Reality Pro Tip: On Chronology and Cherry Picking


You’ve heard me preach about authenticity and how it can be maintained even when you’re rearranging chronology and grouping related content from an entire season into easy-to-follow storylines, but I’ll start at the beginning here for anyone new to the blog.

THE FAST AND LOOSE CHRONOLOGY OF DOCUSOAPS

If you have, say, an ongoing dental issue over four months, I might take one, two, three, four, five trips to the dentist with you and play them over an episode as a storyline.  What took months to play out might look like it took a week in the final product.

In docusoaps, pulling content from the entire production period to create strong, compact, easy-to follow storylines is pretty much the norm.  There’s always pressure to deliver an incredible first episode and to pack the second and third out as well, as networks sometimes extend or shorten their orders based on those early cuts and their perception of how their audiences will receive them.

Alas, this system can create a few problems.

Imagine having a box of chocolates, your favorites within being the ones with the cherry center.  If you eat all of those first, you’ll soon find yourself with a ninety-percent full box full of candy that you’re not so hot about anymore.  Moving on to the second-favorite caramels, you start in on those.  Now, you’ve got eighty percent of a box of candy that you’re even less hot about.

The same thing can happen to you with content.  Grouping related scenes together to clarify storylines and compress time is nothing new, but you’ve got to be aware of the potential pitfalls of cherry-picking only the very best content early in a series.

“EATING YOUR VEGETABLES”

Crushing a bunch of high-value scenes into an episode often means losing “moments” in order to streamline the story and just highlight what relates to your A, B or even C stories.  You want to play everything for maximum dramatic effect, so you decide to lose a moment like a cast member having a funny/flirty conversation with a waiter, but want to use the rest of the scene.

Two episodes later, your cast is having an argument about how someone treats people, and the crux of the conversation turns out to be about that funny interaction with the waiter.  You’ve lost the setup, so now this big scene will need to be set up with an interview bite in which someone says, “She’s always flirting with people.  We went to this place a while ago and she was all over the waiter.  She doesn’t know when to stop.”  Does it fix the problem?  Yes.  Is it as much fun as seeing what happened?  No.  Do you feel a little ripped off or as if the person being interviewed is just making this up under the direction of a producer? Possibly.

Sometimes, little moments that set up bigger moments just get lost or cut out of the show.  It’s a shame, but they’re casualties of time constraints.

Now, sometimes, those little moments turn out to be super important to major storylines.  You’ve got to fight to keep them in, trimming them down to pass as quickly as possible so that execs and your intended audience don’t get bored, but get the info they need to contextualize what comes later.  I always refer to this process as eating your vegetables.  Sure, you’d rather just have 44 minutes of dessert, but be reasonable.  If all we ever had was dessert, we’d be terribly unhealthy.  In this case, your story becomes unhealthy.

MEMORY CHEATS

One way to sneak that lost information into a later episode is to include a piece of the missing scene in the “previously on” at the head of the episode.  If I show you six clips from previous episodes in the show and one of them is a moment from a scene you saw, but not a moment within it that made the final cut of that earlier episode, your brain will go along with it because you remember that restaurant and that setting.  By the time the conversation about flirting comes up in the new episode, you have your context without having to resort to flashbacks.

A brief aside: just about everyone hates flashbacks.  They usually come off as hacky, and if you must use them, keep them very short.  If they’re truly necessary, go with the flashback in the early rough cuts and let the network tell you to take it out if they don’t like it.  If they’re confused by an early cut, you’re sunk.  If they’re confused by a later cut, they might suggest you put the flashback back in or allow you that moment you had to cut out earlier in order to set up the thing that’s left them scratching their heads.

EPISODES FIVE AND SIX: THE CHEERIO THEORY

So let’s say you moved all the really hot stuff to the early episodes and the network loves what you’ve done.  You have some big resolves stuck aside for the finale in episode eight, but now you’re in no man’s land.  You have two beats about an argument at the dry cleaning place, a single scene where Grandma comes to visit and fusses about how Mom runs the house, and the only possible multi-beat A story left (except the two zingers you were saving for the finale) is about almost missing the kids’ soccer game.

This is a result of what I call Cheerio Theory.  When you’re almost done with a bowl of Cheerios, what’s left clings to the sides.  Cheerios don’t want to be in the middle unless the bowl is full.  When there’s not enough big story to fill a series, it’s the same way.  Good content wants to be either early or late in the run.

Middle episodes often require a bit of alchemy in order to make everything run together.  How are all the scenes in that episode related?  Well, in this instance, it’s all about Mom feeling harried.  Now, you’re working from theme rather than story.  Connect the dots with specific pickups like, “After the dry cleaner lost Lacey’s dress, the last thing I needed was to go home knowing that my grandmother was coming.  She really stresses me out.”

Are the dry cleaning scenes really related to Grandma coming over?  No.  But it’s logical that someone would be doubly stressed out moving from one uncomfortable moment to another.  You’ve managed to merge a few loose scenes into an actual story.  Grandma’s visit is no longer a stand-alone scene, it’s part of an “I’m so stressed out” story.

Sure, it won’t be as great as your other episodes, but at least you’ll be able limp across the finish line with a so-so story and one big noisy conflict with grandma.

Of course, we could have avoided all this if we’d rationed our gold, but that’s another entry for another day here on the ol’ blog.

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