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How Sitcom/Drama/Feature Writers Can Adapt to Reality TV

The good news is that just about everything you know about story applies to reality television


A writer shooting for a career in film or traditionally scripted television can work their way in by writing a terrific spec that either sells or lands them an assignment. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work in reality television because you can’t sit down at your laptop and bang out a sample episode of "Jersey Shore." 

With reality television now crowding so much of the schedule, there are plenty of writers making the leap from other kinds of shows out of necessity. A glance around my office, for example, reveals a former writer for Jon Stewart, a screenwriter with a number of produced films under his belt and a former story analyst for a major film producer. 

The big question: How does an established writer crack reality television? 

The good news is that just about everything you know about story applies to reality television. The bad news is, it’s a Bizarro World experience trying to deliver a solid five or six act hour episode when you’ve got to cull your tales from four months worth of source material instead of conceiving your action ex nihilo.  Worse, you’ll have to do it while taking pains to avoid cherry-picking the good stuff so much in the beginning that later episodes in the season wind up as flabby as your grandmother in a bathing suit.

Then there’s that sensation of losing control when you first realize that editors play such an amplified role in the process. While I love to create tight stringouts of action in a paper edit or on an Avid, I’ve often been so pressed for time that I’ve had to just pass highlighted field story notes (play by plays of what occurred on set) to editors with instructions to return a five-minute rough of a scene that hits only highlighted points A, B and C, later refining the work myself only after they’ve had their pass and/or it’s been dropped into a rough assembly of the show.

Mid-career writers, if you’re looking to cross over and none of the above has scared the pants off of you, here are four things you should know about taking the leap.

First, the obvious:  You must be at least conversationally fluent about reality television when you apply.  Know about the show you’re coming in for (if it’s not brand new) and take the time to familiarize yourself with a few other shows the company has on the air.

Second:  You’re more likely to catch a break on shows that have run multiple seasons and/or have a larger story staff. 

Third: A basic knowledge of either Avid or Final Cut Pro editing systems, often used by story folks to roughly sketch out content before passing it off to editors, goes a long way.

Finally: Rejoice in the notion that reality television isn’t seasonal. You truly can catch a break and find work just about any time of the year.

Aaron Barlow writes about film, new media (especially blogging) and whatever else happens to pique his interest. Past owner/operator of a cafe, a store, and a gallery (among other activities), he began teaching at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) four years ago. His newest book is “Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes.” Visit him online at www.aaronbarlow.com.