Tag Archives: tension

What writers can learn from reality shows

Dessert EmiratesReality TV shows seem to be endlessly popular with the TV viewing audience. They pop up constantly, perhaps with a different name, different skills, but always they’re contests. Big Brother, Survivor, Master Chef, the Block, the Biggest Loser – and my all-time favourite, My Kitchen Rules.

Let me make it perfectly clear that I no longer watch these shows. I watched a couple of seasons of Master Chef because I love cooking shows and Master Chef actually had a few episodes a week where they went into the details of cooking. The rest of it, however, is a cooking contest. Which brings me to My Kitchen Rules. I imagine a similar show exists all over the world. In Australia, one pair of contestants, both amateur cooks, is chosen from each state in Australia. The couples can be married, gay, sisters or brothers, friends or whatever turns you on. The season starts with each couple hosting all the other contestants and the judges, for a dinner party in their own home. The contestants and the judges all score the meal. After all the ‘at home’ meals have been done, there’s an elimination process where some people drop out. Sorry if I’m hazy. You see, I loathe this show. Sure, I was sadly disillusioned to discover it wasn’t a cooking show. I hankered for Nigella, or the Cook and the Chef, Two Fat Ladies, the Naked Chef. What I got was a contrived game show.

In one of my biennial visits to the doctor I came across an article in a women’s magazine (I hate them, too – a doctors’ visit is the only time I ever look at them), a My Kitchen Rules tell-all. Well, gosh, Mouseketeers. Oh you thought the people cooked in their own homes? No.An awful lot of houses in Australia don’t have a separate dining room. We tend to prefer open living. But the home used for the set had to have a separate dining room so the couple cooking could be sequestered in the kitchen while the others talked about them. That, of course, but more pressure on the cooking couple. Unfamiliar kitchen, unfamiliar stove. And you know all that bitchiness and trash talk? The contestants are told what to say! Yes, it’s true. And, I have no doubt the fuck-ups are orchestrated, too.

So what does all this have to do with writing?

Everything, my friends.

I’ve already alluded to the importance of setting. Make sure your setting supports what will happen. Think about how the setting can aid some characters or put others on the back foot.

Choose your characters carefully. In MKR the contestants are selected with group dynamics in mind. Have a look. There’ll be the nice couple everyone hopes will win. The pompous know-it-alls who are critical of everyone else. The bitches (usually women) who often provide the tag lines for tomorrow’s show and who everybody hopes will get eliminated. (Quite often they last a loooong time to keep the tension going.) Then there’s the devious couple who’ll do anything to win, like voting down a spectacular meal so the rival couple’s rating falls. There’s the super confident couple who break under pressure (when the custard boils over or the kitchen paper catches fire in the oven or the lamb’s undercooked). And there’s the couple who come across as irritating or vaguely obnoxious but who blossom and grow during the show.

Tension is a vital component. In every episode there will be a minor crisis (contrived). For example, people having to wait two hours between the entree* and the main course. Or a couple who make cheese on their farm at home, so they cook a meal with cheese in every course. (Needless to say, one of the diners will hate cheese, or be allergic.) Or a contestant more interested in having his trousers pressed than letting his wife get on with preparations for dinner.Later, couples who have been eliminated will return to give their opinions. They’ll be the pompous lot and or the bitches.

Conflict is king. There will be trash talk at the table, conniving about what votes to give… and so it goes. So MKR (like all these shows) is about conflict – which is what good stories are all about. The characters are carefully chosen to show (!) this conflict and given lines to say. Then as the show progresses the tension between the contestants is heightened by throwing in ever-increasing problems, such as the mishaps in the kitchen. Later, the couples are thrown into situations they haven’t encountered before, like cooking for a crowd at a bush fete, or something.

Take note, writers. These shows are enormously popular for a reason. A year or two ago my husband and I were on a small bus delivering people to their cars at the long term carpark. On board was a group who had flown up to Brisbane to watch Big Brother, and they talked about their experience. I could not believe the commitment these people had to the contestants in a TV show. They hated some, loved others, wanted some out. THAT is the sort of emotion you want to get from your readers.

Although, of course, there will still be some people who HATE what you’ve done.


* an entree in Australia and most other places is an appetiser. I have never understood how Americans can refer to what we call a main course as an entree.

The picture at top left is of dessert in Emirates first class. It was delicious.