What I Learned from Soap Operas

Recently, I did a quick poll on Facebook asking other authors what they find the most difficult in writing. For me, I’m perpetually long-winded (as you can tell from my blogs!) and I load down my stories with lots of description, inner monologue, and emotional angst. I love the idea of action scenes, but in order to properly accomplish them I have to “kill my darlings,” or the perfect sentences that I’ll normally tweet because they’re so poetic.

SusanLucci-85 (1)I started to think about why I find certain things easier to write. I grew up watching soap operas, drawn to the stories played out on my small screen. Though I’m not a soap watcher now, I still remember vividly how much I loved those stories. It was not only their dramas that attracted me, but the everyday going-ons between the characters. I loved the family interactions and the friendships. Those small towns became like home to me, where I could visit after school and meet all my friends. As authors, we long for that connection with our readers. We want them to race home, putting everything else aside so they can find out what happens between your characters.

I’ve heard people say that the heroine of a romance novel is a placeholder for the reader. I strongly disagree with that for many reasons. In this case, I think of the strong women I saw on soaps–women who knew their own sexual desires, who had high-powered careers and went after the things they wanted full throttle. While my primary soap was All My Children, I followed sporadically each of the serials. I remember Harley from Guiding Light, played by Beth Ehlers. She was bold and brilliant, with a raw edge to her. Or Skye from All My Children, who was smart and brave, but had a vulnerability that could break your heart in two. What I loved about these women were that they were multi-faceted, with strengths and weaknesses like real women. That was the first lesson I learned from soap operas, that audiences will grow to love your characters all the more if they aren’t cardboard cutouts. hen you can watch a character triumph over their obstacles, you feel a kinship to them. I don’t follow by the belief that every heroine must be someone you’d want to be friends with–as there are some cutthroat heroines I love, but wouldn’t want to meet on a street corner after dark–but I do think you need to be able to relate to them.

Alicha Minschew, who plays Kendall

Alicha Minschew, who plays Kendall

From soaps, I also learned the power of backstory. Most soaps feature a multi-generational cast, so you have a chance to not only track the family interactions but to know precisely where a character is coming from. Soap fans are notorious for their good memories. As they’ve grown up, so have the characters, and they want to be able to follow that progression. Each plotline builds on the other, and it’s important to keep consistent while still allowing the character room to grow. If you introduce a character from the “wrong side of the tracks,” you’ve got to go with that. You have to stick them in credible scenes that will establish their past.  I remember Kendall from All My Children, introduced as the rebel daughter of Erica Kane and originally played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. She left town, but when she came back, she was still undeniably Kendall. Still with that streak of wildness and the insecurities that had always plagued her. As a viewer, I appreciated that they not only remembered how Kendall had always felt unloved by Erica, being the daughter that she gave up for adoption, but mined those feelings in her future relationship with her sister Bianca. That made the eventual bond between Bianca and Kendall so much more emotional, for they’d fought hard to get to a place of acceptance. Seeing Kendall support Bianca in her weakest moments and vice versa are some of my favorite memories from AMC. If the soap hadn’t honored that history, I don’t think I would have been as loyal of a viewer.

Luke and Laura on their wedding day (Anthony Geary and Genie Francis)

Luke and Laura on their wedding day (Anthony Geary and Genie Francis)

On that same thread, I learned how to do a great redemption arc from soaps. Think of Anthony Geary’s Luke from the heyday of General Hospital–he committed a heinous crime when he raped Laura. Through expert storytelling and some off-the-characters chemistry, General Hospital managed to get past what would normally be the most defining act of brutality. It was a controversial move–one I’m still not 100% sure I’m okay with–but it resonated with fans because they got invested in the relationship between the two characters. They were able to see something in Luke that deserved to be redeemed. Now, I write women who shoot just as well (if not better) than the men, and I write men with pasts so dark they need a lantern to see the way out.

Lastly, I learned the power of true love from soaps. How could I not be drawn to romance novels after growing up with supercouples like Alan and Monica, Holden and Lily, Tad and Dixie, and Josh and Reva? I watched relationships progress and change, from the first date to the first love scene to the marriage. Sometimes those relationships didn’t end happily, but through soaps I learned what could draw people together and what might break them apart. You could have a thousand relationships on screen, but each one was different in the way the couple interacted. Great chemistry could make viewers want to root for them, while abysmal chemistry led to forced interactions and stale dialogue.

What sources do you draw inspiration from? Are there certain movies, television shows, or books that have really taught you a lot about storytelling?

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18 thoughts on “What I Learned from Soap Operas

  1. Erica, great post. That whole Luke and Laura thing really pissed me off. Ruined it for me… I think that was the time I quit watching General Hospital, except for the wedding (of course).

    Amy

  2. I loved your post. My family were never great TV watchers, but my husband’s family was. When we were in Panama, GH came on just as the guys got off work, so we all watched it. For a year, I was an avid viewer. I have to say what I learned was that I don’t like the “Big Mistake.” There were so many times I just wanted to slap someone and say, “Go ask.”

    Tweeted.

  3. Great post Erica! I draw inspiration from the West Wing-great writing and great depth and complexity to the characters. I also love Leverage for all the twists and turns to the story and how everything isn’t what it seems.

    Also-I remember my soap stage. I watched all the ABC soaps-GH, AMC, etc. Lots of fun times with highly improbable scenarios, lol. Passions too-though it made me SO MAD that Sheridan and Luis didn’t end up together!

    • Passions too-though it made me SO MAD that Sheridan and Luis didn’t end up together!

      You and me both, Lisa, you and me both! Though, at least Theresa and Ethan ended up together after all of the drama!!

      • Oh, Passions. I’ll admit I totally followed Passions for a year. But the storyline moved SO slowly–you could tune out for three months and they’d still be in the exact same clothes, playing out the same day. I still struggle with pacing in writing, but Passions certainly taught me how NOT to do pacing.

  4. I don’t really watch TV but I do watch a lot of movies, so I draw my learning of the stories from those as best I can. Truthfully though, most of my learning comes from books and great story tellers. I watched soap operas when I was very young but even then they didn’t thrill me. I was more the kind of kid who wanted to ride her bike to the library or go climb a tree. 🙂

    • Hah! A friend once said to me that media doesn’t translate through the different fields. But I disagree with that. Sometimes we need the visual to spur our brains into thinking about the written word.

  5. Oh god, soaps. I started out watching GH in high school, because it came on about the time I got home. Plus everyone else in my French class, including the teacher was talking about it. I couldn’t be left out! This was about the time Luke and Laura started out–I remember Luke striking me as skeevy and the rape thing didn’t help matters. And now you have a good idea how old I am. 😛

    Then at university, I got hooked on All My Children. Oh lord, it got so I planned my classes around that. I think I followed that one for 15 years. Greg and Jenny? Nina and Cliff? Opal Gardner? Check, check, check. And of course Tad and Dixie! Oh, and all of Erica Kane’s husbands, not to mention her man competition with Brooke. (Seriously Brooke made a habit of getting with all of Erica’s exes.)

    I think I learned that I’m not really big on deep, dark secrets. Someone will always find out and blackmail you. And the easiest way to get out of that situation is to man (or woman) up and just tell everyone. Then no one can blackmail you. But of course, on the soaps, no one ever takes that route.

    • I wish that I’d been able to watch AMC in its great heyday! Opal was one of my absolute favorites, and I loved Brooke. Julia Barr is an astounding actress and I hope she comes back to the new AMC Park Place is doing.

      • Julia Barr will be back for AMC on the new shows, Erica. They start airing on April 29th on Hulu.com and on iTunes, I think. There are some short “teaser” videos already posted on Hulu. And, get this…One Life to Live will pick up about where they left off, time-wise…but for the AMC folks, 5 years will have passed since we last saw them. Possibly b/c many of the actors aren’t coming back to the show, especially “La Lucci.” 🙂

  6. I credit my skill at writing dialogue to soap operas. Soap dialogue is designed so that you can understand what’s going on just by listening (since many viewers are stay-at-home moms caring for toddlers, who don’t have an hour to just sit down and watch). I absorbed the rhythms and emotional cadence of dialogue from years of watching soaps. It’s not so much the content but the structure of good dialogue that soaps can teach you. The back-and-forth, the moments of levity, the build to a climax, the big reveal, the denouement. Dialogue as a way of conveying both factual and emotional content. Film and even television are primarily visual. They rely on the audience watching what’s going on. Because soaps use dialogue to supplement what the viewer can see, they’re closer to novels.

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