Improve Your Writing by Watching Reality Television

January 6, 2021 § 7 Comments

By The Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti

My addiction to reality television started six years ago at the gym. I detest working out so must distract myself but reading books on the elliptical makes me dizzy. Having exhausted reruns of scripted crime shows, one day while changing channels I caught a glimpse of Los Angeles, where I lived in my twenties. The people on the program worked in a restaurant but had acting or musical aspirations, reminding me of almost every twentysomething I knew in LA in the nineties, but these young people were also on television so despite their server salaries they could afford Botox and plastic surgery. Time on the exercise machines flew by as I watched them carry grudges and try to prove one member was cheating on another. Eventually I figured out when new episodes came on cable and one night tuned into Vanderpump Rules on my home television. My husband Gary watched for fifteen seconds before saying, “I can’t believe you’re bringing this filth into our home.”

Filth? That’s harsh and led to years of hiding my habit, especially from my parishioners because I’m also a pastor. I recently realized, however, after Lisa on The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City said in her confessional “Once I threw my husband’s Rolex out the window” that reality television is not filth: it’s creative nonfiction. I have an MFA in creative nonfiction. As a writer, I’m aware that reality television burgeoned in popularity during a writer’s strike, so for years I felt like I was crossing a picket when watching, but now I realize that watching means research.

When I started studying creative nonfiction at the graduate level, Gary wanted me to define the genre. “It sounds a lot like lying,” he said.

“It’s applying fictive techniques to nonfiction,” I explained. “Like scenes and dialogue. CNF is authentic in a way that fiction can’t be, but we still have to make it engaging.” I hoped the acronym would make it sound more legit to him because he’s retired military.

Calling CNF “lying” reminds me of how reality television producers and personalities are accused of being “fake” when storylines are “suggested” and then take shape, but that’s a lot like the practice of some writers who set out to spend a year attempting to embody the various rules in the Bible or only eat food they grew themselves.

More than fashioning storylines, however, reality TV producers have to extract them from hours and hours of footage of filming people eating and applying makeup and swimming in the ocean on an all-expenses-paid group vacation. This is akin to a memoirist trying to find a plot in the story of our lives. Examining where an episode starts and stops can generate ideas for where chapters or essays begin and end. Watching what’s included can help us to write scenes in our work. What’s interesting about two women and their young children shopping in an Italian market in California, for example? Does the scene start with them parking, gathering grocery carts and walking through the store doors, or with one tossing fatty foods into her friend’s cart while the other threatens to call her personal trainer about the temptation?

Unscripted television dramas generally attempt to build to some sort of climax, which CNF writers have to do as well. What are we building towards? Often the season ends with a big event like a wedding or huge charity bash, but the climax typically revolves around side action, like a confrontation or breakup.

Finally, the “confessionals” commonly used in unscripted television can help CNF writers learn more about two important puzzle pieces in our own writing: interiority and filling in the gaps. Essayists might struggle to recall and craft dialogue, but reality TV producers wade through mountains of it. So how do they convey what their characters are thinking and feeling—what we would call “interiority”? By interviewing the participants several times throughout the season. Then they can fill in the gaps by asking leading questions about what was happening inside their heads when they were being fired from their job on a yacht or a restaurant or what they really thought of someone else’s attire. The confessionals help smooth together a storyline that otherwise would be disparate scenes.

Sorry, I have to go research now. The Real Housewives of Potomac is on soon.

The Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti is the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Christian Century, Entropy, Modern Loss, and numerous other publications. She holds an MFA from Spalding School of Writing and tweets @bizfel.

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