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by Toni Gallagher

Reality TV might be a guilty pleasure for many, but believe it or not, there are storytelling secrets in those wild, dramatic, and silly shows that can truly improve your writing. How do I know? 

Well, I had two middle grade novels published by Random House while I worked as an Executive Producer on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills! And after working for almost 30 (gulp) years in the business, I have seen how the rules of reality TV can punch up a story in need. Hopefully, the things I’ve learned can help you too.

SOLVING PLOT PROBLEMS

When writing a book, we authors have the luxury of creating it all: the story, the tone, the characters, and the plot. But in reality TV, the storytellers (often called “story producers”) have an unusual constraint. We have to shape episodes (and entire seasons of shows) from scenes that have already been filmed.

When you’re putting together a story with scenes that already exist, it quickly becomes apparent where plot holes exist. Maybe there’s a party and someone’s not invited… but we don’t have the scene where we learn why. Perhaps two housewives have tension between them, but the camera missed their original altercation. 

With The Real Housewife Camille!

For a reality TV producer, success depends upon finding solutions—otherwise, you might be out of a job! We need to scramble: Can we get an interview bite from a cast member? Ask two people at the party to explain in a conversation? Or can we shoot a “pick-up” scene later that will solve that problem?

As authors, we have it comparatively easy. We can make anything happen. All we have to do is write the solution! It’s not always easy, but when you realize how wide open your options are, it suddenly feels like less of an obstacle.

Another reality for authors, however, is that it’s not always easy to spot those holes in your plot. Reality TV producers have a terrific trick for that:

ORGANIZATION

When a show is shot over several months, producers need to keep track of every scene that’s been filmed, which cast member is leading the action, and where it takes place. We’ll put these on 3 x 5 color-coded cards on a giant bulletin board. Then, as we lay out the plot of each episode, we see—by the colors alone—if one cast member is dominating. Or if too many scenes take place in the same location. And—very importantly—what story beats are missing.

The same can be done on a color-coded grid on your computer. The colors can be whatever works best for you—character, location, or A plot vs. B plot. You can move the boxes around painlessly, and get a sense of how your story will flow. And you’ll see where those pesky plot holes are.

Board for Twist My Charm: Love Potion

COMING UP…

Dazzling dialogue! Satisfying scenework! These are just two more elements of your writing that can be improved through the lessons of reality TV. Want to know more? Then you’ll have to stay tuned for my next article! 

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Toni Gallagher is the author of the Random House middle grade series Twist My Charm. In her long television career, she has produced shows like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, MTV’s The Real World, and Bug Juice, on the Disney Channel. She is currently an Executive Producer on the Lifetime hit Married at First Sight. Learn more at www.tonigallagherink.com.

Images and cover art provided by the author.