How Big Brother Gives Us Story Fuel

I put it to you, dear reader, that the popular TV reality show Big Brother can help us storytellers.  Before you perpetuate the notion that it's the sworn arch enemy of TV drama, consider this for starters:

Big Brother is jam-packed with people saying the exact opposite of what they mean.

This is gold-dust for writers.  It helps remind us that our characters should rarely speak their brains in a direct, on-the-nose fashion ("Daphne, I love you but I also feel insecure!").  It can be devastatingly effective when they occasionally do, but these sudden outbursts of unexpurgated truth are all the more powerful because they momentarily deactivate the filters through which most of us - and especially characters in drama - speak.

Great thing is, people inside the Big Brother goldfish bowl - whether celebrities or extroverted members of the public - can't help but crank those filters right up.  The amount of mistruth in their speech is heightened - just as it is in scripts and prose.

Take this as an example: Tammy from Tamworth has been nominated for eviction, but absolutely doesn't care and in fact she can't wait to get out!  To the point where, when she does get evicted, she goes so far as to shout "Yes!  Thank you!" and jump for joy, just to show how incredibly fine she is with the nation booting her out the door.  Or she might announce she's prematurely leaving mid-week, because she's bored of the whole experience and has achieved what she came here to achieve... as opposed to simply being scared shitless of rejection.  You won't get a better example of people saying the exact opposite of what they mean and how they really feel.  Drama fuel, right there.

People in Big Brother are also trapped with each other for weeks, so they will generally only explode into direct conflict when either absolutely cornered or they simply can't take any more.  So there's more passive aggression going on than you could shake a tweet at.  There's also a whole host of bubbling, brooding tension, often conveyed solely by the look on one housemate's face when another leaves the room.  Good scripts thrive on this kind of Purely Visual Information and Big Brother is shrewdly to pile in as much as possible.  All this stuff may very well reflect the tension in the family you're writing a kitchen sink drama about - or your sitcom set anywhere, since the vast majority of sitcoms are all about people being trapped.

Then there's the fact that, in almost every Big Brother contestants' head, they are the star of the show.  In fiction, even Scene 43a's hotel doorman should come across as a real, rounded person with hopes, fears, personality and a past - even if none of those specifics actually make the page.  That doorman in your script shouldn't think of himself as a bit-part with two lines: in his head, he's the centre of the universe.  Thinking this way may well help us write smaller characters who manage to transcend that ghetto of fictional people who act as if they only blip into existence when the protagonist is around.

Yes, yes, of course, I know - Big Brother is absolutely awash with ludicrous artifice.  It's as fake as a unicorn's wig and shallower than an ant's paddling pool.  And as much as I still love it, there's now inevitably far too much second-guessing among housemates as to how the public will perceive them.  What I'm saying, is that some of that very fakery can be used to your advantage, as a writer.  The tension, passive aggression and all those bare-faced lies about emotions and feelings may well fill a small tank in your brain, ready to be siphoned off later into your fiction.  Reality TV can often be way more real than most give it credit for.

Oh, and one last theory, which may or may not relate to drama: in Big Brother, even though it's undoubtedly on a very subliminal level, the housemates equate eviction with death.  Whenever someone gets evicted, they're in floods of tears as if they'll never see them again.  It's seriously like the end.  Eviction is inevitable in the Big Brother house - it picks those housemates off, one by one, like the scythe-wielding Reaper himself.

Could it really be a coincidence that Big Brother evictees ascend a staircase on their way out?

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davidovitch said...

I'm afraid I just couldn't disagree more, Jason, sorry! Leaving aside the damage that reality television has done to the visibility and quantity of drama on TV, Big Brother is a terrible example of learning how people operate. It's a totally false construct full of people who's only aim is to be on TV. That makes their motives very peculiar and it attracts a very narrow cross section of humanity. I think that a budding writer watching a show like that and hoping to learn from it could make some pretty crass errors about how to accurately portray human behaviour in your work.

Arguing that subtext is on display and thus we can learn about drama is hardly a compelling enough argument for writers watching it. After all, human life is packed full of subtext in every exchange we make - and we can certainly learn a lot more from it than watching a bunch of desperate nobodies parade their grim carcasses on national television.

Jason Arnopp said...

You're just saying the opposite of what you mean, right David? That must be it.

Damian Trasler said...

I'm not with davidovitch, I'm afraid. Though my real experience of Big Brother has been slight (I loved Ben Elton's take on it in "Dead Famous") I think Sir Arnopp has a valid point. The characters we see on our telly screens may be cartoonish and over the top, but that's the real world writ large. people aren't *really* themselves in real life, we all put on some kind of show that we feel is appropriate to where we are. For example, when I'm at the day job, I pretend to be a dilligent proofreader, and not someone who's there because it's a sit down job with free coffee....
Even if you only look at the inmates of the BB house and say "My characters aren't going to be as fake and plastic as those monkeys", you may have made some progress on how your characters ARE going to behave.
In fact, I could see this being a useful character development tool: If your protagonist was forced to enter the BB house, how would they react? Would they be the grey man and hope to win by stealth, or go all loud and brash and try to win the hearts and minds of the slobbering audience? Did I say slobbering? Sorry.

davidovitch said...

Yes, but it's *not* real life, and the 'show' we all put on is a subtle and complex thing. And I would wager that most protagonists, like most people, would never in a million years agree to go in the BB house.

I actually enjoyed the first couple of series of BB - because there were real ordinary people in there. But once everyone realised how ruinous it was to your life, that died and it only attracted the mentally ill and the desperate for fame. If you were writing about either of those, I guess watching BB might be useful. But really, you're much better going to your local cafe or bus stop and doing a bit of people watching ;-)

Jason Arnopp said...

Jocularity aside, I hope my post made it clear that I'm not claiming BB housemates are ready-made, cut-out-and-keep templates for characters. That said, they are human beings, as opposed to some distant, alien race.

The general principles which govern their behaviour - all that stuff I've talked about in the blog - remains instructive and hardly all that radically different to people wearing social masks in all kinds of situations. Humans are humans, no matter how fame-hungry and fake they may be.

Neither am I strongly suggesting that people who hate BB should watch it purely for writing inspiration - I'm just saying that this can be a very useful bonus. As David says, regular people-watching is also very instructive - although I would add that BB handily gives us close-ups and (mostly) crystal clear sound...