Saturday, October 22, 2011

Project Runway Writing Parallels

One of my favorite reality shows is Project Runway. If you’re not familiar with PR imagine the elevator pitch as this - Twelve unknown fashion designers vying for the chance to show at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and win $100,000 to jumpstart their own line. Each week they are given challenges to create fresh, modern, fashion forward designs which are judged by a panel of experts. The culmination of each episode is the runway show, when we find who’s in and who’s out and who goes on to be in the final three (or four depending on how the fashion gods want to go that season) to compete at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

I’m drawn to this show for many reasons - the drama, the fashion, but mostly I love to see creative minds in action. It fascinates me how the designers can take seemingly ridiculous challenges – like fashioning a garment out of supplies from a pet store (photo above) – and produce such breathtaking results. They aren’t always breathtaking. Some are downright disastrous and often there are epic fails (which usually produce the most hysterical one-liners from designer Michael Kors.) These components are what make this such an exciting show to watch unfold.

So where are the parallels to writing?

High Stakes – what makes this show so dramatic – other than the multitude of creative personalities – is what’s at stake each week – design something amazing or you’re out. Throw in some crazy materials, time limitations and team members that don’t get along and it’s a recipe for compelling drama.

Apply these same principles to your writing – intense situations, offbeat characters that clash and high stakes which can alter your protagonists life depending on if they meet their goals or not will help you craft a page turner.

Think Outside the Box – When you are limited to buying your design supplies from Petland Discount you have no choice but to think outside the box. How to apply that to your writing?

On every page. In your descriptions…dialogue…plot line…characters. Anything that remotely speaks mundane – think of a way to change it up, make it fresh and ultimately make it yours! Your unique voice.

Don’t Design for the Judges – In every season there’s a designer or two the judges seem to have something against. No matter what they put on that runway, their vision just doesn’t connect with the experts. Inevitably there will be that episode where you’ll see the ill-fated designer struggling with the design because of what the judges told them and suddenly they are more worried about the opinion of the judges than fully fleshing out their design vision. May as well start packing up that sewing kit, dear.

Take out the word judges and put in…editor…agent…market and this easily applies to writing. While it’s important to have an eye on the market, or the wish list of an editor/agent, writing specifically to please someone else will almost always lead to flat, uninspired prose which in turn leads to frustration, rejection and a whole lotta chocolate. If you don’t connect to and/or love your writing, who else will?

Make it Work! – Tim Gunn’s trademark usually uttered after he gently talks a designer off the ledge. Said designer has either completely derailed or is standing with their hands in their hair surrounded by bolts of fabric they suddenly have no idea what to do with.

Ha…that’s me, during revision! This is the wisdom I find myself repeating as I go in and tackle revisions. There are times I feel like I’m so far off course that I want to just scrap it and there are times I feel so overwhelmed I’m ready to jump ship. But I don’t. I go in, apply some of the above and ultimately make it work! Or blow it big trying!

So what about you Paper Waiters? Any of these PR pearls of wisdom apply to you? Or have you found some writing advice in a not-so-typical place?


  1. Great comparison! I watch this show, too (really the only show I watch, other than the Office). I love the creativity, as well. I was actually thinking this same thing during the last couple of episodes. Great minds...

  2. Great post and SO true! I love Project Runway, and shows like it (Chopped, Apprentice, Master Chef) for all the reasons you listed, although I never broke it down like that. I just thought I enjoyed being inspired by the creativity and by watching people make something from nothing - kind of like we writers do every day!

  3. Robin,
    What a clever comparison and an interesting post. I've never seen the show but I plan to incorporate some of your tips to my writing. Thanks!
    Linda A.

  4. Great post, Robin.

    I, too, am a huge Project Runway fan. I DVR it and watch it on Saturday mornings, cup of coffee in hand, before anyone else gets up. (Meaning my bunch of boys, who have absolutely no appreciation for any of my guilty pleasures.)

    Love all the comparisons. They ring so true.

    And what about all those challenges when Tim walks in halfway through holding the button bag! It's just like tossing in an unexpected twist in your writing. Who knows what will happen next?

  5. Kathryn - I often try and put myself in their shoes, and I swear half the time I'd be like "Okay, I got nuthin'" Love watching how they puzzle things out

    Genevieve - Same here across the board! I don't watch Chopped regularly, but when I come across a marathon - it's hard for me to step away. Love watching creative people work their magic.

    Linda - Thanks! I think PR wisdom can be used in every aspect of life :)

    Judy - OMG..same here at my house with the menfolk, I don't know how many times I've had to answer the question "Why do you watch this show?" They don't get it, lol. And yes, Tim and his dreaded button bag...I shake for them when they throw them a curveball. Can't wait for the All Stars in November!! Woot!

  6. Love it when you talk about creating to please judges (editors, the market). Does it work sometimes? I suppose, but every time I read about editors wanting pb's with "branded" characters, I feel a little sick.

    Curious George was great character long before he became a brand. H. A. Rey was not writing for the market.