Craft

What Queer Eye Teaches Us About Storytelling

For this week’s post, I wanted to talk a little bit about everyone’s favorite feel-good show–Queer Eye. Specifically, I wanted to dig into why Queer Eye is so successful, and what that can teach us about the art of storytelling. If you haven’t seen the show, the basic premise is this: every episode, the “Fab Five” make over a different person who has been nominated by a family member, friend, or coworker. The tagline of the show, “more than a makeover” serves as a touchpoint for what the show strives to do–which is not just transform the person’s physical appearance, but their entire outlook on life. To that end, each member of the Fab Five focuses on a different life area they have expertise in: food, fashion, grooming, culture, and home design. 

The show has been wildly successful since it launched on Netflix in 2018 (technically a reboot of the early 2000s Bravo show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) and is now on its sixth season, and for good reason. Much of its appeal comes from the humor, sincerity, and friendship of its five charming hosts, but what the show truly excels at is telling emotionally resonant stories. While each episode follows a fairly set formula, the way in which this formula gets adapted suit the needs of each episode’s “protagonist” is an excellent demonstration of familiar storytelling principles. 

Within a few minutes of meeting the episode’s “protagonist,” we get a pretty good sense of what is holding this person back from reaching their fullest potential. Through interviews with their friends and family, incisive questions from the Fab Five, and an overview of the person’s history, we get some insight into what “deep wounds” this person is striving to overcome. The show does an amazing job at quickly and cogently illustrating the narrative that each episode’s protagonist has constructed about their life–the narrative that, with the help of the Fab Five, they will spend the next week deconstructing and transforming.

From a writing perspective, this is directly comparable to how we construct character arcs (something I’ve already talked a lot about). At the beginning of a story, the protagonist has some deep wound or inner need that must be addressed. Some sort of lie that the character has built up in their mind, a story they have told themselves about their life and their world that has held them back. This post about building dynamic character arcs actually lays out a pretty good template for what I’ll be talking about with this post, but in case you don’t want to read it, it goes through the basic way I build character arcs, starting with a character’s back story, which leads to their deep wound and inner struggle, which inform the challenges and obstacles that character must face, which they overcome by discovering and investing in a new narrative about their life (which can often stem from building or redefining relationships) which leads them to make new choices that ultimately lead to healing. There are obviously many, many different kinds of character arcs and that is just a basic overview of one trajectory, but it does actually follow pretty closely with the way Queer Eye tells stories.

Whether the episode focuses on a young queer Black woman, a married father of three, or a woman who runs a dog-grooming business, the inner need of each episode tends to be variations on a similar theme, which can be boiled down essentially to the idea that these people deserve care and thus deserve to use time and effort to take care of themselves. But the way this inner need is expressed varies from episode to episode. For example, in the episode Black Girl Magic, Jess, a young Black woman who was kicked out of her home at sixteen for being queer feels like she face everything on her own, and thus feels fundamentally disconnected from any kind of community and care. This specific inner need is restated, again and again in slightly different ways, throughout the episode, which gives the audience insight into the protagonist and helps create a sense of empathy and investment in their journey.

At each stage of the episode, we’re shown exactly how each of the Fab Five’s specialties (food, fashion, culture, grooming, and home design) can help the episode’s protagonist overcome a specific obstacle that stems from their inner need. Going back to the Black Girl Magic episode as an example, we learn in the design portion of the episode that because of her history, Jess has never felt like she had a permanent living situation, and thus has never attempted to make her room or her house feel like a home. We learn in the culture section that not only does Jess feel cut off from her family, but that she feels isolated from a larger community of Black women, which has made owning her identity difficult–something that also comes up in the fashion and grooming sections, as her hesitance to claim her identity makes her shy away from defining her own style. And in the food section, we learn that despite loving friends and a sister who wants to be part of her life, Jess still feels like she can’t have family or allow anyone to take care of her. Through each stage of the episode, Jess confronts each of these issues and learns to reconstruct her inner narrative and embrace her community and her identity.

Our own storytelling employs a very similar structure. While your books probably won’t get into your character’s grooming habits or interior decorating (although who knows!) we instead have a series of events that present a protagonist with specific obstacles that stem from their central flaw or deep wound. The story is about how our protagonist must change in order to overcome these obstacles–just like each episode of Queer Eye. Although it should be noted that in book writing, we have a lot more leeway in terms of whether the protagonist changes in a positive or negative manner–in Queer Eye, we always see the positive change and the obstacle vanquished (otherwise the show would be a bit of a downer).

At the culmination of each episode, the protagonist usually has some type of event where they get to demonstrate exactly how they’ve changed over the course of the week and the new narrative that will empower them rather than hold them back. Sometimes these events are pre-planned, such as a graduation party or a marriage proposal, and sometimes they’re suggested by the Fab Five (or more likely, the show’s producers). This event serves as a focal point for each stage of the journey–so when they do “fashion” with Tan France they’ll pick out an outfit for the event, or when they do “food” with Antoni, they’ll learn a recipe that they’ll cook for it. We get to watch the protagonist prepare for and experience this culminating event, cementing the lessons learned and the new narrative that they’ve invested in.

A book’s culmination may be more exciting and danger-filled than a wholesome dinner party or a dog show, but it can similarly provide an emotionally cathartic illustration of character growth. When structured correctly, the climax of a book serves as a vehicle for your protagonist to overcome their deep wound, deconstruct a prevailing, unhealthy belief system, and invest in a new, better narrative that allows them to make choices they couldn’t have made at the beginning of the book. Just as Queer Eye is “more than a makeover,” emotionally resonant stories are more than just about vanquishing evil–they are also about vanquishing the dark and toxic parts of ourselves. 

Queer Eye is a masterclass in emotionally resonant storytelling. In just fifty short minutes, the show is able to introduce a protagonist, get the audience to truly empathize with and invest in their struggles, and show a cathartic transformation as that protagonist confronts the deep-seated narrative that has held them back and overcome obstacles to live a more free and care-filled life. While Queer Eye engages with different themes than the books this blog talks about, the structure and principles of storytelling that each episode exhibits can teach us a lot about telling those stories in a way that packs the biggest emotional punch. So the next time you watch an episode (or if you watch one for the first time), you can call it writing research!

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