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by Toni Gallagher

Andy Cohen with Toni’s Book!

Have you ever wondered why you sometimes can’t turn off a reality show? Sure, they have colorful cast members and outrageous premises, but producers need to craft every episode, scene by scene, to hold a viewer’s interest. So what does it really take to create scenes that satisfy?

SHAPING SCENES 

When you watch reality TV, you might think you’re merely watching life unfold, but you’re not. 

Every scene has a purpose. It should add new information to the story or take it in a new and interesting direction

Every scene that we producers shape for TV—or that we authors write for kids—should have a beginning, a “turn”, and an ending that points the character in a new direction. 

What is that person’s attitude at the beginning of a particular scene? What has just happened to them? What do they want? How will the action in the scene move them forward—or set them back? Where do they stand at the end? What’s their next step?

On a recent season of Married at First Sight, one newly-married couple was fighting frequently. Hoping to rectify things, the wife, Lindsey, planned a photo shoot for them and their five (yes, five) cats. However, an argument erupted with her husband Mark, and Lindsey stormed out. That’s a big turn. 

When she returned with a cooler head, Mark persuaded her to join the photo shoot. By the end of the scene, there seemed to be hope for the two of them. But the audience couldn’t be certain— and that left them wanting more.

Now, in my own writing, I never would’ve thought of a cat photo shoot as the spark for a couple to have a fight and make up. This is how the amazing oddness of real life can inform our writing —and how watching reality TV can help you shape your own scenes.

DIALOGUE 

A great scene always has dialogue that feels real. I’ve spent almost 30 years listening to everyone from housewives, to kids at summer camp, to Snoop Dogg. Listening to real people can train you to acknowledge when your own dialogue is unnatural—and ultimately make it better. 

For instance, once I worked on a show about up-and-coming rap artists, each of whom had a distinctive way of expressing himself. Instead of saying “I had a really rough time during my career” (which is factual, but dull), Beanie Sigel said, “It was like going down a cobblestone street—on a skateboard.” It’s a line I’ll never forget!  

Toni with The Real World Cast

Read your dialogue out loud. Is it too long or too complicated? Are you stumbling over words? Do you sound like a real person? More importantly, does it sound like a kid? Could anyone say that line? If so, experiment with variations. 

And if your dialogue still sounds off, act like a reality TV story producer and pay close attention to real people talking. Ask real kids questions and pay attention to the unique way they answer. Take notes as you eavesdrop in a coffeehouse. It’s enlightening… and fun too.

But wait, there’s one more way to improve your scenes! (In TV, we call that a “tease.”)

CLIFFHANGERS 

When a television show cuts to commercial, it’s called an “act out.” And the best act outs are cliffhangers. They don’t need to be action-packed, like someone literally hanging off a cliff, of course. They can be surprising revelations. A question left unanswered. Maybe a joke you didn’t see coming. But they make you want to keep watching. 

Can you make every scene you write—and certainly the end of every chapter—be a cliffhanger of some sort? If so, your reader will keep on reading.

This article has a cliffhanger too… because there’s a lot more that reality TV can teach a writer. But you’ll have to wait until next time to learn more! 

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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 provided by the author.

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