Why Fiction Writers Should Watch Reality TV

Reality television is one of the more decried entertainment genres. And, sure, it’s got its flaws. I’m not going to claim it’s high art—but I do enjoy watching it. Competition-style shows are my reality genre of choice, and I’ll gladly watch people do just about anything if they’re competing on a TV show while they do it: cooking, designing clothes, modeling, doing drag, surviving in the wilderness, making piñatas, you name it. They don’t even need to be that good at it. Honestly, sometimes it’s better when they’re not.  

I also do feel like this content has value for a writer, and I’m not just saying that to justify the hours of it I’ve consumed. Here are three lessons that storytellers can learn from reality TV, arguably better than from any other television genre.

#1: How to introduce and manage a large cast of characters.

Competition reality shows are especially good for this. They kind of do the opposite of what you’d consider conventional storytelling wisdom in this regard. Most fiction starts with 1-2 characters, then gradually adds more as needed, spacing them out so the reader’s not overwhelmed by the litany of names and descriptions. In a competition show, the cast is largest on day 1, and gradually shrinks down from there week-by-week. 

The especially tricky thing is: they still want the viewer to be at least a little sad about those early eliminations, but without ignoring the characters who are going to stay around until the end. This means being very selective with how they distribute the limited screen time. They’re also very good about identifying a few distinctive traits that viewers associate with each contestant—you might not remember contestant names until a few episodes in, but you remember that they’re the one who only cooks vegan food. 

Another thing you’ll notice is that, often, the people who go the furthest don’t get a ton of screen time in the early episodes. Eventually, you learn more about these individuals than the rest; in storytelling lingo, they become more three-dimensional characters on-screen. You don’t get all of that from the start, though. They’re introduced with the same glimpses and highlighted key traits as the rest.

Some types of stories require you to do this same thing. Example genres where you might see this include military fiction, apocalypse or disaster stories, or slasher horror. If you want a high body count, and want those deaths to mean something, then you have to work with a large cast early on and quickly make the reader care about the people you plan to off. Studying the early episodes of competition reality shows can teach you techniques to do this effectively. In a story with a large cast, the competition show’s winner is analogous to your protagonist. They’re there the whole time, so while you do want to show the most of their personality and life overall, you don’t need to rush it. There are times it’s more effective to build up the other characters first, while the protagonist’s growth simmers along in the background.

#2: How real people talk.

Yes, reality TV dialogue is often prompted, curated, and heavily edited. It’s not as “real” as an overheard conversation IRL, and the balance between scripted and off-the-cuff dialogue varies depending on the show and format. On the plus side, though, you can intently listen to, study, or even transcribe reality TV conversations without even the slightest risk of being creepy. 

And what reality TV dialogue does very well is preserve the messiness of real-world communication but packaged for an audience’s consumption. There are false starts, interruptions, non sequiturs, and miscommunications. People talk over each other. They contradict themselves. Sometimes they lie, or don’t say what they really mean, or talk around details they don’t want to state overtly. Adding a touch of that messiness to dialogue in fiction can help it feel like real people talking for your readers. 

Reality TV can be a valuable tool for authenticity in other ways, too. It can give you a peek into a profession, niche, or community you want to use in a story but don’t know much about. If you’re writing a story about fashion designers, or storage unit auctions, or crab fishing, or tattooing, or flipping houses, or any of the plethora of niches that have reality TV shows about them by this point, watching some episodes can help you capture how the characters think and talk about their craft.

#3: How to make just about anything a conflict.

A lot of the things that happen on-screen during reality shows are pretty mundane, and don’t seem like the makings of compelling television. What makes these everyday activities interesting is how the characters engage with it and each other. This is how reality TV show producers imbue each scene with energy and tension that make the viewer want to keep watching.

Reality TV excels at turning everyday activities into tension bombs. A group of friends goes out for dinner and, by the end of it, they’re throwing drinks and screaming across the parking lot; that could be the arc of a literary fiction story just as easily as a reality TV episode. A chef cooking the perfect omelette doesn’t sound exciting, but it is when you add a ticking clock and high stakes.

The way reality TV conflicts are constructed mirrors how they’re often built in a story. Some of the tension arises out of the situation itself, but a lot of the energy driving each episode is developed through editing—how the “confessional” interjections are interspersed between the scenes, when commercial breaks create cliffhangers, which interactions between characters make it into the episode and which end up on the cutting room floor, and so on. 

In fiction, tension is built not just by what happens in the plot, but also through your selective use of flashback, internal monologue, and other devices to establish the emotional context and history between the characters. Studying how reality TV shows arrange these pieces to build a satisfying arc into each episode can be very helpful in refining your approach to conflict in your fiction.


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