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.
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.
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.
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?