What Soap Operas Can Teach Us about Writing

by Jami Gold on April 23, 2013

in Writing Stuff

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 below - Time to Add your own.

Maryanne Fantalis April 23, 2013 at 5:58 am

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…

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 8:24 am

Hi Maryanne,

Great example! Yes, I tend to “save up” my series reading so I only have to struggle through that lost feeling once, and then I read a bunch in a row to catch up on the series. 🙂

I’d love to see more blog posts tackle ideas for how to do those reminders at the right level for newbies and returning readers alike. I know some writers have talked about throwing up their hands and just doing a “previously on…” section. 🙂

I wanted to add another observation about soap operas never letting characters have their “story end,” but this post was already too long. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Maryanne Fantalis April 23, 2013 at 9:25 am

I hear you about saving it all up and reading all the books at once… but if you tried that with Game of Thrones, you’d be reading something like 8000 pages by the time he gets to the end! 🙂

I did that with Harry Potter because I had babies when the first book came out and I knew I’d want to read them all with my kids someday…

But usually I can’t wait, especially when it’s a series that people are talking about. And as you mentioned to Kim below, it’s TORTURE when a series may not get that last book published! This is happening with Elizabeth C. Bunce’s wonderful series that started with “Star Crossed” and continued with “Liar’s Moon.” The second book ended with a jaw-dropping cliff hanger, and there’s a possibility that the third book of this planned trilogy will not be published. I’m DYING over here (and wrote a blog post about it)!

I would also love to see bloggers tackle the second book topic!

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 9:56 am

Hi Maryanne,

LOL! Very true. I haven’t tackled GoT yet.

Great point about series killed before their time. If I suspect a series won’t be completed, I don’t bother starting. (I’m the same way about TV shows sometimes too. I’ve recorded a whole season and didn’t watch any episodes until I knew whether it was canceled earlier. 🙂 )

I hope for your sake Elizabeth C. Bunce’s series is completed. Is her publisher dropping her? Could she self-publish the last one? That’s what I’d vote for. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Maryanne Fantalis April 23, 2013 at 10:24 am

I haven’t heard any news for a while about Elizabeth’s series. She is an award-winning author; the first book in the series was picked for Oprah’s summer YA book club last year; it boggles my mind that her publisher hasn’t commited to publishing that third book. I don’t know what she’s going to do. The situation bothers me as a reader and as a writer. If you’re interested, here’s my take on it: http://mfantaliswrites.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/no-guarantees/ Thanks for letting me rant. You’re a tolerant person. 🙂

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

Hi Maryanne,

Wow! I just read your “rant” and I completely understand your disbelief. I decided a while back that any contract I signed for a series would have very specific language protecting me, my readers, and the series, and that’s a great (i.e., terrible!) example of why such clauses are necessary.

(If you’re curious about what my requests would be, I’d want rights to the earlier books to auto-revert to me if the publisher didn’t pick up the series within “x” amount of time. That way I could continue self-publishing the whole series and not worry about “out of print” or other anti-reader practices for the earlier books. Whether any publisher would agree to such terms is an entirely different matter. 🙂 )

That’s a downright depressing situation, so I don’t blame you for your “ranting.” 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc April 23, 2013 at 5:17 pm

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.
🙂

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Lexa Cain April 23, 2013 at 7:26 am

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! 🙂

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 8:28 am

Hi Lexa,

Great point! For viewers who knew “the score” before, it might not be hard for them to jump in again because the storylines do move so slow. But they might be occasional viewers for a reason (i.e., the slowness drives them crazy 😉 ).

For complete newbies, however, the slow storylines might make it take longer to get the big picture. And I don’t want to think about a FSoG storyline on a daytime soap. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Kim April 23, 2013 at 8:07 am

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.

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 9:09 am

Hi Kim,

I’m with you–I never start a series in the middle. I’m supposed to be judging several published books for a contest and one of them is a “book 2” and I’m torn on whether I should read book 1 first. 🙂 As I mentioned to Maryanne, I like to save up my series reading and will often wait until the series is completed before starting to read the first one.

(So for all writers who wonder if they should complete their well-reviewed series despite low readership? The answer is YES! 🙂 )

I don’t mind Harry Potter’s backstory prologue-ish start either. Then again, I’m not a hater of prologues in general. LOL! JKR has a fantastic voice and her descriptions of the Dursleys and the owls encourages curiosity–they haven’t been done a million times before. The descriptions focus on characters–the Dursley’s–right away, and within a page, those characters and the owls are doing things. The scene quickly has active characters, and isn’t just flat narrative. All that helps pull readers into the story.

As for your question about in media res, I think the answer is “yes”–that’s what readers want most of the time. As you pointed out, a great voice can let an author take a bit longer, but even JKR was mostly in media res after a page (as immediate as appropriate for the distant POV anyway).

However, in media res does NOT mean having to start in the middle of a disaster or catastrophe. It means the characters are already doing something active, rather than opening the story with loads of description or backstory with no active character making the observations for a good reason.

There’s a difference between opening with paragraphs of weather with no main character in sight and opening with a character struggling through bad weather. The version with a character too root for or be curious about will always be more engaging. Active descriptions of their shoes getting stuck in muck, rain trickling down their collar, their fingers going numb from the cold IS in media res even if all they’re doing is grabbing the mail from the mailbox. 🙂 Give them a goal and stakes for why they’re so eager to get the mail, and that’s a great story opener.

That’s my opinion anyway. 😉 Thanks for the great comment!

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Kim April 24, 2013 at 7:58 am

I totally agree with you. After I posted the above reply, I thought about Harry Potter some more, and it does start with plenty of interesting things happening.

I actually asked around with some reader friends, and they all said they like action at the beginning. The readers speak! 🙂

I love your posts…I learn so much, and they make me think!

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Jami Gold April 24, 2013 at 8:30 am

Hi Kim,

LOL! I love that you took a survey. 🙂 Thank YOU for sharing!

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Carradee April 23, 2013 at 9:01 am

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

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 9:12 am

Hi Carradee,

Yes, my current WIPs are for a series, but they’re each standalone, so I haven’t run into the problem too much myself yet. As I mentioned above, I’d love to see more craft posts sharing techniques for finding the right balance. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda P. April 23, 2013 at 9:20 am

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.

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 9:52 am

Hi Melinda,

LOL! And that’s a great point that no matter what–it always comes down to the story. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Linda Adams April 23, 2013 at 4:36 pm

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.

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Hi Linda,

Ooo, great point about the OJ Simpson trial. Yes, that gave people a “real life soap opera” to watch during the day.

And you’re absolutely right about continuing series having a harder time finding rerun slots than episodic television. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Cindy Dwyer April 23, 2013 at 5:17 pm

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.

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Hi Cindy,

Very true! The one time I watched a soap was during college, when my roommate one year had it on and tried explaining everything. 🙂

Now I’m like you. My time goes to writing projects and any TV time is a rare event. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc April 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm

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

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Jami Gold April 23, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Hi Tamara,

I think some countries still have soap operas, but I’m not sure if they’re daytime soaps or not. Now we have the prime time soaps like the recently departed Desperate Housewives, etc. Those are similar to daytime soaps, but because of the evening TV season structure, they have more defined arcs.

My mom watched Days of Our Lives in the 70s. (I can still imagine the announcer’s voice at the beginning of that show: “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” LOL!) But I never got into them.

Ooo, great point about being a linear person in general! Yes, I write linearly as well. I’ve written a few scenes out of order–for an unfinished story. Maybe those two facts are related. (Hmm, did I not finish it because I wrote out of order? Could be… 🙂 ) Thanks for the comment!

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Laurie Evans April 23, 2013 at 9:17 pm

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.

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Jami Gold April 24, 2013 at 8:49 am

Hi Laurie,

Up until book 6, I read all the Harry Potter books in one go. Then I listened to the audio books before book 7 came out, just for something different. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 24, 2013 at 9:44 am

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!

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Jami Gold April 24, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Hi Serena,

Novels made up of mini-stories can certainly be successful. (I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard the recent bestseller Wool is like that.) They’re obviously outside the usual novel structure, so unless they break out, they might be less likely to appeal to readers expecting a more traditional plot. However, there have been many breakout novels along those lines throughout the years, so it’s doable. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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JW Troemner April 24, 2013 at 8:42 pm

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.

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Jami Gold April 24, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Hi JW,

Fantastic questions! I don’t have the factual answers, of couse–just my opinion. 🙂

For the popularity and accessibility questions… Women tied to the house watching young kids always yearn for a way to feel connected to other adults. 🙂 TV shows were a logical target for that attention. But of course demographics changed in the 80s, with more women working out of the home. So those viewers either had to time-shift their favorite daytime programs or become an occasional viewer. And once a habit is broken, it’s more work to pick it up again.

One of my readers emailed me about this post, and she had some fabulous insight. (I wish she’d commented here, so everyone could see it. 🙂 ) She was a contract actor on several soaps back in the day, and she said that much of their dialogue in the 70s was exposition to bring viewers up to speed. She pointed out that the writing on soap operas changed greatly during that same timeframe, with the storylines switching from focusing on many women’s issues to becoming more and more “out there.” So writing quality both in general and for accessibility, might have been affected during that period.

Love your point about YA vs. MG too! And you’re absolutely right. Series are very popular in YA, but as you said, they often take the attitude of giving just enough backstory to remind old readers of the “previously on…,” but don’t give enough to catch new readers up to speed. In contrast, MG series are written assuming that no one could possibly have read everything that came before (like soaps–LOL!). Interesting thoughts! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Taurean Watkins April 29, 2013 at 10:49 am

Jami, you said-

“MG series are written assuming that no one could possibly have read everything that came before.”

Well, as an MG writer myself, I take issue with that. Not for the validity, yes that does happen, but NOT all MG writers write series that way, you know.

Sure, for those really open-ended series (Where characters don’t retain what they learn…) you can get away with that and it’s not as big a deal.

But if you’re writing a linear series, where the characters and plot really HAS to go somewhere, and the story reach some kind of ending, that logic of “Assuming that no one could possibly have read everything that came before” just can’t apply and hope to maintain loyal readers, and for new authors especially, loyal readership is almost MORE important/valuable long-term than sales.

Unless new and devoted readers know that’s the deal going in, you will lose or upset readers. Period.

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Jami Gold April 29, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Hi Taurean,

Quite true! I should have thrown an “often” or “sometimes” into that sentence. 🙂

I’ve had a hellacious couple of weeks, and my self-editing of blog posts and comments probably isn’t as good as it should have been. Thanks for pointing that out! 🙂

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Taurean Watkins April 29, 2013 at 5:35 pm

I understand, I’ve been there myself. I’ve FINALLY moved to Wordpress and having a tricky time re-formatting everything.

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Jami Gold April 29, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Hi Taurean,

Yikes–that’s a project! Let me know if you have any WordPress questions. 🙂

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Taurean Watkins April 29, 2013 at 11:11 am

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 stories to shortchange them for the sake of not wanting to “fry their brains” from a technical standpoint.

I’m not saying there’s not risk of taking it too far in the opposite extreme and being too reliant on being a longtime fan, just that we let our fear of that override everything else, and the results leave us with books too afraid to ask readers below YA to invest a little, and I’m not talking about sales here.

Even if a reader doesn’t read all the books in a longer series, they still deserve a fully realized story, and there’s always the argument that some books will click with readers individually more than others, which doesn’t mean they’re more gripping than books before or after it in the series.

Again, Judy Moody is a prime example, as is Ivy and Bean or Clementine in the chapter book realm.

Now that said, the chances (Whether practically or creatively) of writing 100+ books about the same characters is not high for most authors, but while many writers excel at writing to certain formulas, I don’t, and I’m certainly not alone.

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Taurean Watkins April 29, 2013 at 10:26 am

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 movies go, and while I’m likely in the minority since I’m neither a fan nor hater, I think the argument of wearing out one’s welcome is becoming true with “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

From what I can tell, the first two were good, three was hit or miss, and from there it goes downhill, but yet more sequels get made. Does anyone get the pattern here? Maybe you can explain it to me.

As a writer yourself, Jami, you can understand the other side of it, and to me, stopping my enjoyment of those books is letting a publisher who halted the progression of the series “win.”

Granted, it’s far MORE devastating for a movie or television show than a book, because the nature of movies or television inherently complicates matters, and it’s far less likely for series in those mediums to stay alive or get reborn, unless they’re crazy popular to start with, or you’re Seth McFarlane, and for my personal sanity’s sake, I won’t elaborate further…

Plus, if it’s not networks holding back continuation of a series, the actors involved can play a part, if they leave the show for whatever reason, or one dies, and re-casting proved unsuccessful, sometimes the staff decides too much integrity would be lost to warrant continuing.

But at least in those situations, the staff and actors of such a show or film are more often willing to state those as the reasons, rather than just “X studio pink slipped us. End of story” and while the disappointment’s the same, it’s better than feeling like it was solely a matter of money, and contrary to popular belief, there are some things money can’t buy, like the chemistry and passion to make any good movie or program work.

If no one besides the writer(s) believed that, I doubt movies or television in general would’ve survived this long, cheesy stuff aside.

I’m grateful that in selling my first book, all rights will revert back to me if they go out of business, though if I do any follow-up books with the characters in this book (Which I actually plan on doing) they want first peek at it, but I think given where I am now, it’s better than nothing, and I say that out being grateful, Jami.

Jami, I don’t think wanting those clauses for ensuring you finish a series, with or without your current publisher is unreasonable, it’s doing right by your readers and yourself, I think publishers are starting to realize that while they take a certain amount of risk when acquiring books, authors have their own crosses to bear in this regard, too.

Plus, getting on the bad sides of readers too often spells disaster, and I doubt any business wants to be known for intentionally crippling their customers.

As much bad press there is about bratty, intolerable authors, the fact is its a two-way street, and if publishers don’t want to lose their authors entirely to self-publishing (Which is happening in small numbers right now) they need to be careful about dropping books midway in a series or even before, and with all the talk about series being such prime sellers over stand alone books or story collections, it gives off a really mixed message to writers trying to break in.

Yes, some series are better received than others, but all I’m saying is we need more resources for writers to better discern their goals against where it fits in the market.

“Market guides (like the ones put out by Writers Digest) only list the options for writers, not always tips or resources for weighing those options against what they write and where to send it.

While not all of us can afford to self-publish (Even if some of us, including myself, may want to, and for reasons BEYOND creative control or greater profit if successful…) those who are, and I’m only counting quality work, however you define it beyond basic readability, sends a message that authors are no longer the pushovers we used to be.

Until writers sign a contract, we’re under no obligations anymore than they are, and while I understand plans change even in long-term agreements, there should be more humane ways of dealing out these types of decisions. Especially since matters of “exclusivity” have new, and far more dire meanings now, than decades past.

It’s also why I don’t write for magazines, aside from not meeting their strict word counts, I work to hard on my stories to be willing to surrender “All rights.” Since I primarily write fiction, this is a big deal, nonfiction’s not my strength as writer (I do READ it though, okay?!), if I could write nonfiction I wouldn’t mind giving up rights since people always tell me research can be used in numerous new ways, even if that specific article is owned by the magazine it was sold to.

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Jami Gold April 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Hi Taurean,

“try not to be so strict about the practice that you let the practices of business bottom lines denounce what you love, okay?”

Good point! I was a Firefly fan from first run on Fox, back during the constant shuffling of episodes and times due to baseball games. (Hmm, that experience probably didn’t help my baseball aversion. 😉 ) So I definitely understand what you mean about not letting yourself miss out on some good stuff simply because of a “rule.” 🙂

I also understand what you mean about circumstances being out of anyone’s hands and whatnot. I hope publishers are realizing that authors take on risk with signing a contract as well, and as you said, I hope that makes them more amenable to changes.

Like you, I’d love to see more unbiased or widely surveyed information about the pros and cons of different options. So much of the information out there is anecdotal, which is helpful, but not indicative of how our situation will play out. Thanks for the comment!

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Reece City September 28, 2013 at 12:36 pm

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 more.

In that regard reading what you had to say about that was discouraging but I plan to keep angling to find a way that works for me. I did print it out to keep in mind for the future. Thanks for the post.

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Jami Gold September 28, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Hi Reece,

Oh interesting! It sounds like what you’re trying to do (purposely writing in the style of a soap opera) is different from what most novels try to do. If your goal is different from the goals of most novelists, then you get to make up the rules that will get you to your goal. 🙂

Also, as the post mentioned, being in media res isn’t bad. We writers usually want to start that way. The question is whether we include enough to ground the reader or leave them confused.

Some soap operas might have better writers than others and prevent that confusion aspect. I haven’t studied them, so you might be on to something that Guiding Light avoids that issue by having better writing. Maybe their writers (or directors or actors) insert a line or a look that communicates enough about the characters for viewers to care about them.

In other words, don’t let this post discourage you from your project. It generalizes, and that means that not all of it applies to all situations. Take what GL did right–what worked for you–and make it work in your writing. 🙂

In other words, a “rule” is only as good as it helps make things better. If your writing works, then there’s nothing “wrong” with that. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Reece City September 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm

From your message I think you understand more about what I’m trying to do than I am. As someone who’s just hit this revelation this week I don’t really have a clear understanding of it; I just know good writing when I come in contact with it so when I came across GL and became entralled with that dramatic soap opera style of writing that I came in contact with in medias res, what I’d never stopped to think of is that that style of writing is in fact different from what most novelists try to do, and I’m basically making up my own rules, as you say.

I’ll definitely file your message away and mull over what you wrote to me because if my developing writing style is different from the standard as you’ve implied here then there’s a lot to be said about making your own rules but since I’ve just hit my revelation I’ve been doing research to fuel it I hadn’t stopped to think about it. But I think you’ve helped me with something; everything you’ve posted on this has been helpful to me. Thank you for messaging me back.

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Jami Gold September 28, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Hi Reece,

LOL! Well, as I said, most novelists do, in fact, want to write in media res. Meaning, we don’t want to start off with a bunch of backstory, or an information dump, or a tell-y prologue.

However, some writers take that too far, thinking that starting in the middle of a fight scene must be the way to go. A few writers would be able to start in the middle of a fight scene and make it work because they’ve learned how to weave internalization and narrative information (explaining the situation and adding that “care about” aspect) with the scene’s action and dialogue.

The problem comes that too many writers who take that approach haven’t learning that weaving technique yet. So their the first couple of pages are the equivalent of a comic book “Boom. Pow. Wham.”–meaningless action without context.

Visually–like movies or TV–a scene like that might work because we can see the characters, their clothes, the surroundings, their body language, the setting, the subtext between them. Lighting and music can add to the tense mood, etc. We might be interested simply because the fight choreography is good or because the actor is good-looking.

Books don’t have any of that. Readers don’t know about the body language, setting, or any subtext in the scene unless the author has managed to layer those in. There’s no dramatic lighting or fight choreography beyond what the author manages to explain. And there’s no soundtrack no matter what. 🙂

The same goes for any kind of written scenes, but action scenes are particularly prone to the problem because the author thinks the tension comes from the action, and that’s not true. The tension comes from knowing what the character’s goal is and knowing the stakes (consequences) if they don’t reach it.

In other words, the problem isn’t with in media res–which is far preferred to backstory–but with scenes where the other elements aren’t woven into the narrative. You might find my post about first pages helpful for finding that line. Also, read a lot in your genre. See how those authors do it–what techniques work for you and what don’t.

I think what really appealed to you about Guiding Light was how we can care about a character so quickly, and that’s a great goal. Study books that succeed with that, or search for articles on creating likable characters.

I hope that helps! 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Reece City October 2, 2013 at 4:44 pm

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 mean all of that visually—actors, their clothes, their surroundings, their body language, setting, choreography, music, intense lighting- with sensory details that can all be written as well, it was written; before it was a soap opera it was originally a script, before I saw all that was it just words on paper.

The fact that a writer could write a script of something as dramatic and intense as emotional as a soap opera like GL, I can write a story or a book with that dramatic soap opera style of writing with just as much substance as the real thing. Because I was inspired by the way Guiding Light was written I know that it can be done. I don’t know if this is more of the same of what I’ve written to you before but I do feel that everything you’ve posted about it has helped me immensely. Thank you.

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Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Hi Reece,

I’m happy to help! You might like a post I did about a month ago: Writing Rule #1: There Is No “One Right Way.” 🙂

It’s easy to doubt ourselves, but you want to hang on to what makes you passionate about writing too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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