The Novelist’s Approach to Writing Soaps

Soap : a serial drama, on television or radio, that features related story lines dealing with the lives of multiple characters. The stories in these series typically focus heavily on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama. (Wikipedia)

There has been much speculation about the cause of decline in soap ratings. Some say that it’s due to women working outside the home. Others blame the presence of internet, or the rise in popularity of reality TV. But this raises a few questions for me. I ran home from school every day and watched with the help of a VCR. Working women can still watch with the aid of DVR. Why aren’t they? And if young people are watching reality TV for the melodrama it delivers, then why are soaps, which by definition deliver melodrama, unable to cash in on this? My theory: a decline in quality of writing. Some may assume that you can only attract younger viewers with fast-paced, non-stop action. I respectfully disagree. Action alone does not good drama make. Viewers, young or old, are not stupid. They have high standards for entertainment and recognize a good story when they see it. If you pick up a novel and the author doesn’t deliver, you put it down. If you turn on a show and the writer doesn’t deliver, you turn it off. Good writing is good writing, no matter what form comes in. Here are three key elements to good writing that apply to novels and TV serial dramas alike.

Characterization

In addition to a good story line, you need believable, consistent characters. They need to be people we can relate to on some level and identify with. Sometimes, we love them and sometimes we love to hate them, but we need care about them. We want to root for them. And perhaps most importantly, we want to know what to expect from them. That doesn’t mean that the story has to be predictable. In fact, in most cases, we don’t want that. But, each character has a history and a personality that should dictate their words and actions in any given scene. Yes, we expect them to change and grow over-time, but if they behave in a manner that is uncharacteristic, then there should be a reason for it and that reason should be made clear to the audience.

Relationship Building

The audience will not be invested in what happens to your characters if they’re not invested in the relationship between the characters. If you want your audience to feel for a man who lost his wife, they need some explanation of the relationship. They need some kind of evidence that he actually cared for her. This could come in the form of a flashback that shows them a piece of the couple’s history. It could be by way of a discussion the man has with his potential love interest about his past. You need to evoke those emotions from the audience by showing them what he felt for her, not just telling them he loved her. They need to see it to believe it.

An audience will feel the gut-wrenching pain of a mother who has lost her daughter when they’ve watched her act as a mother to that child and seen the relationship develop over time. They will cry with her when they remember the good and bad times that they celebrated or survived together. They are less likely to weep for an aunt who loses the niece she’s been raising if said aunt and niece only appeared in one scene together throughout the entire story line. If you want the audience to buy into the emotion, the relationship building cannot take place completely off of the canvas. It takes away from the drama. (Face it. Nothing that takes place off camera is emotionally satisfying. You can’t tell me that Julie Chen’s recap of the HOH competition is as exciting as watching it live!)

Proper Use of Flashbacks

I am a fan of a good flashback. I use them in my writing. I enjoy a good flashback on television. But the operative word here is good. Flashback should serve a very specific purpose. That purpose is to provide the audience with information that they did not have before without taking away from the original story or disrupting the flow of the action. Flashbacks should not be used to recap information that the audience has already seen. Nor should they be used to explain a part of the mystery that the audience is capable of figuring out on their own. If you’ve done your job well, the audience will be involved and interested enough to follow along. Taking the time to explain what they already know is a waste of time and assumes something about their intelligence.

I’m not naïve. I do understand that writing for a show that runs five days a week fifty-two weeks a year is different than writing a single manuscript in that same amount of time. The fast pace of soap production must present its own problems that a novelist can’t even begin to understand. But I have always seen soaps as the world’s longest series of romance/mystery/action-adventure novels all rolled into one exquisite, dramatic presentation. (For those of us who watched the alien and demon possession story lines of the 90’s, you can throw sci-fi into that mix too.) A serial drama, in print or on screen, has to grab and keep the audience’s attention. You have to deliver not only on the action, but with the characters, and avoid over-explaining or playing down to your audience. A very wise editor once told me, if the writing isn’t up to snuff, a reader may not know what is wrong, but they will know that something is wrong. That something will turn them off. Soap writers, if your viewers know something is wrong, they are likely to turn your show off.

These are just my two cents, though I have a feeling, based on my twitter feed, some other fans might agree. If you do, or you don’t, please feel free to comment. I’d like to hear your thoughts. This brings me to one final piece of advice for the soap scribes out there. When reviews come in, some are good. Some are bad. Authors have to choose which pieces of criticism to ignore and which ones to learn from. Writers, you are under scrutiny. Everyone has opinion and a voice in today’s social media circus. That doesn’t mean that you have to pay attention to all of them, nor are you obligated to respond or defend yourself. Sometimes you just have to brush off the negative stuff. (You’ll never make everyone happy when it comes to who should be sleeping with whom.) But, if you find that there is a common thread to the critiques, you may want to take some time to reflect. We all have room to grow. It’s a necessary part of life and professional development.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Novelist’s Approach to Writing Soaps

  1. So good and on point that I read it twice. Consistent characterization can be a writer’s best friend. A well-rounded, defined character has lots of built-in drama to write about. No need to bend a character like a pretzel to make him/her more interesting within the story. As for reviews, I admit to being swayed on occasion but I do my best to stick to the “original vision” of the story even if the path is through a minefield. Writing online is both good and bad. You can get instant gratification from feedback but also instant rejection.

    I agree on misuse of flashbacks. To me, a flashback should reveal something that hasn’t been revealed or something that the character(s) have danced around for a time. Depending on the flashback, it can add layers to the character in the present, show growth or regression. A good flashback stays with the reader once they come back to the present.

    Now, do you have a secret formula to add six hours to my day?

    1. So true! Online writing is a different beast. I think that’s why I don’t publish new chapters of fanfic as often as you do. I pour over them for hours before hitting the button and once it’s out there I just let it be. (Unless I find a typo or something! LOL) I’ll keep an eye out for that formula!

  2. Applauding all of this. I wish that soap writers would read this & take it to heart because this is spot on with the way they need to write a soap.

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