How Reality TV Makes Me A Better Writer

February 20, 2016 | By | 14 Replies More

samheadshotauthorcentralI spend my days sitting in coffee shops, craning my neck to clearly hear the conversation happening at the table beside me. Out of the corner of my eye I watch people on the subway and wonder what they’re thinking, and in restaurants I take note of how people move and eat. This might all sound like the beginning of a thriller with a demented psychopath, but it’s my life because I’m a writer.

People fascinate me, and inspiration strikes me from everywhere: I gobble up at least two books a week and research voraciously on Google. For me, though, nothing compares to real people doing real things to get my creative mojo grooving. But being caught eavesdropping or gawking, well, it’s awkward. Luckily, I can watch real people from the comfort of my couch, notebook on my lap and a bag of chips beside me because reality television has made it possible by becoming one of my sources of insight, motivation, and persistence.

Insight into People:

Take The Bachelor. Twenty-five stunning women from across North America voluntarily enlist to capture the heart of Ben Higgins, a man they only know from TV. They leave their jobs, families, whole lives to bunk in a house with women they have never met before and be filmed almost every waking minute. I feel for them when they fall, and marvel at how editing creates the drama the audience needs to stay tuned in week after week.

When the women lure each other away to get their two minutes of time with the one man they all want, or seem to, and viciously throw each under the bus on camera, I scratch a pen across my paper with glee. Not because I want to see anyone hurt, but because what motivates people to act the way they do, their internal and external goals, gestures and facial expressions when emotions run high and jealousy spreads itself like a virus through the house, helps me create authentic, intriguing characters.

True Crime as Research:

It’s not just the glitzy programs like The Bachelor or Dancing with the Stars that inspire me. After years of writing humorous women’s fiction, I took a huge risk, faced my fears, and started writing suspense. How I love it! It is also one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, and I had to learn to outline precisely, plot differently, and access the darkest corners of my mind, which are quite dark I’ve discovered.

I chat with lawyers, doctors, psychotherapists, and paramedics to get bona fide information. I even once got locked in a prison holding cell so I could empathize with one of my characters. But devouring raw, gritty true crime shows like Dateline, 48 Hours, and 20/20 brings me into a world of police procedure in action, featuring victims and their loved ones who have to face the aftermath of heinous acts.

Persistence and determination:

What I love the most is watching people live their dreams. From America’s Got Talent to The Voice, I can often be found wiping away my tears and clapping as a singer, dancer, or comedian musters the courage to go after something they have always wanted. I know how hard it is to put yourself out there and have the confidence to pursue a passion.

Watching the excitement on families’ faces when their loved ones are cheered on by the audience never fails to make me smile. Following Jordan Smith’s journey on the last season of The Voice got me through the last round of revisions on my book. There will be many more revisions on many more books in my future, and the way these performers learn from their critiques makes me even more determined to learn and grow from my own.

We writers need something to spark that high-concept idea and put real, fleshed-out characters on the page. And if reality TV also provides a much needed escape from the whirling dervish of plotlines in my head, that’s just a bonus I’ll happily take.

Samantha Stroh Bailey is the author of FINDING LUCAS and co-editor of/contributor to A KIND OF MAD COURAGE. She is also a freelance editor and journalist, and her work has appeared in Kobo Writing Life, Now Magazine, The Village Post, and Abilities Magazine. Samantha is the co-founder of BookBuzz, an author/reader event held in New York City and Toronto.

When not writing, reading, and watching TV, she’s usually dancing to 90s music. Samantha is represented by Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency.


Find out more about her on her  Website

Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

Tags: , , , ,

Category: Contemporary Women Writers

Comments (14)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. I so agree with watching reality TV for human insight. I hate conflict in real life and avoid it like the plague, but many of these reality shows are all about the conflict, so it does help me tap into that side of a story – how folks can dig in their heels the way they do, how they get caught out saying things they might regret, and how their pasts affect who they are today. Great post!

  2. Yep, this gives a whole new meaning to reality TV, and in addition, the characters there certainly “show” their emotions, even if they “tell” too. While they might be a bit larger than life in some cases, you’re right, this is much more socially acceptable than just peering at strangers in the street.

  3. Great article. Watching reality tv doesn’t seem like such a “guilty” pleasure anymore! It’s true – contestants being critiqued in front of all of those people, sucking it up, and learning from it are certainly role models to anyone out there trying to perfect their craft.

  4. I, too, love watching people live their dreams on reality TV shows like American Idol. I find myself getting teary-eyed during moments of glory and/or defeat. Watching someone be vulnerable while pursuing their art and their dreams is a very real and “raw” experience. And to think, we have access to that level of emotion by simply turning on our television sets. Crazy. And great fodder for writing fiction!

  5. Love this, Sam! You gave me a good reason to watch “The Bachelor” when I didn’t think there could possibly be one. Your own journey as a writer is so inspiring, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from the uber talented Samantha Stroh Bailey. Rock on!

  6. I agree completely about the competition reality shows! I think it takes guts to get in front of an audience and perform, or do a task, that perhaps you’ve never done before, or must do the best you’ve ever done.

    Television is a medium that allows us to tap into our dreams, and live them. Thanks for this thoughtful piece!

  7. What a great insight into your process! I use music the way you use reality TV to sort out stories and pull them out of me. I love quirky muses. 🙂

Leave a Reply