Reality Pro Tip: Climbing the Mountain of Story

Ah, stakes. The gradual elevation of risk and potential loss/reward that both reality and traditionally scripted series demand at three levels: Over each episode, each season and, finally, the series as a whole.

Just about every book or blog on screenwriting that you’ve ever read reminds you that every scene counts. Scenes that don’t move story forward, they caution, are wasted effort and a snooze for the audience. But when it comes to making every scene count as you ramp up stakes, does each scene need to be more dramatically intense than the last?

No. You can’t climb Everest without stopping along the way to rest, and story, at least to me in most cases, works in much the same way.

The exaggerated example — the lab frog in this entry — is the typical action film. From first shot fired to final climactic showdown, you’ll find sprinkled throughout the action bits of humor, poignant moments, and plot-forwarding action that may not in and of itself be action-packed. The hero calls his wife to tell her he might not make it home. The villain menaces one of his own henchmen who has failed to bring back the hero. The comic relief character complains to himself as he navigates a cobwebbed maze to get back to the main group from whom he’s been separated. These scenes run parallel to the story, but don’t necessarily offer up new information essential to advancing it.

So why are they there?

These are the audience’s camps on the way up the mountain where the adrenaline levels settle where you, as a viewer, are momentarily relieved from your white-knuckle ride in precious moments that allow you to recalibrate before you’re bombarded with more big action. If it weren’t for these brief periods of rest, you’d probably burn out before the movie was over.

The same thing, I think, applies to television. You can’t steadily turn the anxiety dial to the right without pausing once in a while to let people laugh or learn new information.

In reality, you’ll often get a lot of great action back from the field, but many days where it seems little is going on. “A funny thing happens while Jodie is shopping for silverware.”

Big deal. Scrap it, right?

Not so fast. Don’t write this material off, as you can use it to cover time lapses in your main story (e.g., Becky leaves her house to confront Beth / Jodie shops for silverware / Becky arrives at Beth’s house to confront her) as well as give the audience a moment to build anticipation for the big scene to come.

You may also come across scenework where two people discuss others who aren’t present in a relaxed setting like a patio or wine bar. This kind of content makes the previously parenthetical example even sweeter: Becky leaves her house to confront Beth / Jodie and Jill discuss Becky and Beth’s feud that they wouldn’t want to be there for the end of / Becky arrives at Beth’s house to confront her.

Remember as you ramp up to the big payoff — give your audience a break once in a while to help make big action and new twists pop.

7 thoughts on “Reality Pro Tip: Climbing the Mountain of Story

Add yours

  1. This, in an email from a fellow reality professional: “I always try to explain that there’s no such thing as a roller coaster that only drops or only goes up. You can overdo building tension that never pays off, like a coaster that takes you to the summit only to surprise riders with an exit platform there.”

  2. Extra Credits did a good piece on this. Extra Credits focuses on computer gaming but what they draw from for the linked episode below is from film. Perhaps this is what reality shows should use for each episode too.

    But, saying what you, Troy, are saying in your blog post and Extra Credits is saying in the above episode is right, what about reality shows like Dirty Jobs? Or practically any travel show? How do those types of shows benefit? Do they benefit?

    Also, look at what Extra Credits is doing for gaming, Troy. Why not do a similarly animated series for reality shows? Extra Credits has three people involved in its production. An experienced game designer who writes up the episodes, an announcer whose silky voice delivers the narration, and an artist who provides eye candy. You, Troy, could be the first one and I’m sure you know plenty of radio voices that could do the second and artists that could do the third. And by doing so, you’ll raise above the noise of other blogs by simply being animated.

    Food for thought.

  3. Thanks for posting “Extra Credits”, Scott, nice pace there, good learning medium.

    I’m trying to use this article to get perspective in post on my “sizzle reel”. I have to show many processes in part of the three minutes allotted to fully convey the scope of my pitch. I’m trying to balance speed / time lapse, length of shot — I don’t want to lose attention for one second, nor do I want to make the viewer nauseous.

    Amazingly, I’m finding that shaving less than a second from a clip of a few seconds can keep my interest when I view it, and when I do it on others it’s so quick that a viewer would be “scrambled”.

    I’d like to know if there’s a general rule of thumb on time length for “intercuts” or clips, especially on the short end. Trailers roll amazingly fast to keep that interest, good ones balance well, with a breath in between, as described above. I’d like to have that in my reel.

  4. Scott, I know it’s pretty hard to see a travel show cut in three acts, but as we watch Samantha Brown (love her!) fly to Italy, check into the hotel, navigate with a map, and then, “ta-da”, she’s at Rome’s Colosseum, we just climbed a mountain as described above. Without it, we’d miss the suspense and the payoff (plus, it’s pretty “hot” when she shows the room and switches outfits, lol).

    On “Occupational RTV”, when we’re not on deck covered in ice with crab cages flying past our heads, we get to slow down as a guy gets in his bunk with the laptop and clicks through photos of the family he misses. Here we not only get to “breathe”, but like Troy says in the book, we get invested in that character by getting to know him, which is essential.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: