16 July 2008

Mac N Cheese for Writers

Saw a blog recently about Reality TV and writers, the thesis of which was that reality TV has a lot in common with romance novels because it tends to have assorted "ordinary" characters, a hook and an HEA (and HEA for somebody, albeit not necessarily somebody deserving). The original blog entry was more detailed than that, but I couldn't help thinking about it when I chanced upon a program on FoodTV last night about 5 chefs competing to make the best mac n cheese. In all honesty, I didn't WANT to be up near midnight with thoughts of mac n cheese in my head, but I was hoping the program would bore the baby to sleep and I could either write or sleep myself. Instead, I got sucked into the drama and characterization and remained intent on the screen even after the baby konked out.

The 5 chefs were:

1) Young chick with v. short dark hair who loved local food and organics. She wore a barrette in her hair and seemed confident in her ability to win. In the confessionals chosen for viewing, she criticized the judges more than once.

2) Slightly older chick with v. short dark hair who seemed gloomy. Luckily for viewers, she did not wear a barrette to avoid confusion with #1, but she also seemed confident she would win. She was not always pleased with the judges and questioned the choices of other contestants.

3) Young man with a buzz cut and piercings who seemed enthusiastic and frazzled by the whole process. He did not act as if it was his right to win, though he did have a few stinging things to say about the judges.

4) Older dude who didn't have much personality but apparently owned a restaurant. He seemed very efficient. He made the least impression on me but won the competition.

5) Older lady who was full of good cheer and seemed to be having a fantastic experience -- she was a self identified Southern cook and used lots of collard greens. I wanted to go to her house for dinner.

You can tell which chef was my favorite, which one I was rooting for. #5. Why? Because she didn't criticize the other contestants, because she seemed to be having a good time, and because she lacked pretention. At least--in the confessionals we were shown.

As a writer, I found it interesting to observe how these confessionals were used to create character. I'm sure there was countless footage that wasn't used. With hours of stuff to pick through, the creators had to choose which comments to share, what character traits to emphasize, what scenes to give airtime, and so on, taking into account the format of the show and the need to display certain elements like the judging process. The time was divided amongst the participants, too--yet another restriction on what footage could and couldn't be used.

The creators leaned towards action and reaction scenes to build interest and plot. They liked sound bytes where the character in question was being angry, passionate or funny. There wasn't a lot of "Gosh I like cheese, let me tell you about my love for cheese" type stuff. They only showed action, such as chopping, stirring or tasting, if there was additional action or reaction to go along with it, like a character voice-over saying how he or she was frantic at that point or a judge staring at the chopper while voice-overing that so and so was painful to watch.

In the end, I came away from the show with a relatively clear idea in my own head what these characters' personalities were, for the most part, even though I started watching about 15 minutes into the program, missing what I'm sure were the introductions.

How as writers can we hone in on just the right scenes and snippets to display character in our novels?

1) Remember that viewers want to see action.

2) They also want to see reaction.

3) Include crucial plot scenes (like judging) and write them in a way that makes them feel important (add voice overs, quick scene cuts, tension, background music, facial expressions, etc.)
4) Make sure all scenes work doubly hard, with voice overs (deep third POV, perhaps?), chronological tension and layers.

5) Be aware of the characters' more prominent personality traits and focus on those. In a novel characters might grow and have arcs, but in the hour tv show, the creators were careful to select confessionals that portrayed the chefs consistently. My favorite, #5, was cheery in all her scenes, even when she was in round 2 and making her gourmet mac n cheese with all the little fiddlly bits and sauces. The less likeable contestants were consistently gloomy or snarky or competitive in their confessionals.

Characterization can make or break a novel...or a TV show. And that's my important sounding pontification for the day.

Jody Wallace
SURVIVAL OF THE FAIREST--Available now, Samhain Publishing
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