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?Pin It