Recently I made the discovery that my laptop sits comfortably on the front of my treadmill. And you know what that means?
Yep. I can binge-watch YouTube while I run.
Sometimes I watch educational videos about nutrition, philosophy, culture, or literature, but my usual binge watch is much more low-brow and embarrassing.
I’ll share it with you, but you have to promise not to judge me.
*takes a deep breath*
I watch The Biggest Loser.
*waits for laughter and judgement to die down*
Did you know there are seventeen seasons you can watch in full on YouTube? No? Just me?
What is The Biggest Loser?
Here’s the short version.
It’s a reality TV show where obese contestants live in a house together while competing to lose weight the fastest by eating (I imagine) very little and exercising a ridiculous number of hours each day.
Various reality TV craziness goes on, and week by week contestants are voted out of the house. By the end of the season, only three or four remain. They are sent home to continue to lose weight. Some months later, they’re brought back for a live finale in which they are weighed and the one who lost the highest percentage of weight since the start of the season wins.
It’s about how it sounds.
I know this show is problematic
Before I go any further, yes, I know this show is problematic.
I know the scale isn’t real.
The “weeks” between weigh-ins often aren’t a week long.
The spectacle of the public weigh-ins (topless for men and sports bras for women until they get below a certain weight) is demeaning.
They don’t show all the contestants who are carried to hospital in ambulances.
Various manipulations may go on to keep the contestants who are more entertaining and get the others voted off.
The approach used on the show is not a healthy, sustainable, or even feasible way for most people to lose weight.
Scientific research* has shown the metabolisms of the contestants appear to be damaged by their rapid weight loss, so they’re likely to have to eat lower calorie diets for the rest of their lives to not gain the weight back.
* I didn’t actually read the original scientific article. I should, but I don’t care that much.
Other scientific research* has shown watching the show makes audience members more negative about obesity.
* Which I also haven’t read.
The host, trainers, and contestants incessantly incorrectly equate weight with health.
It gives people unrealistic weight loss expectations. Where else does anyone cry on the scales because they *only* lost six pounds in a week?
And I won’t even mention how awkward and laughable the product placements are.
I’m sure there are more problems I’ve forgotten.
How do I watch The Biggest Loser?
Before the why, I’ll give you the how.
As I walk or run on the treadmill. So I can watch the contestants working out and think, yep, I’m working out too. It’s like having company in the gym that never stares or makes you feel uncomfortable.
And usually at 1.75x normal speed, because otherwise everything happens unbearably slowly. (Thanks for this option, YouTube!)
Even ordinary exercises look epic when done at 1.75x speed.
Why do I watch The Biggest Loser?
Because it’s addictive and, or so I’ve convinced myself, because it contains some decent lessons on storytelling.
Contestants live in the house for months while surrounded by cameras, and each “week” is converted to an episode that runs for a bit under an hour and a half (at normal speed).
This tells me they use only a tiny fraction of the footage they collect, and you’d better believe they curate what they show to tell the most compelling story.
I don’t know how much they distort what actually happened. Probably a lot. And all for a reason.
So what do I think storytellers can learn from The Biggest Loser?
The importance of the story question
Each season has one over-arching story question: who will win in the end? Each episode has its own question: who will get voted out that week?
Simple, but compelling.
You keep going back to watch because, once you know the characters, I mean contestants, you need to know the answer.
One major reason readers will keep reading your book is because you’ve posed a story question to which they *must* know the answer.
But you only care which contestant gets voted off once you know the contestants. Who always gives their all in the gym? Who slacks and makes excuses? Which contestants provide emotional support for their teammates, and which badmouth them behind their backs?
Who is struggling with inner demons, and who is self-aware enough to know that’s what they’re struggling with?
Watching the show, you see it’s hard to care about characters you don’t know, and once you understand a character’s inner struggles you’re a lot more sympathetic to their bad behaviour.
The take-aways for writers are clear.
Conflict is central
The premise of the show is built around conflict. Contestants compete as teams or individuals to lose the most weight each week and they face various competitive challenges along the way.
But the producers also play up interpersonal conflict and probably fabricate it when it doesn’t exist. Some weeks two contestants might be at loggerheads about some perceived slight, or team members might be fuming about someone who isn’t pulling their weight in the gym.
It’s never just about losing weight, like your story should never just be about slaying a dragon. Layer on the conflict and you layer on the engagement.
There’s joy in a deserved ending
Some weeks certain contestants are portrayed as villains. (My guess is they’re not half as maddening as they’re shown to be, but the truth isn’t important. The story is.) As the audience, you loathe the villain and hope they get voted out, or love the villain and cheer when they somehow avoid being eliminated.
Still, some contestants are portrayed as deserving elimination, and the satisfaction is visceral when they get what they deserve. Conversely, the dismay is real when a contestant who deserves to stay is forced to leave.
Writers, you can use this to manipulate your audience’s emotions. Make your reader want something.
Now go forth and grant or deny it.
Character arcs bring emotional satisfaction and are necessarily simpler than real life
After a few seasons, the producers seemed to realise contestants with tragic backstories made for better television.
All the contestants who made it to the end of a season had great arcs–from, I’m sedentary and sitting on the sidelines of life, to, I’m an athlete who gets out there and makes the most of every day–but the contestants who overcame their backstories had even more.
Disclaimer: Some of the ways the producers presented these tragic backstories were pretty cringeworthy, but I maintain writers can learn from the exercise.
These overcoming-tragedy arcs were all portrayed similarly:
A terrible thing happened in my past and I over-ate to avoid dealing with it.
I felt bad about myself and unworthy.
Then I came to The Biggest Loser and through a really hard workout discovered I can do things I never thought possible.
Now I’m no longer defined by my past and I know I can do anything. My life has completely changed and I’m never going back.
It’s possible I paraphrased there.
You hear this over and over, and can’t help noticing it’s way simpler than real life. People don’t have one epiphany and change permanently. Change is largely a gradual process and backsliding is real.
But it makes for a satisfying story. When one contestant finally opened up with her emotionally distant parents, I cried.
I’m not suggesting you fully mimic the simplicity of these arcs in your fiction, but you’re writing a story, not real life. It will be simpler, and that can be incredibly powerful.
Have I convinced you my embarrassing secret isn’t quite as embarrassing as it first seemed? It was worth a try. Do you draw storytelling lessons from any unexpected places?
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