When reality TV is not the brain-rotting drivel it’s cracked up to be

by Audrey Lentz

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I enjoy terrible reality TV. While my literary tastes are more presentable, I’ll put down a Faulkner novel and flip on Keeping up with the Kardashians in a heartbeat. I’ve also made my way through seasons of Project Runway, The Jersey Shore, and America’s Next Top Model. Is there anything worse for the creative mind than that drivel? According to Steven King in his memoir On Writing, the best thing to do to get ideas is to stop watching TV and be bored for a while. In addition to boredom, he also suggests reading. What he and many fail to realize is that reading is not always inherently better than television. In my opinion, reading bad writing can be even worse for creativity than watching bad TV.

There have been terrible novels I’ve read that have ruined my ability to write until I finished them. Fifty Shades of Grey had me filling my stories with “Oh my’s” for a week.

However, an episode of The Jersey Shore has never caused me to write about people “shmushing.” Not only is bad television not as bad for you as bad writing, but it can actually be an inspiration. Even though scripted, these people are not actors, and they are behaving in a (mostly) genuine way. As writers, our main task is to observe life and reveal truths behind it. Reality shows are a great opportunity to observe the kind of life we might never be able to otherwise. Want to know what happens if you put a recently post-operative transexual in a house with an aspiring actress, a DJ, a party girl, and a Civil War buff? I’m sure there’s a Real World season with something similar.

For me, a novel I’ve been working on was greatly influenced by Miami Ink. I was fascinated by the world of tattoo artistry, which is something I don’t have much experience with in my own life, and ended up choosing a tattoo studio as one of the major settings for my characters. Had I not been such a reality TV junkie, I may never have discovered this great backdrop for my story. Not only was Miami Ink an inspiration, but it was also informative. I can research the mechanics of tattooing and tattoo art on the internet, but I can’t get the feel of the day to day life in an actual studio that way.

I’m not the only writer that has found inspiration from reality TV. Susan Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy, was inspired by reality television competitions. In an interview for News Times, she said, “I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me… on one channel there’s a group of young people competing… and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.”

The great thing about television is how much is left out. Novels are so thought out and complete that often there’s not much room for our own projections on the story. With television – especially reality television – it’s obvious we’re not getting the whole story. Why do two characters hate each other? What were their childhoods like? What would happen if they all went to counseling together? Or better yet, the moon? Creative minds will not sit passively while stories unfold in front of them, even if they are over-dramatized and filled with over-the-top characters. Looking for your next big idea? Just flip on Animal Hoarders.


Audrey Lentz is a writer of fiction and poetry and has a blog at audcomments.blogspot.com where she discusses literature, current events, and observations of life. She is currently working on her first novel with the working title of Now or Never.