Last year, I officially became a cord cutter and canceled my cable subscription. I had enough of spending $100/month wasting time watching mindless television. At first, it was great. I started reading more, going out more and finding new hobbies, but soon enough, I was craving the entertainment of television again.
When I went home to visit my parents, I gorged on Bravo and E! reality TV shows. I could watch an entire season of 'Real Housewives' without getting bored for a second; at the end, I actually felt let down that I had to wait months for the next season to come out. And then, I felt guilty for loving this 'trashy television' that most of my friends and family - and most of society - considers 'garbage.' I realized, though, that it doesn't only provide entertainment; it also teaches me aspects of storytelling that I try to incorporate into my own writing.
1. Drama, Drama, Drama
So often in writing, we get pulled by the words or by the characters or some other exciting part of the process. However, the reason readers are going to keep coming back to pick that book up again is for the actual story, the drama and the high stakes to get to the end.
In the newest season of 'Vanderpump Rules,' I wondered how they could possibly continue after last season. They had done every crazy, horrible, insane thing you could imagine. And yet, the new season starts off with a scandalous hookup, new fights and a looming wedding that you're not sure will happen based on the groom's uncertainty. Instantly, you are pulled back in and dying to see how the season plays out.
2. Build Anticipation
Just when you think you know everything there is to know about a character, you can reignite the story by planting a seed. In E!'s 'WAGS,' it was towards the end of the season and you thought you knew everything about the main characters. Tia was the annoying one that seemed to rub all of the girls the wrong way. But then, they travel to Thailand and she gets extremely upset and breaks down crying at one of the temples. When the girls ask what's wrong, she says she isn't ready to share. I remember this moment because I was so curious what could possibly be the matter. She seemed to be so in control of herself up until this point that this breakdown added such an intense element to her. I was glued to the television for the next couple of scenes leading up to her finally sharing what caused her to break down.
Reality TV seems to have this down to a science. With each end of an episode, you are left wondering how the girls will possibly go on after such an intense fight or what crazy thing will happen next. This can be carried over easily to chapters in a book, where you should always leave your readers excited and curious to start the next one.
3. Create Interesting Characters
Your story is only as interesting as your characters make it. In 'The Real Housewives' franchise, no one wants to watch average, run-of-the-mill housewives that literally cook and clean all day. They want to watch over-the-top housewives that make their lives seem fun, interesting and exclusive. So with each season of the show, they bring in these women that seem to have lives that most of us could only dream of. They drive luxury cars, live in gated communities and attend social events that cost thousands to attend. Without a doubt, they are interesting. And when one of them does seem boring, the network is quick to drop them and move on to someone else.
Your characters should drive your story and make the reader feel entertained. When they cease to do this, it's time to rethink that character or phase them out. Maybe they come back in for a juicy scene, but aren't actually a main character. It's important to realize the distinction and when to cut them loose.
4. Reveal Secrets
Secrets seem to be the lifeblood of reality television. Just when you think a character is perfect and has it all together, you learn that they suffer from an illness or are on the brink of a divorce. It's the jaw-dropping moment that makes you have empathy or shock or hatred for the characters. It gets you emotionally invested.
In the same way, books should be written with this kind of suspense. You don't need to tell your character's entire backstory in the first few chapters, and you also don't need to keep your character to a one-dimensional persona. They should have secrets and layers to peel, but they should come out over time - and at just the right moment that makes the reader feel something for that character.
5. Keep it Real
For all the drama, suspense and intrigue that you want to create and sustain, the only thing worse than a boring story is a fake story. So often, you will see reality TV characters call each other out for 'being fake,' 'trying to expose something just for the camera's' or being 'TV Heather [insert any name].' No one wants to watch, hear or read a story just because. They want to watch that story because it's real and it makes us feel connected to the joy, excitement, pain or sorrow.
When writing fiction, of course your story will be made up. However, it shouldn't feel made up. When you're reading it, you want to feel fully engaged and like you're a part of this world that the writer has created. You don't want to be caught stopping and wondering why the writer made this scene so unrealistic or out of place. It should flow, and it should feel real to the reader.
At the end of the day, I may be the only one that knows who Nikki Bella or Siggy Flicker are in my family's game of trivia. I may be the only one that gets excited for 9pm on weeknights, and I may always be justifying my obsession with reality television. But to me, it's all training for my own stories that entertain and made you feel something.