There’s a TV term called “Ripped from the Headline” where Hollywood writers will create an episode/movie where it closely resembles a real-life news story. The tactic is most commonly found in crime shows such as Law & Order, NCIS, Castle, Bones, Criminal Minds, The Americans, Prime Suspect, etc.
The episodes are easy to identify because it’s always the sensational, water-cooler talks that every person in the country knows. It’s the murder of a beauty queen, the disappearance of a small child or something so unbelievable it just has to based on a true story. Ripped from the Headline episodes are usually over the top and have that surreal “omg I remember this” feeling to them and it’s always easy to identify the real-life story.
As a journalist, it’s not difficult for me to think about how fiction writers can read an article and create a full-fledged story that takes the worse parts of the story and exploit them to extremes. I work for a small town paper so the articles I write are easy fodder for The Onion. This week, the most exciting article I wrote was about the local television station airing PSAs. If that isn’t a joke in itself than I have the worse kind of humor.
Conversely, earlier this month the paper covered the arrest of a bank robber who had been on the lamb for three months. While no one died (which is the hallmark of Ripped Headline pieces), it’s easy to think of her back story and write a cop drama of police officers trying to track her down.
Real life news will always have stranger stories than anything anyone can think of. Let us not forgot the bath salts incident in Florida two years ago. Or the case of a missing 5-year-old boy who was later found in a suitcase.
These stories are heart-wrenching but juicy and always have that “Did you hear….” factor that gets people talking. And isn’t that what every fiction writer strives for?
Here’s a writing challenge for anyone struggling to come up with ideas for a story. Buy your local paper and read the headlines and the first two paragraphs of a story (it doesn’t have to be a crime story). Then ask yourself: “how did this happen? How could have it ended differently?”
One headline printed this week at my newspaper was: “Dam Condition Rated ‘Poor'” (the article was about a local dam that is serious need of repair before it breaks.)
Just off the top of my head, I can think of a fictional story where the dam breaks and floods the town or a happy-go-lucky tale of a community coming together to solve a problem. Maybe with wacky fundraiser ideas al a Parks and Recreation style.
There’s endless opportunities so let your inner writer explore a news story – you could find a story that inspires the next great American novel.
Check out some examples and meta discussion on Ripped from the Headlines below:
“Hollywood Scrambled” from The Wrap
“6 TV Dramas Ripped from the Headlines” by The New York Post