Unscripted does not mean Unwritten
Written by J. Ryan Stradal
Call it whatever you want – reality TV, nonfiction programming, docu-soap, docu-style – unscripted television has asserted itself in international media, and until something cheaper and/or more popular comes along, it will continue to expand its presence.
With this expansion has come a new class of storytellers, who use exactly the same storytelling techniques to the same ends as scripted writers, but have long been only hesitantly labeled—certainly by their scripted peers, but sometimes even by themselves—as “writers.”
I’m no stranger to this dissonance. When I tell people I write for unscripted television, I often have to reckon with the apparent oxymoron in that statement.
"How can you write for reality?” most people ask. “Those shows are based on real events, right?"
"Sure they are," I'll tell them. "But just because something is real doesn't make it a story."
Hundreds of hours of footage are shot to make a single hour of reality television, and the final cut ultimately is very similar in its narrative structure to scripted television. There is a beginning, middle, and end, with character development, goals, conflict, and resolution. If you've ever been pulled into watching a reality series, it's for the same reasons you get invested in scripted TV: sympathetic characters, interesting settings, and a sequence of events that provokes, edifies, and/or entertains.
The difference is in how the source material is generated. We don't get to invent every detail and then hand it to professional actors to enact it strictly according to our specifications. We can only deal with what's already happened–and if you follow anyone around with a camera for long enough, you'll find that most of what they do is distressingly boring–so often our work deals with issues of sequence and context and plausibility. Unscripted storytelling is often about working backwards from the ending in the most interesting way possible, crafting an inevitable occurrence into an emotional, humorous, or provocative journey. Often, we also write the voice-over copy for our episodes, which for you old-timey bulwarks who don’t consider the narrative construction of unscripted or documentary work “writing,” certainly qualifies as such.
Those responsible for this effort, depending on where they work, are called story producers, story editors, segment producers, or associate producers. Whatever their title or salary, their job is basically the same: Tell a story. Sometimes this is merely challenging. Other times it is like pushing a fish taco through a garden hose. The average day for most unscripted TV writers would make an amateur storyteller light his or her own face on fire and put it out with a rake.
Typically, the first thing an unscripted TV writer does is check on the editing bays and see what the hell is going on. Once a show is in post-production, there are usually a dozen or so editors at any given time working on acts or other individual components of a particular episode. These editors often don't have the exposure to the complete scope of the show that the writer does; they have to be constantly informed about the frequent changes to the other elements that may affect their work, and given the necessary story components and a briefing to catch them up.
A writer's exposure to the source material and hand in shaping an episode's narrative are often invaluable to an editor in a bay. It is not uncommon for a writer to spend days on end in editing bays with various editors, working with them as a team to shape several cuts of an act before, during, and after the torrent of executive and network screenings that are always around the corner.
Around this time every day, I'd be trying to begin my next script, by watching tapes, looking over field notes, and reading logs. The loggers do their best to delineate the action they witness in a way that's relevant to story, but even if a tape has been logged it's usually a good idea to watch it again anyway. A lot of situations in the field become hyperbolized or misapprehended by the time they reach the office, and before some executive producer gets worked up over having the shot of Dane vomiting on Krystal being in the supertease, one has to make sure that it actually happened, and if so, it's vomit and not just spit, and that it's Krystal and not Madison.
Before all that intrigue, a writer will sit down with the rest of their story team, order lunch from someplace like Chin Chin, and discuss what this episode's story will be, how it will lead into and complement future episodes, and also if anything shot in the field, intended for the show, is too weak or too nonexistent to include. This is where it gets really interesting.
Copyright © 2005 CBS
The set pieces for most contestant-based reality shows are premeditated, but, obviously, the action isn't–that's what makes it reality, and that's also what makes the storytelling more difficult than copying the shooting schedule into Excel and adding a few interview clips. Sometimes a kiss that affects the whole arc of the show happens off-screen or in bad lighting. Sometimes the talent quits mid-shoot. Sometimes a challenge or obstacle fails spectacularly.
In the field, the story of the characters begins to deviate from the premeditated set pieces in hour one of day one. Friendships, lovers, and enemies develop to extremes no executive producer could have dreamed up. At the end of the shoot, it's all there, in several weeks of footage ready to be carved into a compelling eight-hour narrative. Picasso once said that a work of art is finished not when there's nothing more you can add, but nothing more you can take away. It is over Baja Fresh on a Tuesday afternoon that a handful of reality TV writers sit down and begin to whittle away.
Executive Screening. Time for the notes process, the most important post-production task for a reality TV writer. By this point, the script is done, the acts have been in different editors' bays for over a week, and they're polished to the point where they are perfect. Then, an executive producer steps into the bay, watches the cut, and rips it to shreds.
An executive's or network's notes are, if you have a good exec, are often sensible and sometimes even revelatory. Other times they're devastating (weeks of work down the gutter) or arbitrary with their power. An innocent note from an executive producer, such as "Do you have any shots of Jessica with her Pomeranian?" can lay waste to an entire act structure. It is with these screenings, and the notes that always accompany them, that a lot of story elements come to light or are outright eliminated.
If you're lucky, you get out by this time. Often, you're not so lucky. Sometimes you're still on a shoot, doing pickup interviews, collecting details that the crew missed the first time around, or gathering new material to accompany a novel direction that the story has taken in post-production. And there are always tapes to watch or acts you can cut another 30 seconds from or another script to begin. Camera people, executive producers, loggers–they all get to go home eventually. But the story gets messed with until the day of picture lock. As a result, the storytellers—both the writers and editors—are kept busy.
As anyone who’s shot a documentary or produced an unscripted series can tell you, making a story out of pre-existing material is a specialized skill and requires a great deal of imagination, creativity, and innovation. When we want characters to kiss or fight or celebrate, we don't have the option of just making it up. We tell the same stories everyone else in entertainment does, for the same reasons and to the same ends. Reality certainly does not write itself.
Organizing Reality TV