'm missing!

Julie Tollefson said...

KM - I don't think I've even seen an ad for Cops in a long while. I didn't realize it was still on.

Daveler - I agree. I know I've drifted away from the core of my stories when what I'm trying to make my characters do doesn't interest me.

Jim Jackson said...

I never watched “Reality” TV, except for one episode of a “real life on the prairie.” Given your insightful comments, I’m figuring I won’t be tuning in any time soon.

~ Jim

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