Friday, February 5, 2010

What I've learned about writing from soap operas

I've been addicted to soap operas since I was fourteen. I was in summer school, to get the required health credit out of the way and scope out my new high school before I had to start in fall. Every day after class let out we'd head over to either Laura or Jenny's house for lunch. Both of them were addicted to All My Children and One Life to Live. They got me hooked. Really, it was the most innocent thing I'd get hooked on in high school. And I've quit smoking, doing drugs, dating boys that are bad for me, but please do not make me give up my One Life To Live.

I can still remember what got me hooked on both shows. On All My Children, Erica Kane's long lost daughter had returned that summer--a daughter she'd had as a result of rape when she was fourteen years old. Erica was having a hard time being confronted with this and the daughter was having a hard time coping with being unwanted, she reacted in rebellious teenage/early 20s ways that were extra conniving because, well, it's a soap opera. And who played that long lost daughter? Sarah Michelle Gellar. Yeah Buffy will always be Kendall Hart to me. But she was a damn good actress even then, hence I loved--well really loved to hate her character.

On One Life To Live, there was a guy who looked like a daytime TV's answer to Kurt Cobain on the run from the law. Todd Manning, every feminist bone in my body should make me hate you. You're a rapist. And I did hate you, despite you being the cleaned up soap star version of my favorite rock star. But the writers did an interesting thing with you, they gave you a backstory that did not in any way excuse your actions, but it humanized you.

And this my friends, is when I started learning a little bit about writing from soap operas.

Yes, I'm serious. This is me, Stephanie Kuehnert. The chick whose books get called "raw" and "edgy" and "punk rock." Judge away if you want. I own my guilty pleasures. And I've always loved drama--whether it be of the Shakespeare variety or the daytime sort--and since I've always loved writing, I've learned what I could about storytelling from every source out there.

So today, I thought I'd share what I learned about writing from soap operas. Hey, it's Friday, I think a somewhat silly post is in order.

So I started watching both All My Children and One Life to Live when I was 14. While still in high school I caught up on them during spring and summer breaks. During my senior semester (I graduated early), I had a half day so I was usually home in time to catch OLTL. I ultimately phased AMC out because I was more interested in the characters on OLTL (Kendall just wasn't the same after Sarah Michelle Gellar went on to slaying vampires and left her to be recast. Todd got recast too, but I was involved with so many other characters that I let that go.). Now, I record it every day and when I'm done with writing for the day, I go downstairs and watch it while I work out. My husband often makes fun of me especially when I scream at the TV out of irritation because they've added a truly horrible character (Stacy the stripper, she's getting killed off this month, I hear, thank god) or out of delight because they've brought back a villain that I truly love to hate (Mitch Lawrence, the cult leader, he came back from the dead and dug up his own daughter's dead husband and led her to find the corpse, pure fabulous evil). But my soap opera viewing really is part guilty pleasure, part learning experience, though admittedly I learn a lot of what NOT to do.

Actually the reason I thought to blog about this is because it's February sweeps this month so they are busting out with the big storylines and this week they used a classic soap opera drama-inducing device: The Big Storm. During the summer it's a tornado, during the winter it's a snowstorm. And generally it leads to 1. Death, injury or coma of characters, 2. birth of baby (or last time there was a storm in Llanview, an unknown baby was found), 3. Characters that do not usually get along end up trapped together, 4. a car accident, and most importantly #5. Secrets are revealed.

When I saw the melodramatic preview that "The Storm" was coming to Llanview, my inner soap fan squealed at delight for all of the dramatic possibilities, but my writer self groaned and thought "This is totally unfair! My editor would never let me get away with this!"

There are many, many cheats in soap operas. Characters can come back from the dead. ("Wait, you're back? I personally shot you fifteen times, watched you fall off a bridge, and spat on your grave when they buried you!") And there is no regard whatsoever for timelines if they get in the way of the plot. There's even a name for this: Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome (SORAS). For example, the aforementioned Todd Manning's first child Starr was born in 1996. She just turned 18 last week. I suck at math, but I know for sure that isn't right. More irritating, Todd's long lost daughter Dani who was conceived *after* his son Jack was born and yet is somehow magically 4 years older than him. This pisses me off. It's pissed a lot of the shows's fans off (and now comes the part where I admit guiltily that I know how many people it pissed off because I signed up to be an "ABC Insider" and give feedback on OLTL on a special messageboard, but I swear I did it in hopes that they would see that my plot ideas for the show were totally brilliant and hire me as one of the writers....) BUT there is still a writing lesson here about plot:

Don't get so focused on plot points that you force your characters into something that doesn't suit them or change your own rules just so you can make your plot work. Your readers will cry shenanigans and become disgruntled.

Okay so that's a "don't do" but as I mentioned before, I did learn a lot from soap operas about how to write "bad" characters or villains. There is a certain character in BALLADS, all of you who have read it will immediately know, but I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't, who I wanted readers to ultimately hate, but still feel sympathy for. People are not just born evil, something happens to them to shape them one way or another. I always want my villains to be human. Watching Todd Manning is where I first formed my interest in what really happened to a character to make him or her act the way he does. And I make sure I know those key moments about every one of my characters, no matter if they are "good" or "evil" or a major or minor character. I don't do character interviews where I find out their favorite foods, etc. I sit down and ask my characters, "What was the moment that changed your life? What fucked you up or what made you walk the straight and narrow?" And, yes, I learned that from a soap opera. Because I was so amazed by the way the writers conjured sympathy in me for a character whose actions disgusted me.

That was back when the writing was better on OLTL. It's been slipping lately and I'm seeing characters typecast. During this whole big storm saga that is currently going on, I can see already see two things that are going to raise my hackles. Mentally fragile Jessica is going to be the victim again and John the savior cop is going to almost lose his love in fiery car crash. The fiery car crash thing is pissing me off the most because it seriously happened in almost exactly the same way with a different chick two years ago. But both these characters are seriously typecast and in very stereotypical gender roles (weak woman, strong man). Another big writerly don't. Lesson learned from soap opera: turn the typical roles around. What would happen if the perpetual victim finally fought back? What would happen if the strong cop had to be saved for a change? My guess? A more interesting story.

Moving on to pacing. It can be atrocious in soap operas. I'd stopped watching One Life to Live for awhile and then picked it up again one summer when I discovered that we got SoapNet with our cable package and OLTL was on when I got home from work. My boyfriend at the time started watching it with me (yeah, feel free to mock him, that's fine), but after three months of watching a character being held captive (she was thought to be dead, but really badly injured and given a memory erasing drug, of course!) and almost get discovered... but no! Almost escaped... but no! Almost released by her captor... but no! My ex shouted, "I can't watch this anymore. This same plot has been going on for months and it will never end!" It did. Probably during sweeps. Perhaps during a storm. Honestly, I don't remember how that storyline concluded because they let it go on way too long. So obviously dragging out the plots too long = bad. Lesson learned. But let's talk about the other devices used to slow the pacing and break up the drama.

Okay, mainly it's sex scenes. That's what the desperate housewives want to see I guess. But sometimes comedy too. Or a touching moment between family members. And I have noted those occasions and stolen them for my writing. I never drag out the drama so long you want to pull your hair out (I hope), but to both break tension and build it at the same time, I do like to insert moments of sex/comedy/touching dialogue to break up the action.

I'm sure I have some other examples, but for now I will conclude with my favorite thing that I've learned from soaps besides the giving characters history thing. When they are bringing a story arc to it's climax a lot of times two enemies get trapped together and end up confessing things to each other. That's a device, but what I discovered from seeing it happen so many times is that opposites really do attract when it comes to storytelling. Seeing personalities clash is instant drama and there is something really satisfying about the moment when those two people realize what they have in common or finally take the risk of opening up to each other.

So there it is. Mock me if you will, but soap operas are my favorite escape. The plot lines are often ludicrous, but I enjoy letting myself be manipulated by the writers and I've learned a lot from them, even if much of it is what *not* to do. Most of all, it reinforced in me that dramatic tension can be completely addicting (though you have to suspend your disbelief in soap operas quite often), which is why you will always find plenty of it in my books. Though I haven't written my story about the girl with multiple personalities who fakes a pregnancy to get the guy, then really gets pregnant, then has a psychopath after her and her baby, gives birth during a terrible storm and dies only to come back from the dead five years later and demand her baby back ... well I haven't written it yet. Hey One Life to Life, if you're hiring...


Michael said...

I remember when I was a kid, my mom would watch her "soaps" and she always got mad at me if I was in the same room while she watched them. She was addicted to them like no other. I bet if I watched several episodes in a row I would get hooked too haha.

By the way, they just released the trailer for the Runaways movie. Do you have an opinion on it?

Bianca said...

EE! I love soaps! I have been watching soap operas since I was a toddler. No joke.

I remember my mom used to (wait. she still does) watch all the ABC soaps: All My Children, One Life To Live, and General Hospital.

I absolutely ADORED the "old" Todd. I even wanted to have a scar on my face just like him. Before the recast, Todd used to be the type of guy that had trouble telling someone he loved them (do you remember that? because I feel like I'm the only one who does and I had to be younger than 8 at the time) and it was like a milestone moment when he finally told Blair that he loved her. I totally "shipped" them. It was ridiculous.

General Hospital is my favorite soap opera with OLTL coming in at a close second. I don't watch AMC as much as the other two but I still follow it. My mom's favorite soap these days is Y&R.

Unfortunately because of high school I never have anytime to watch them a whole lot anymore. :C

simmone said...

i always remember a very uncool series called "a Country Practice' set at a country doctors in rural Australia ...blah blah ... BUT when i was about 12 this character Gabe turned up. She was a punk! She wore black lipstick and I honestly think she changed my life! There have been so many soaps and characters and everything's been done and everyone's an archetype but there's some kind of primal catch thing that happens... anyway, nice post. thanks.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Michael, ha ha, they are so addicting and yes I think if you watched them for a week or two you'd be hooked. That's what happened to me! And I'll probably see the movie, I won't judge it til I've seen it or learn more. But I'm glad to hear about the band getting exposure!

Bianca, I totally remember that about Todd and it was one of the things that made him complicated and endearing despite his evil acts. Gah! Oh and I'm a dork but I've heard that phrase "shipped" and don't know what it means, um explain?

Simmone, I lvoe the random punk on soaps. There have been a couple punkier girls on OLTL but they always tone them down in the end which is disappointing.