The great lie of Reality TV is in the name. Yes, what happened in front of the cameras happened. But actors stood on that set and said those lines. The trick is in the narrative, and reality TV constructs that narrative with no less care and artifice than “fictional” TV. Great British Bake Off is no exception.
For the uninitiated, Great British Bake Off is a reality TV programme in which twelve contestants have to bake cake for two judges and one contestant is sent home each week. The one left standing at the end wins…well, I’m not sure what they win. But it’s a civilised as it sounds. There’s no drama, no recriminations, no back-biting. It’s what you watch when you want to see nice people with some cake.
But one episode decided to change all that. Viewers saw contestant Diana Beard remove fellow contestant Iain Watters’ ice cream from the freezer, turning it into a sludge. Understandably angry at the sabotage, Iain ditches the gloopy mess and is sent home for having nothing to present to the judges.
The Internet erupted. It was a travesty, a miscarriage of justice. Check out the hashtags #JusticeforIain, #BringBackIain and #DirtyDiana to see just how well the Bake Off narrative worked. And, when you’re done, let’s see exactly how the showrunners managed to evoke that outrage.
Prepare the Reader
The BBC showed an advert in the week leading up the episode in which one of the judges says “that’s unacceptable”. That’s a total smackdown in Bake Off land and viewers were waiting for the sponge to hit the fan. They were expecting drama. People often talk about expectations with a view to subverting them, but expectation can train a reader how to react when something does happen. If you start telling a joke, your audience is already preparing itself to laugh.
You Can Paint a Story with a Small Brush
Bake Off viewers actually saw very little. They saw Diana pointing out something in the freezer and saying it belongs to Iain. They saw Iain discovering his ice cream on a counter. And they saw Diana telling him, “you have your own freezer”. That’s it. Out of this, the audience turned Iain into a wronged party, a gentleman when he didn’t tell tales and a stoic victor in defeat when he was sent home. And they turned Diana into a wicked sabateour, a selfish old woman willing to screw the competition and act like nothing happened.
Human beings create stories all the time. We seem to excel at adding two and two and making five. It’s worth remembering that skill when we write our fiction; the reader is not a passive but an active partner. They’re painting the scene and creating the characters before you have a chance to describe them. So you can get away with feeding them very little and letting them fill in the gaps by themselves. You can also use that to build and, yes, subvert those expectations I mentioned.
Don’t Lie to the Audience
In a twist on the tale, one of the presenters took to Twitter to set the record straight: the ice cream was out of the freezer for only forty seconds.
Iain's Alaska was out of the freezer for 40 secs. That's it. No sabotage. 40 secs of normal temp would NOT be enough to reduce it to liquid
— Sue Perkins (@sueperkins) August 27, 2014
The betrayal, the sabotage, the drama, none of it was true. The Bake Off team used creative editing to construct a narrative, revealed to be smoke and mirrors. The equivalent of Bobby Ewing turning up in the shower.
Don’t do this. Ever. This is not subverting expectations. This is a dirty trick. The reader feels betrayed and lied to. And, yes, of course you’re lying to them. But there’s an unspoken agreement that your lies will be fair. If the reader is enjoying the tale, they don’t want you to spoil it by saying it was all a dream.
What do you think we can learn from reality TV? Leave a comment and let me know. Or let’s talk about Bake Off instead; I want Richard to win!