Thursday, October 4, 2012

I Shouldn't Be Alive

*Bullet* Two scuba divers surface in open ocean to find the dive boat has left them behind, miles from shore. ~*Bullet*~ On a ski vacation, a father and his eight-year-old son are caught in an alpine storm and find themselves miles off course, somewhere in the Sierra Nevada wilderness.~*Bullet*~ A cinematic photographer and his crew are filming footage of an active volcano when their helicopter crash lands in the crater. ~*Bullet*~A married couple in their late sixties becomes stranded in the mountainous Mexican dessert when their jeep overturns. *Bullet*

The scenarios above share several common denominators: They are all true stories. Each was immortalized as an episode of the reality television series I Shouldn't Be Alive. They each possess elements of an exciting Action/Adventure plot. And -- (writers take note) -- they epitomize the drama of the human experience when victims are faced with their own mortality.

For anyone unfamiliar with I Shouldn't Be Alive, a typical episode takes viewers through that fateful adventure when the spotlighted victim(s) nearly lost their lives. Beginning with the morning of Day 1, actors reenact the victims' movements leading up to a cataclysmic event, during the chaos as all hell breaks loose, and through the long days of survival and despair that follow until finally, mere moments before rasping their final breaths, they are rescued. Intermittent with the action are snippets of testimony by the real-life victims, stoic yet teary-eyed, which hammers home for viewers the realization that harrowing events like these could happen to anyone. Even you.

Now that's drama.

I'm a reality survival show addict. And yes, it's a bit embarrassing to admit it. So, to rationalize my dedicated viewership, let me tell you what I observe in every episode that relates (thank God) to writing.

Every episode contains the following:

*Target* The inciting incident, usually an accident involving a combination of human and mechanical failures, terrorizes the victims and sets off this chain of emotional responses: Blinding Fear (We're gonna die!*Right* Euphoric Relief (We're still alive!*Right* Cautionary Optimism (They're looking for us; we'll just tend to these wounds, sit tight, and wait.) *Right* Utter Dismay (They'll never find us; we're out of water; I think this is infected...*Right* Courageous Resolve (I have a plan...*Right* Abject Despair (I'm out of ideas. My God, this is it. This is really it.*Right* Exhausted Elation (We're saved. Oh God, it's really over.)

*Target* As the events unravel, we observe absolute proof that human beings are resilient creatures. With every step forward the victim takes to reverse his perilous situation, he inevitably falls three steps back. For example, in the episode with the helicopter crash in the volcano crater, the radio was damaged and the photographers realized their only chance of survival was climbing out of the crater. They made it pretty far up the crater wall. (GOOD). The air was less toxic and easier to breath higher up (GOOD). The crater wall was unstable and tiny shards of volcanic glass sliced their hands each time they slid down in the ash (BAD). Unable to continue up or go back down, they became stuck under the crater lip, out of view of rescue choppers (BAD). One guy made it back to the crash site and repaired the radio (GOOD). Alerted rescue chopper couldn't approach due to sudden inclement weather (BAD). And on, and on, and on.

*Target* At one point in every episode, the least injured or fittest victim must make the decision to leave the hurt or weaker person behind and try to find help. This is an excruciating choice to make, never more poignant than in the story of the father and his eight year old son. The dad made sure his boy was tucked into a tiny cave, out of the elements. Still, frostbite had already stiffened the boy's feet, and the wilderness surrounding him was home to hungry wolves and bears. The dad knew it could be days before he returned with help, meaning his young son would be alone, without food, those long days and nights. And there were no guarantees the dad would make it out, at all. Heartbreaking!

*Target* Almost every victim reaches a moment when they are resolved to the futility of their predicament. They will likely die, in a few hours, in a few days. With this acceptance comes the need to express themselves to those they will leave behind, so they write a letter to their loved ones. Last words of endearment, final requests, apologies. Their words are beautiful and emotional. Just thinking about writing a letter like that inspires stories in my mind.

Fiction writers can take plenty of notes on the craft while watching survival shows like I Shouldn't Be Alive. There are a couple other reality series like it, such as I Survived which focuses more on victims of violent crimes than man verses wilderness stories, and When Vacations Attack which is all about life-or-death crises that happen to people while on vacation. Each of these series showcases again and again the resilient human spirit in the most dangerous of circumstances. For me, it's the drama within the action/adventure that makes it so impossible to turn off.

Question For Next Time: What's your television addiction? Tell me how your TV guilty pleasure impacts your ability to write stories.

[By Nicole Ducleroir. Published October 3, 2012 in's Drama Newsletter.]