What I Learned from a Few Minutes of Bad Reality TV

(reprinted from a 2011 Willamette Writers newsletter)

I really only like about five minutes of the show. The rest of America’s Next Top Model I can hardly stand. I won’t tune in until about 45 minutes after the hour – that’s when I’m most likely to find the analyzing of the photography. This segment fascinates me because it feels like an analogy for critiquing fiction writing.

The judges (famous models, photographers, runway coaches, designers, agents) critique the contestants’ weekly photo shoots on (in my opinion) four levels of competency.

Level one, the technical minimum: The model has to find the light, not cover up the item or items she’s supposed to be selling, and follow the directions (if asked to act the part of a dancer/animal/celebrity she does so.) These are like the no-brainers in writing — putting together a sentence, punctuation, spelling, etc.

Level two, the basics: The model has to know the good and bad angles for making her neck and limbs look longer, her hips and belly smaller, and so on. To me this is equivalent to having a good vocabulary and a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The model should also avoid looking dead in the eyes and not too harsh, the same way your writing shouldn’t be boring or cliché and should include at least some sympathetic and accessible characters. The model shouldn’t be too obvious when showing off the item she is selling so that the shot doesn’t end up looking like a cheesy TV commercial instead of a fashion magazine spread, just as your writing shouldn’t be corny or forced.

Level Three – advanced technique: When a model is asked to work with other models, with animals, even props and set pieces, she either connects authentically with the other elements in the picture or she comes off seeming detached and out-of-place. It’s similar to the way your dialogue, character evolution, and turning points need to be character driven.  When a model portrays a specific kind of person, animal, object, or concept she will usually fail if she is thinking too much about the outside details (make up, costume, props, set, the photo shoot staff and equipment) and she will usually succeed when she focuses on the inside or essence of the thing she is meant to be. A model dressed like a bird fails because she comes off like a model dressed as a bird trying to look pretty or because she’s copying a stereotyped bird pose. A different model succeeds because she doesn’t worry about anything but thinking like a bird. (Of course, she is only free to do this because she’s learned her basics so well that they have become second nature.) I like this stuff.  As a writer, this is when you find out everything there is to know about a character before you write about her. Once you know how she feels and thinks and everything she’s been through, what she longs for and fears, exactly how she talks, then you can let her loose in a scene and she’ll behave organically. She’ll be real. (And of course you have to know the basics of writing first so you can be free to not think about them.)

But what really intrigues me is . . .          

Level four – Mastery: The model has done everything right – no complaints – she has not only handled levels one through three, she’s demonstrated all her skills in that one photo. Great job.  But there’s something even better than getting everything right, and that’s delivering the “it” factor. The judges say, “I don’t know why, I just love this picture.” The model may not even have done everything perfectly, but there’s something extra about her that wins the judges over. She learned the rules and now she’s broken a few – some choice or choices she has gone with make the photograph exquisite in spite of the mistakes. Or better yet, because of the mistakes . Which are no longer mistakes. Through her deviation from the norm she has acquired a mysterious greatness, something that can’t be taught and no one could have predicted.

In an exercise where the models were asked to portray men, the one who succeeded best was the one who did what she thought a man would do rather than trying to look like a man.  In another episode, models were asked to choose a signature pose, their best, something they could imagine getting famous for.  The most successful model was the one who chose the seemingly unattractive idea of having a hunched back but then translated that pose into the high fashion version of itself.  These are things that no one specifically told them to do. Teaching them the basics helped, but this level four success was beyond the “how to” type of advice.

So what can I learn from something that can’t be explained or anticipated? I’m not sure, but I do know I’m taking something meaningful away from these photo critiques. A reminder that making the basics second nature is what gives us the freedom to be great? Yes, but it’s more than that. It has something to do with us recognizing the possibility of fabulous success in our futures. We’re climbing our way to better versions of ourselves and our writing. We’re just getting our footing here, walking that line between too much and almost there. It has to do with confidence. And a heightened love of quality that is just over our heads, almost within reach. It’s about believing that that paragraph or page or chapter we will create tomorrow will be a stunning surprise. Who could have known? It’s about sensing when we’re ready to follow our gut instincts even if they don’t seem to make sense. We won’t think about sounding like writers, or acting like writers – we’ll be writers.

It also has something to do with being open. I don’t think any of us can be great without admiring greatness in others. I have a feeling that there is a direct correlation between the love we offer our favorite writers and the love that will grow inside our future fans. I can’t prove it, but I bet the models who took those “I don’t know why, I just love it!” photographs said those same words about their favorite fashion spreads in magazines years before they ever stepped in front of a camera.

So even before you work your way through writing levels one through four, start out by doing for others as you hope others will do for you. Think about some piece of writing you love but you’re not sure why. How in the world did he get you to worry about that weird character? How did she make you cry with so few words? Then write that author a fan letter. I bet someday you will get a letter very much like it from one of your fans.

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