Quick! Answer this trivia question: What are two basic elements of Storytelling that reality TV producers and fiction writers utilize?
As a reality television producer I cull through hours of raw footage to build stories that adhere to television-friendly act structures. Depending on the episode’s length (usually 22 minutes for a three-act half-hour show or 42 minutes for a six-act hour-long program) I work with my teams to devise a scene structure that will retain the most eyeballs. The goal is to tell compelling stories that engage viewers throughout each season.
How do we do this? There are many techniques, but one thing we always try to do is build acts to end on cliffhangers so that viewers will keep watching after all the ads. If there’s a big argument, we will probably end the act in the middle of it, so that viewers will want to keep watching after the act break to find out what happens next. That works well for cable and network, but for OTT (Netflix, YouTube Premium etc) we don’t need to rely so much on hitting a cliffhanger moment at 11:30 into the show, for example, because there are no ads. This allows more creative freedom. In addition, these programs don’t need to hit the exact TRT (Total Running Time) that network and cable shows must.
#2: Story and Character Arcs
Stories and characters must have arcs. This means that viewers must be able to follow a coherent and intriguing storyline across multiple seasons as well as track the development of the show’s characters. The story and character arcs must make sense and compel viewers to bash out comments on social media and keep tuning in. One common technique? The misdirect. The character you believe to be the villain turns out to be innocent - or vice versa. If done well, the seeds that are planted throughout the season will misdirect the viewer exactly as planned.
Of course, these basic elements of Storytelling make up the foundation for fiction as well. In fiction, there is generally more freedom to tell non-linear stories (time jumping, side-realities, etc) but structure is structure. Great stories make us care what happens next. Same with the characters: We love them, we hate them, we must know what happens next to them.
I love telling stories. I started writing back in elementary school. The earliest forms of my writing came as screenplays based on my favorite TV shows. I wrote short stories in high school, college, and after college. I have dozens of boxes stuffed with printouts of stories I never sent in for publication. As writers we must be patient as we push through the growing pains to develop our voices. I look forward to self-publishing my first science-fiction novel this year.
Now I tell stories by producing reality television as well as writing fiction. I find that many skills translate, and I am thrilled and grateful to have the opportunity to entertain the masses.