Reality Show Writing: Troy DeVolld has a “Pro Tip” on Notes (Yikes)

Above: Troy’s great new show. Perfect for Halloween!

What’s Your Take?
by Troy DeVolld

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you know that the notes process is generally one of my least favorite things about working in television.

Why?

a) Because some execs enjoy creatively thumbprinting the clay rather than just correcting / clarifying / asking for alterations that satisfy network quality standards, marketing, and the interests they are overseeing the show for, making superficial changes that are different, but not better, and often have massive repercussions when it comes to story in the works on anything with a season arc.

b) Because some EPs and Supervising Producers routinely dismiss fantastic notes from the really great executives in some sort of “how dare they” creative pissing match.  I’ll say it for the record, I’ve had my ass saved on more than one occasion by a great idea at the network level.

c) Because both sides of the equation often feel absolutely right about their takes on the notes process and empowered to enforce the execution of their requests, you, the story producers and editing teams, are sometime stuck in the unpleasant middle, trying to satisfy one master while basically digging your own grave with the other.

In the interest of self-preservation, might I suggest actually having an opinion and making real choices in your early cuts?  A take on the material?  A genuine giving-a-f*ck-about-what-you’re-making investing of your creative energy?  Sure, there’s a tone and a spirit for every show that you need to follow, but if you don’t feel anything for it, how can you expect it to go over well?

Early on in a career, it’s easy to make basic, rote decisions that essentially compress time and accomplish little else.  Imagine how I feel whenever someone on staff shows me a 27-minute stringout of a single act that should be maybe 8-11 minutes.  Everything of interest that happened over a certain time period is in there, but if you hand it over to an editor in that condition, the editor’s going to have to make a lot of story choices to make it fit.

Now, some editors are great with story.  Others aren’t.  I favor something tighter… a stringout that’s maybe twenty-five to fifty percent longer than it needs to be, maximum, accompanied by a discussion or written directive of how the scene is supposed to fit into the bigger picture of the episode instead of just peeking into the bay and telling the editor where the new scene lives in the system.

Stringing too tightly can yield other results, as most editors will agree with me that their first reaction to a too-lean stringout is to match in and start reviewing material.  Now everyone’s back to that weird place where the intent of the scene is diluted again because something noisier or flashier or not necessarily on-point finds its way back into the edit, the story team sometimes admonished by the editor with a “you sure missed a lot of gold in there.”

Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re not.  But everyone could save a lot of time if the outline for the show is shared with the editor and the intent of the entire episode is clear even when working on one-twelfth of it at a time.  This sets up that, that leads to the other, and by the end of the show, the payoff or cliffhanger is the other thing.  You’re not stringing twelve to fifteen vignettes, you’re putting together parts of a clock.

I suppose that what I’m rattling on about is that your EPs and execs really want to see a show that makes sense.  And you can’t give them one if everyone’s metaphorically pounding on different instruments without sheet music.  If the show doesn’t make sense, people who generally don’t deal with or understand story mechanics are going to lose their minds and just start firing arrows in the dark while they try to figure out what’s not working… which makes everyone miserable.

Have an opinion about the work and the direction you’re taking it in.  Work together with the editors to make sure it makes sense.  NEVER pass anything on until it makes sense to you, because your team is probably more familiar with the story than anyone else… and if the insider’s view doesn’t make sense, what hope does anyone else have of deciphering and actually enjoying your content?

In closing:

  • Update your outlines and be sure the editors are as aware of what must be accomplished as you are.  Don’t just dump loose scenes on them.
  • Make sure that your take on the material jives with that of your EPs and network.  Don’t “wing” the feel of the show.
  • Make sure that the progression of action and evolution of cast is consistent.
  • If you don’t feel good about a story in progress, speak to your EP sooner than later.  And ALWAYS have an alternate plan/take ready when you do.
  • Never allow yourself to just compress time.  It’s the difference between finger painting and creating great work.

Troy DeVolld is a Larry Brody buddy, former senior story producer of Dancing with the Stars, and all-around true master of the reality TV genre. This article originally appeared on his Reality TV blog. And while you’re thinking about him, why not buy his book, Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market?

Troy DeVolld on TV Writer-Producer Career Stages

EDITOR’S NOTE: A few words from reality show honcho to the stars, Troy DeVolld, that if you read just right – you know, a little squint here, a slight raising of the chin there – will give you hope.

Or, as LB put it: “Spiritual Xanax! Just what the medicine man ordered!”


Career Stages
by Troy DeVolld

Fan:

All is magic

Anticipation (film school?)

The move / job / apt search

First gig:

Spend too much

First gig ends

Panic

Second gig:

More panic

Third gig :

Hey, this is working

The stripping of illusion

Fourth gig:

So this is the real business

Fifth gig:

The getting of the membership card

Fleeting sensation that this will last

First dry spell (90-120 days):

The fiscal bailout

Brief thought about doing another thing

The realization that nothing pays like this

Name excluded on a nomination

Gigs 6-20:

The dulling of the spirit

Listed on nomination no win

No friends outside of the business

First major car or home purchase

Marriage or pet acquisition

That one show

Despair/resignation to fate

Membership in peer group feels phony or unrewarding.

Downsizing

Unexpectedly awesome show

Restoration of faith in business

Decision to do some version of this forever

Realization that aw, yeah

Aw yeah

Death of ego

Simple pleasures / managed expectations

Membership in peer group is excuse to have fun at parties and meet nice people, also give back /

create opportunity for next gen

Good times

Limited recognition

More good times

Lame gig, but not internalized

Unexpected dry spell #2, but feeling great

Find a hobby or passion

Awesome gigs all in a row (or leave showbiz with no regrets)

Bliss

(This space reserved)


Troy DeVolld is a Larry Brody buddy, former senior story producer of Dancing with the Stars, and all-around true master of the reality TV genre. This article originally appeared on his Reality TV blog. And while you’re thinking about him, why not buy his book, Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market?