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)
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?