Reality TV Spoiler Alert

Posted on January 22, 2014. Filed under: writing | Tags: , , , , , |

I am writing what I like to think of as an action/thriller and what people who have read my pages thus far like to refer to as a horror novel. I think it comes off as horror since I keep gruesomely killing off characters, wherein lies the problem.

Killing off a character reads a lot better if the reader cares when a character dies.  Since I want this book to be exciting, with thrills in each chapter, I have had to kill off some characters fairly early on.  What to do to make it so those characters did not die in vain? This is where reality TV comes in.

I enjoy competition shows like Top Chef and Project Runway. Unfortunately for me, I am rarely ever surprised at the end of the show when one chef or designer gets sent home. That’s because there is a formula, at least for the first 8 – 12 episodes of a season.

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not figured out the formula, do not read on. Seriously, this will ruin competition reality TV for you.

Because it’s better if you care when a competitor gets sent home, just like it’s better if you care when a character gets killed off, producers give the contestant going home that day a “spotlight story.”   If you want to know who will be auf wiedersehened or packing their knives, just think about which competitor talked the most about his or her family, or struggles with drugs or poverty in that episode.  Whichever person you got to know really well on that episode is the person going home.

They only do this early on in the season. By the 10th or 12th episode, viewers should have gotten to know all the competitors enough to “care” if they are cut, so no need to tack on a spotlight segment. It then gets a lot harder to guess who’s leaving, as all competitors feature equally.

Not that I should take too much inspiration from reality TV in my fiction writing, but I think a similar method could well apply to a novel in which characters die early and often.  The ones who are gonna go sooner should at least have their moment in the spotlight before they go. The reader should have some reason to care about them.

Of course this only applies to named characters. Red shirts can die off anonymously and regularly. We don’t need to care about them. But if they have a line, and a name, and play any part in the story, they should be given enough respect so that, when they are killed off, the reader doesn’t think, “which one was that?”  The reader should care a little about the life that was just ended,  just like how a viewer will feel just a little sad knowing that that chef or designer getting sent home that episode had a life too.

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