Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lessons from the Feud


by Gary Fearon, Creative Director


Call it mindless entertainment, a cheap thrill, or just a way to kill 30 minutes but I'll admit I'm one of those who'll stop on the Game Show Network if Family Feud is in the middle of Fast Money. I've got to stick around and see if my answers are better than those of the contestants, and of course they are, unfettered as I am by no lights, cameras, or pressure.

But my real motives are far more academic than just a momentary ego boost, as there is much to be learned about our craft of writing when we look into some of the psychology of Family Feud. Starting with one of the most oft-repeated principles in writing circles:

SHOW, DON'T TELL

Back in the days of Richard Dawson, there was a lot of non-game gab. In fact, the show was fairly insufferable for the first few minutes as he interviewed each individual contestant, asking where they're from, what they do for a living, how many pets they have, everything short of who they were in a past life. Doing so was fairly standard game show patter, and I blame it all on Groucho, who started the whole business of interrogating contestants to get them to say the secret word on You Bet Your Life.

But that's not the case in this 21st century, as today's audiences won't sit still for long. We're used to MTV music videos, jump cuts, and getting right down to business. We're here for the main course, so show us the money. As writers we likewise needn't spell out every single laborious detail for the reader. Rather than have a character tell them that he's spent the last ten years hating his job as an accountant, show him at work, sweating over a ledger and being forced to work late by a demanding boss.  They'll get it.

HOW MANY HOSTS?

Take a guess. How many different hosts has the Feud had over the years? There's Richard Dawson, of course. It's easy to forget Ray Combs and Louie Anderson, as they don't seem to show up in reruns. My personal favorites, Richard Karn and John O'Hurley came next, and now they have Steve Harvey. That's six distinctly unique personalities with whom the show has always worked, because the time-tested formula remained popular and was never dramatically tampered with. We aren't there for the host as much as the game itself, or the plot, if you will.

As we've discussed before, a good plot can be retold again and again under different disguises. West Side Story was Romeo and Juliet, complete with balcony scene. Give a proven story a facelift and the audience loves the combination of freshness and familiarity.

GOOD ANSWER!

"Name a food item that goes bad if it's not refrigerated."
"Umm..."
"Three seconds."
"An apple!"

What in the world was this question?
You have to feel some empathy for the family members, who, after their inlaw gives a woefully pathetic response, still muster the ability to clap and say "Good answer!" You can even hear the weak commitment level in their voice. Yet they support their teammate, why? Because friends don't let friends go down in flames on national television.

The lesson to be learned here is that when we're writing, we are not on national television, so those rules don't apply. Rather than seek (or give) false praise over a less than awesome manuscript, the situation calls for genuine feedback from a trusted source that won't just say what feels good. Whether it's our critique partner, spouse, agent, or editor, it's everyone's responsibility to help one another make our writing the absolute best it can be.

The world of literature will be better for it, and maybe people will spend more time reading (instead of watching silly game shows).

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