Reality Pro Tip: Orphans in the Second Act

Here’s one especially for my working colleagues in reality.

As you know, the most important task in piecing together a reality show is compressing time into engaging scenes and sequences of events, sometimes jostling the real chronological order a bit in order to clarify or heighten action.

When arranging scenes into a series of five or six act docuseries episodes, it’s not uncommon to, along the way, wind up with a few scenes in the bank that you can hang on to until you really need them.  They can play anywhere in the timeline (hence the term “evergreen”) and don’t really tie in to other stories (making them “orphans”). While it’s possible to transform and repurpose some of these into story-related scenes through interview content — putting away clothes becomes a scene about wanting to take some “me-time” to plot revenge, that sort of thing –you sometimes have a golf outing or shopping trip or zoo visit with the kids that plays cute just as it is.

But where do you organize it into your timeline/outline if it doesn’t relate to your A, B or C storyline for the episode?

Here comes the tip.  You ready?  It sounds stupid and simple, but…

…top of act two.

Seriously.  Best place for it in a one-hour show.  And here’s why…

You need your first act to reset the stage, introduce your A-story, and end on something engaging.

The end of the second act has to be a real grabber, as this is usually closest to the half hour, and if there’s one thing you can’t mess with, it’s ending act two with a bang.

By act three, you’re in full swing, trucking through your A-story conflict on the way to acts four, five, and six, building all the way.  Hardly the time for distraction.

Maybe, MAYBE that scene will work at the top of act three.  But try act two first — you’ll be glad you did.


7 thoughts on “Reality Pro Tip: Orphans in the Second Act

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  1. I get (or I think I get) what is an A-story (why people are tuning into the show), but what is a B and C? Is a B-story like a sub-plot in a drama? And what is a C-story? Is a C-story simply another sub-plot or a sub-sub-plot?

  2. Because I always say that story is story, here’s a nice article from The Writers Store website on A, B and C stories in film.

    The principle is the same, though I don’t think of B stories on my shows exclusively in terms of emotional subplots… more like concurrent stories with fewer beats and less long-term impact on the season. Of course, you never know when that early B or C story is gonna take off and become the A story in episodes late in the season.

    1. Nice link. Thanks for sharing. I was aware of what A, B, and C stories were in movies BUT…

      I rarely EVER see a C-story in a reality TV show. Is that even possible in a reality TV show? All reality TV “stars” I can remember are don’t change in their shows. They’re the same from beginning to end. No character development. No enlightenment. They’re almost episodic in that they seem to reset themselves at the beginning of every episode. Look at cable TV’s most popular TV show (at the moment) “Pawn Stars”. There’s really no character development there. Yes, there’s a tiny tiny thread of development of the son coming into his own, but he’s not even a popular character. Heck, you could eliminate the son from the series and no one would notice or care.

      Look at the Amazing Race. It is all about running from one location to the next. Can you recall any character development by ANY person on Amazing Race? I cannot.

      But let me turn the table on you, Troy. Let us make this personal and something that you should be able to speak authoritatively about. What C-stories have ever happened on Basketball Wives?

      I am not trying to be argumentative. I am not saying you’re wrong. I am trying to understand. Call me blind but I just don’t see any C-stories on reality TV shows or even how realistically they could even be done. Now prove me wrong and enlighten me. 🙂

  3. I’m trying to think of an example I can give you where I only have two beats, playing them out together in one episode or playing a solo scene and then ending in the next episode. There were plenty, but I’ll have to go back into my notes and outlines as I don’t have any that leap to mind right away — probably because I tend to forget my C stories since they don’t usually have long-term impact.

    I shoulda’ warned you — don’t be too literal in your interpretation of the Chitlik piece. I tend to rank A, B and C stories by whatever’s the most powerful, potent, and has the largest number of scenes in an episode and across a season.

    1. The way I view storylines in reality TV shows is in the following ways: Major, Minor, and Superficial.

      The major storyline is the ONE that everyone tunes into to see. Amazing Race’s racing around the world.

      The minor storylines are oneS that won’t draw in most viewers and are almost never promoted in promos but which the production company pitched to the network as something that will really add to the show. Amazing Race’s team relationships which the casting director was able to find in applicants and which were then pitched to the networks as what typically women will connect with and keep them glued to the show week after week.

      Superficial storylines are ones that, in my view, happen by accident. No one planned them. They just happened. They popped out of their hole and the film crew caught them on film. They rarely last more than an episode. They’re cotton candy. Fluff. Even if they’re great, they almost never are able to turn the show in their direction because everything is already committed to the A and B storylines.

      Am I wrong with the above?

      1. Only in defining something rigidly as x, y, or z. Sometimes a c-story is something you thought that would be an A story but the cast/network lost interest in so you suddenly have two scenes instead of eight or fifteen. Sometimes it’s something that crops up on its own. Sometimes it’s a one-shot event that an important cast member demanded the show include, like receiving an award or a child graduating from school.

        You’re right in that c-stories are seldom promoted, but anywhere things get loud or fun are game to wind up in a promo spot.

  4. In the next update of your book, you should devote a chapter on this as it sure seems rather confusing. And I don’t think using movie, TV drama, or literary A, B, and C plot terms should be done as they don’t seem to accurately apply to reality TV. And unlike a scripted drama (movie, TV, or novel), reality TV sure seems to need to be VERY flexible and change as the winds change. It isn’t just one person writing a story. From what you wrote in your book and here on this blog, it sounds more like trying to herd feral cats.

    “Okay, okay, I know that WAS meant to be our A storyline but the cast isn’t buying it BUT, no fear, we just found out that they’re all operating a meth lab on the set. So here is what I suggest we do…”

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