Success or No Success?

Those of you who know me in real life may be concerned that this is becoming an obsession, but I am genuinely intrigued by the success of the British TV show, Deal or No Deal (Note: the US and probably other versions of the show are hideously disappointing by comparison. This is not a post about the value of pretty girls in bikinis prancing about with boxes in their hands).

For those who don’t know, it is a gameshow, in which there are 22 boxes, each with a secret amount of money hidden inside (ranging from 1p to £250,000). The contestant takes a box at random at the start of the show, not knowing how much money it contains. Over a series of rounds, he opens the other boxes three at a time and after each set of three, the Banker (a mysterious man on the end of a telephone) offers to purchase the player’s box for a sum of money determined by the Banker. The contestant can Deal (sell his box for the offered amount) or No Deal (keep playing). At the end of the game, if the contestant has not said Deal, he takes home the amount in his box.

What fascinates me about this, is the success of the show. Most gameshows revolve around a quiz of some sort or a physical challenge which is genuinely diverting to watch. As the viewer, you may enjoy the banter between the hosts (Pointless, Countdown) or between the host and the contestants (Weakest Link) but you watch it to test yourself against the questions or challenges. With DOND, there is “just one question” and although you can try to decide when you would deal, that’s a pretty weak reason to watch the show. But watch it people do. Enough people that it’s been running for 7 years and shows no sign of slowing down.

So why? And what’s this got to do with a Writing blog? Well, to answer the second question first, everything. If an author could keep readers coming back every day for 7 years with a simple list of numbers, wouldn’t we do it? (On the side, obviously, using the money to fund our Art).

Create Lovable Characters

Contestants spend a couple of weeks in the wings before they take The Chair. The audience develops a relationship with them over the weeks; in-jokes and nicknames help to cement this. By the time they take the Chair, contestants already have the TV audience rooting for them to do well.

Similarly, little things are what make readers love your characters. Mr Darcy is not drop-dead gorgeous, but his character is so well-developed by Jane Austen that he has women all over the world swooning by the time he makes a move on Elizabeth Bennett.

And a Hate-able Villain

The Banker is nothing more than a black telephone. He is deliciously cruel to the contestants and the whole audience loves to hate the Banker. He is the enemy, the obstacle the contestant must overcome, the challenge they must beat. This programme could easily have been run with a computer making the offers, but if it had, I don’t think it would have been half as successful.

Focus on the obstacles your characters have to overcome. There may not be a villain we can boo, but there must be something your characters are up against, in order for the readers to really root for them.

Keep Raising the Stakes

At the end of the first round, most players  have at least some of the mega-high boxes and at least some of the very-low ones left available. Although the values available in the game can fall, the emotional value to the player is always kept high, the offers are always a careful balance between the risk of winning less and the chance of winning more, and the longer the game goes on, the higher the probability of taking out the remaining big numbers.

The received wisdom in plotting is to simply keep raising the stakes, making the obstacles bigger, the threats greater and the dangers more … err… dangerous. However, I think even if some of the events in Acts 2 and 3 are lower value, the characters’ reactions to them can make them higher stakes. If you lose your wife and mother in Act One, losing your dog in Act 2 might seem like a lower value obstacle, but what if the dog was the only thing you had left to live for? Value is in the eye of the beholder.

When world-building, don’t get too hung up on set-dressing

The set of DOND is a pretty basic box with a few flashing red lights for the Banker’s calls, a screen in the middle to show the boxes still available, and a big black telephone with an old-fashioned cord. It’s basic, it’s cheap. And no-one gives a damn.

A lot of writers agonise over having their readers smell and taste and hear the world the characters are living in, and description definitely has its place. The Bronte sisters couldn’t have lived without it (they certainly couldn’t have produced stories long enough to be called novels!). But if the story is good and the characters are good, the setting is less crucial. In fact, if you spend too long on setting, readers will get bored and move on.

Focus on Details instead

Although the set is simple, DOND plays on some superstitions and rules that have grown up with the game. For example, if you open the box with the 1p inside, you have to go to the front and share a celebratory kiss with the contestant; boxes 22 and the “newbie” (the latest future-contestant to join the game) are cursed and likely to ruin your game. These weren’t programmed in by the makers of the show, they have evolved over time, but they form part of the show now and add to the richness of the viewing experience.

Instead of a five page description of the world your story is set in, focus on a few crucial details. Make them something the readers can latch onto, make them realistic but also unusual. Then make sure they remain consistent however complicated the rest of the story gets.

 

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Success or No Success?

  1. I’ve always hated the American version of the show, and it’s because they try so hard to force the audience to empathize with the contestant (“it’s just got to be in box number 11, because my daddy is such a good man and deserves it so much!”) – so it’s interesting that in the British version they take their time setting up that empathy in a more authentic way. Still, I think the main premise of the show is that people believe so much in superstition and fate that they’re willing to overlook the simple statistical basis of the show haha.

    • Ooh, the American version makes me so cross! It’s all bikini-clad girlies wandering around with the boxes. I realise the girlies aren’t aimed at me as a demographic, but you can’t seriously tell me that guys watch it for the girlies. They’d be switching over to Men and Motors or something!
      I totally agree about the premise of the show, although to be fair, it’s better odds than playing the lottery – if the player backs out at the right time, they can actually get some decent money. The problem comes if you get greedy!

  2. Great tips and I like the analogy.
    You’re prize pool is much bigger than ours here in Australia! I’m also baffled by the success of the show, it’s on every night and has been for years. I’m baffled but then… I watch it sometimes and get really into it even though there’s not much to get into… haha

    Awesome post 🙂

    • Thanks, Jess. What’s the top prize in Aus, then? I know what you mean about getting drawn into it if you watch it. That’s why I’ve started trying to figure out what’s so compelling about it – it ought to be a terrible show with no viewers at all!

      • It really should! In Aus it’s only $200,000. So (I don’t actually know how to convert pounds to dollars haha) but I thiink your prize is double ours. I’m going to go play Deal or No Deal in your country instead of mine!

  3. Delilah

    You may have just helped start a really great story for me with this post.

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