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April 23, 2013

What Soap Operas Can Teach Us about Writing

Floating soap bubbles with text: Writing Tips from Soap Operas

I don’t watch soap operas, but a bizarre conversation tangent (in other words, a perfectly normal conversation for me) triggered my thoughts comparing soap operas to novels. On the surface, they seem very similar. They both have characters, tension, and conflict.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I saw differences. And those differences illustrated a problem many of us have with our stories.

This tangent all started with me trying to explain daytime soap operas to someone who had no idea what they were. “Well, there’s a big cast of characters and they’re all in conflict with each other. There’s no beginning or end because their little conflicts overlap. While one mini-storyline is ending, several others are in the middle.”

That led to an explanation of the slow death of the daytime soap opera in the U.S. From the 50s through the early 70s, the shows enjoyed large audiences. But other than a few years in the 80s around the time of Luke and Laura’s wedding on General Hospital, the percentage of households watching the top show was dropping even though fewer soap operas were vying for viewers. Today, only four daytime soap operas remain in the U.S. (down from a high of 19 shows).

It would be easy to say that women entering the workforce killed the daytime soap. No housewives at home, no viewers.

However, the 80s also brought the VCR and now we have the DVR for recording and time-shifting TV shows. So why didn’t viewership recover with those technologies?

Soap Operas: The Bad Kind of In Media Res

In media res means “into the middle of things.” Common writing advice says we should start our stories in media res, meaning that we start mid-scene rather than with loads of backstory and description. However, we often struggle to create interesting conflict and not simply cause confusion.

The never-beginning-never-ending nature of daytime soap operas leads to confusion among new or occasional viewers. Each episode constantly places viewers in the middle of things. New viewers have no idea who these characters are, what they want, why they’re arguing, etc.

Newcomers to a soap opera would have to watch the show every day for several weeks before they knew the characters, how they related to the other characters, and knew all the storylines. How many people are likely to stick around long enough to “get hooked”? Probably none.

In other words, the bad kind of in media res is to blame for soap operas’ ongoing doom. The structure of soap operas doesn’t encourage new viewers to join in the story, especially not when other entertainment options are more welcoming to newbies.

Novels (and Series) Can Suffer from the Bad Kind of In Media Res Too

We see this problem in novels as well. Have you ever been lost when starting in the middle of a series? Or have you chosen not to read a book simply because it’s in the middle of a series?

Coming into the middle of a group of characters who have fascinating stories we’re not privy to can feel like being the odd man out at a cocktail party of close friends. They share inside jokes or hint at old grudges without explaining what’s so funny or annoying. Readers need some amount of explanation to avoid confusion (not to mention irritation).

Similarly, at the beginning of a story, an action scene with a character we don’t know or care about yet isn’t going to have emotional resonance—no matter how harrowing—unless the author gives us opportunities to relate to the character.

A character—a random stranger to us—can be held over the edge of a cliff, and yet we don’t care at all. For all we know, that character is a bad guy and we want them to die. There’s no tension in the scene because there’s no context.

Don’t Imitate Soap Operas—Give Context

Novels can use techniques to bring readers up to speed that soap operas can’t. Internalization, narrative, character tags, etc. can all be used to ensure the beginning of our story isn’t confusing or causing a “meh” reaction in readers.

  • Characters can (briefly) think about why they’re doing what they’re doing and why it’s important to them. (Please let Jim pick her for this promotion. She’d eaten enough Ramen noodles this past month to last a lifetime.) This lets us relate to them and helps us care about their goals and stakes.
  • The narrative can slip in clues about problems. (Bruises stood out on his pale skin.) This raises tension and creates the good kind of story questions.
  • Character tags let us know how characters are related to each other. (She looked at her best friend. “Now what?”) This tells us about their relationship and encourages our understanding of dialogue and events between them.

So while we want to start in media res with our stories, we need to ground the reader with enough setting and situational information to prevent confusion. A wide gulf exists between the “zero context” problem of soap operas and the backstory information dump we should all avoid.

We can give hints and clues. We can even explain if we keep it brief (a sentence or two). We should give just enough information to ground the reader and avoid confusion. That means no paragraphs slowing down the pace. Sometimes “just enough” will take only a word. *smile*

Were you ever a soap opera watcher? If you stopped, why haven’t you picked it back up? Have you ever been lost in a book series (or avoided a series)? Do you have tips for other techniques to give context? How do you determine that “just enough” balance?

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43 Comments on "What Soap Operas Can Teach Us about Writing"

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Maryanne Fantalis

For me, the hardest thing is when you read the first (or second or third) book of a series five years ago (*ahem* George R.R. Martin) and now you can’t remember where all the characters are… or even sometimes WHO they are. That has to be a really difficult thing for a writer, because s/he doesn’t want to spend a chapter – or any time, really – with a “Previously On…” intro bringing you back up to speed, but in reality, s/he has to know you’ll need it. There are usually those awkward conversations to remind the reader: “Remember when we went to Blackenport and killed the Flefengrubs?” “Oh yes, that was after we defeated the wicked queen of Evendim.” “Right.”

I used to watch “The Young and the Restless” in high school and “Days of Our Lives” during law school because it was on when I had time to exercise. Even now, I sneak a peek at the soap magazines on line at the supermarket, just to see who’s doing what to whom… and find myself amazed that the same characters are getting divorced and remarried over and over again…

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I totally agree with you, Maryanne! George R. R. Martin can write the heck out of a novel, but, WHEW, there’re alot of characters…sometimes just watching the series on HBO I have trouble remembering their names and familys.
🙂

Lexa Cain

There are only 4 soaps left in the US? I’m surprised, but I don’t think it’s because people get lost. I tune into Day of Our Lives about once a year, and I swear the storylines have hardly moved; the same villains are making trouble, the only dif is the teen characters I don’t know (and don’t want to know). Maybe soaps are just passe. I bet if they included a Fifty Shades-type storyline they’d get back all their viewers.
But it sure is easier for novelists because we can put in inner thoughts to show backstory and the “why” of the actions.
Great post! 🙂

Kim

Great way to think about in media res!

I never start a book series or TV show in the middle. I hate not knowing what is going on or who the characters are. I actually like it when I discover a book series after the whole thing is written, because I don’t like the waiting and forgetting in between books. I’m one of those rare (I guess) people who like backstory at the beginning of a novel. I like to really get to know the characters before they are put into conflict. Two of my favorite series (Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) do that, and I don’t think it’s hurt them at all! I can’t tell you how many books I’ve put down because they’ve started too fast and with too much conflict.

I wonder, though, do readers really want to be put in media res or is it just publishers saying this is how we should write?

I can’t believe there are only 4 soaps left! I was introduced to General Hospital the summer Luke and Laura ran away and lived on an island. I watched it off and on for years. I found I just got tired of the same story-lines and the same characters doing the same dumb things over and over.

Carradee

I’ve never watched a soap opera, but your description does illustrate the difficulty when writing series. 🙂

Melinda P.
Melinda P.

I used to watch “All My Children” when I was in college. One of my girl friends would record the week’s episodes and a group of us would watch them on Friday nights as a way to relax from the hectic week. I continued watching after college for a while. I stopped watching when a plot line revolved around a mother and daughter vieing for the attention of the same guy. Sorry, but YUCK!
I’m still struggling with the whole too much vs. not enough information problem. One approach I’ve read about is to start by focusing on one character and let the reader in on some of the more mundane parts of their lives. That’s supposed to create a character that readers can identify with.
Keep writing!
Melinda P.

Linda Adams

I’ve never really watched soap operas, except when my favorite actor was in a role on two of them. I heard that they really took a hit during the OJ Simpson trial. People were lured away to watch the trial, and of course, they lost the context of what was happening. It’s very hard to get back into something that is a continuing story like that. Most of the TV series that are continuing series (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5) aren’t even shown in reruns today because it is so hard for viewers to get involved when it’s in the middle of the story or when they’re aired out of order.

Cindy Dwyer
Cindy Dwyer

What a great tangent to have! I think most people got into soaps more easily if they had a long-time viewer to guide them and bring them up to speed.

I watched several in high school and gave them up during college (too poor for a TV and too many other fun things to do!). But I realized something else about these story lines – coming home for Christmas vacation I could turn the show on and within a day or two be completely caught up because it seemed like the same conflicts over and over.

Today I couldn’t imagine being glued to the TV wasting that much time every afternoon. Of course, I almost never watch any TV, so that’s not a dig against soap operas specifically.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I had no idea there were only 4 soaps left in the US (are there bunches still being watched in other countries? And if so, what’s the draw? Hmm, I wonder…)
Anyhoo, I used to watch All My Children. My mother watched from its inception and was a die hard fan in the 70s and 80s. She even continued on into the 90s (I’d had enough by then) and you know, I never disected the reasons why my desire to watch had faded, but it’s exactly the reason you suggested.
And I’m one of those very linear writers, can’t type a sentence if it isn’t in order, and I happen to be a linear reader, too. I had originally picked up Dragon Fly In Amber, by Gabaldon, and couldn’t wait to read it, but realized it wasn’t the first book in the series. I had to order Outlander and waited 2 weeks to get it (this was before Amazon) because i HAD to read in order.
So, yes, diving into the middle of a series, whether on TV or on the page, is a no no in my book.
GREAT post, Jami, very interesting!!
Have a fabulous evening 🙂
Tamara

Laurie Evans

Ha, my mother used to watch All My Children and One Life to Live. So by default, when I was home on school breaks or in the summer, I’d watch, too. I could figure out what was going on after a couple days, since I knew the characters pretty well.

When each new Harry Potter book came out, I’d read the whole series again to refresh my memory. Same thing before each movie came out. Hubby, too. We are Harry Potter nuts in this house! The books are starting to look very worn/loved. Which I love, especially considering how “new” the books are.

Serena
Serena

Hey this is pretty interesting. I like your tips for giving context too. I should try that.

Also, related to soap operas, what is your opinion on stories that are more “episodic” rather than with a clear, strong plot? I think it can still work well, as Little Women was rather episodic but it’s still one of my favorite novels ever!

JW Troemner

I’m curious– why do you think soaps were as popular as they were before the big dropoff in the 80s? Did the style of writing change at some point to make them less accessible? Or did we just get past the point where newcomers could quickly jump in?

On an unrelated note, working in a bookstore, I’ve noticed a difference between YA series and MG series (as well as adult mysteries, for some reason). YA series tend to be shorter, and mostly expect you to have read the previous books, only briefly refreshing you on what happened previously. MG and younger and mysteries, on the other hand, tend to have ridiculously long series (The Magic Treehouse takes up an entire shelf, as does Junie B. Jones). It’s not practical to expect your reader to read everything that came before, let alone remember it, so they each work as a solid stand-alone.

Taurean Watkins
Well sure, referencing too much to previous books in a LONG series is asking too much any reader, let alone the youngest readers, but some kids are up to the task, and trust me, the more devoted and hardcore the fans are, the more that issue is lessened. Of course, they’ll always be new readers jumping in, and in a NON-open- ended series, I can see the concerns of leaving newcomers behind, or bogging the loyalists down with too much “Previous on…” type stuff. But here’s the thing, not all stories can be/able to be written to be open-ended. Beyond chapter book/easy reader land, novels inherently ask readers to invest in these characters in a way stand alone books usually don’t, and that doesn’t make them shallow reads, either. Even in open-ended series, there ARE ways to work around this issue, that doesn’t either overwhelm new readers or punish longtime fans. Take the Judy Moody series, for instance, they refer back to previous books when relevant to the current book, and not necessarily in numeric order, but it’s a way to have a sense of continuity, without devoting pages to back-story, and yet those little in-jokes do add a sense of continuation most other chapter book series shy away from, and not always to the reader’s benefit, IMHO. I don’t think we respect readers under 13 enough in this respect. Lots of MG writers, myself included, work too hard at breathing life and ambition into our characters, their worlds, their… Read more »
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[…] Gold: What Soap Operas Can Teach Us about Writing. Excerpt: “I don’t watch soap operas, but a bizarre conversation tangent triggered my […]

Taurean Watkins
I don’t read/watch Game of Thrones, but I have to speak to the issue of length. As someone who gets lectured in various ways about my books being “too long” must have never heard of these books, which frankly are WAY longer than any of my “Epics” if we’re just talking sheer length here. Now I know these are books aimed at adults, and I write mostly children’s books, so there are inherent differences in approach and “acceptable” length. But I do have a bit of attitude whenever I come across a book, especially in a series, that , and no amount of reminding myself “This book likely got written and rewritten for ages” makes me less jealous sometimes. Jami, I can understand why you don’t like to engage with series if they’re cut short, but on the other hand, try not to be so strict about the practice that you let the practices of business bottom lines denounce what you love, okay? There are many shows I loved that were cut short, and while it’s painful never knowing how they’d end if given the chance, there are upsides. Take that show “My So-Called Life.” I’ve only seen a couple episodes when it was in re-runs a few years ago, but it was dropped by NBC after a season, and while it was clearly intending to have more to say plot-wise, at least it avoided the problem of some series that have WAY worn out their welcome. As far as… Read more »
Reece City
Reece City
Hi, I came across your post while I was searching for writing material on soap operas. Considering I was thinking about trying to write in the style of a soap opera, it’s kind of a letdown to read a post about how bad it can be to do this. The idea to write in a soap opera style came to me when I happened across a clip of “Guiding Light” on YouTube, and even though I didn’t know what was going on or who the characters where, the characters, the action, and the drama, sucked me into the scene, and hours later I was researching the way soap operas were written to create that. I became instant fan of GL, which happens to be the longest running television drama in cinematic history. And from watching classic clips of it, I can appreciate the mysterious style of being in medias res, because for someone like me who hadn’t ever watched a soap opera before, when I came across a scene of it in I guess what would be typical instant drama in soaps, instant drama was what pulled me into the show. And it had me looking up the characters and the story in order to get more feedback. So speaking from my experience with that, if you can write in a way that captivates, the readers can get into it no matter what they don’t know, because that contact made an impression, which would make them want to find out… Read more »
Reece City
Reece City
Hi, I’ve been busy with writing research and work in general. Now that I’ve got the time I’m hitting you up with a response message. We were writing to each other last week about in medias res and you were giving me some advice. Like you messaged to me, writing in a dramatic soap opera style is not a goal most novelists try to do. My writing style is different from the standard, which is why, as you stated, I have to make up my own rules. Out of all I’ve been studying of writing since middle school, when I came across that clip of Guiding Light on YouTube, the first of anything I’d seen of soap opera, I knew that that dramatic soap opera style, that character, that drama, that dramatic emotional way of writing; in that one clip something clicked with the writer in me, when I saw that what I had been writing about, how I’d been writing and the ways I thought writing was supposed to be, everything switched gears, and now I’m starting to see a whole new way to do this for myself as a writer. Even though this is just a revelation that I’ve had, I’m hanging on to it. In your last message what you were mentioning to me before, basically that it was the visual of it; that that first glimpse into a soap opera, what I saw, whatever I saw I was enthralled the because of the soundtrack, subtext, I… Read more »
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