Saturday, October 22, 2011

5 Things Writers Can Learn From Soap Operas (I'm serious)

I grew up watching soap operas. I am not ashamed to say that my mother and I spent weekends catching up on our soaps with our handy DVR for many years. I think I began watching them around the age of 8, a fact to which my mother always responds, "what was I thinking?" due to their adult story-lines. Nevertheless, I grew up with the characters of Marlena Evans and Erica Kane, super-couples like Bo and Hope and Tad and Dixie and super-villains like Stefano Dimera and David Hayward. If you haven't guessed, mom was big on Days Of Our Lives and All My Children. She also dabbled in Young and the Restless for years and later in my life, OK the age of about 15, she introduced me to One Life to Live where I learned to love the Cramer women and the Buchanans. I was one of the people sad to hear All My Children and One Life to Live were cancelled because they were a part of my childhood. Yes, some story-lines were predictable but you try being on the air for over forty years and then you try to be constantly original. As a result of their cancellation, my mom refuses to watch "The Chew," which now has All My Children's time slot...she also mentioned something about the first episode having appalling looking food but hey it's a matter of principle mostly. I haven't watched "The Chew" and I don't plan on it. All My Children ended in September and One Life to Live will follow after the New Year. Mom has now resumed her watching of Days of Our Lives in hopes that they won't be the next to go. Soap operas are becoming extinct and that's a shame for a genre that began in radio. So, in honor of my beloved lost soaps, I present a super awesome list that I not-so-cleverly have titled: 5 Things Writers Can Learn From Soap Operas (in no particular order). Yeah, I'd say things Soap Opera has taught us in life but the values really don't apply. Enjoy!

1. A Sister Can Be Your Best Friend or Your Worst Enemy...and that can all change at the drop of a hat!

Let's examine a few famous soap sisters. My favorite example? Sami and Carrie on Days of Our Lives. Those two have been duking it out for YEARS! What started it? A man, of course. Sami and Carrie both wanted Austin's love and, even though Austin loved Carrie, that didn't mean Sami was going to give up. No, that girl drugged Austin, slept with him in said drugged state, and then pretended she was pregnant with his baby (the baby was actually Austin's brother's kid...yeah, try to keep THAT one straight). Sami eventually married Austin because he felt guilty about the baby but when her lies were revealed, as they always are (see number 4) he left. Much later, Austin finally ended up with Carrie and Carrie and Sami even had a few moments of semi-closeness. 

Sami (Alison Sweeney) and Carrie (Christie Clark)

Another good example? Bianca and Kendall on All My Children. Kendall came to town as the "bastard" daughter of Erica Kane although more accurately she was the offspring from a rape that was given up for adoption. Either way, Kendall was never good enough in Erica's eyes, or her own eyes, and she envied "perfect" daughter Bianca. She even locked Bianca in a crypt once (talk about family feuds!) Years passed and the sisters bonded, and so did the mother and daughter, and they became "the Kane women," a family you didn't want to mess with. The sisters even reunited after a rather large fight between Kendall and Bianca after Bianca, a lesbian, failed to tell Kendall that she became pregnant with her second daughter via Kendall's husband's sperm...that's quite a detail to leave out and probably should have been discussed before the baby was conceived. Despite this, the sisters got close again. What does this prove? Read above, a sister can be your best friend or your worst enemy! Writers can look at these situations and learn that they can write the family dynamic many ways and build the story strong so that the families can repair themselves in the end.

Bianca and Kendall (Bianca was later played by 
Christina Bennett Lind but Eden Riegel will always be Bianca to me)

2. Secrets and Lies Must Always Be Revealed!

Now, every person has their secrets so why shouldn't characters be the same? An author may choose to keep that secret until the very end of the story but all important secrets/lies must be revealed! Why? It's simple really, a secret/lie wouldn't matter if it didn't need to be hidden. One huge secret that was just revealed on One Life to Live was that the Todd Manning audiences had watched for years was not really the real Todd Manning. This wasn't a shock for all people because Roger Howarth played Todd until 2003 when the role was recast with Trevor St. John and viewers knew if Howarth ever returned that it was likely St. John would be out of a job no matter how well he did in the role. In an odd occurrence for soaps, One Life to Live actually acknowledge the difference in the character's appearance by stating Todd had plastic surgery to trick his wife Blair into loving him again by pretending to be a different person (yup, that's how they do it on soaps). This secret was kept for 8 years, a long time even for soap standards. It wasn't revealed that Todd wasn't Todd (try to keep up) until this year when Howarth returned to the show. The real Todd Manning was being locked away and the new Todd was his twin brother, Victor Lord Jr. and Victor had been raised and conditioned to believe he was Todd so that he could take over his life. Don't worry if you have trouble keeping up, so do I and I watch the soap. Either way, all lies must come to an end and this can takes years in a soap world. The important part to remember: there is no point for a secret/lie if you don't reveal it! So writers, you can set up a lie or a secret and you can make it last for an entire story but it means squat if you don't have some sort of revelation.

Todd #1 (Roger Howarth) and Todd #2 (Trevor St. John)

3. Paternity Tests Mean NOTHING

If your character is rich enough or smart enough, even a scientific thing like a paternity test can be altered. Paternity tests are literally changed ALL the time on soaps (remember Sami from before?). A big one recently was on One Life to Live when wealthy Clint Buchanan paid his lackey to switch his daughter Jessica's paternity test so that her fiance Brody would be the father and not Ford, the loser she slept with when she was having a lapse with her D.I.D (dissociative identity disorder). However, the lackey was dumb and didn't realize that TWO of Clint's daughters were pregnant and switched Natalie's paternity test so that she it appeared she was pregnant with Brody's baby, yes she slept with him, instead of John's. In this case, the rich and powerful character, Clint, made a real mess of his daughter's lives while trying to protect them but it proves the point, if they have the means your characters can fake the paternity and making a compelling story.

Rich Man Clint (Jerry verDorn) and his daughters Jessica (Bree Williamson)
and Natalie (Melissa Archer)

4. True Love Always Finds a Way (often multiple times)

Soaps are notorious for pissing off their fans by breaking up their favorite couples. Don't even get me started on All My Children's Zach and Kendall and One Life to Live's John and Natalie. Soap couples have to be the most tormented couples in all of writing simply because, unless the show is cancelled, the audience has to be kept on their toes. I don't know how many times I have yelled at the TV because once again my favorite couple has been separated by lies, affairs and even death. Of course these shows have tried the characters with other people. Kendall was with Ryan at one point and Griffin at another but she always made it back to Zach. Zach was presumed dead but he made it back to Kendall so that they could leave, presumably happily ever after, when the show ended. Natalie and John broke up years ago and John was with Blair, then Marty and Natalie married Jared but nobody ever forgot about this couple. They made it back to each other for a short time until the whole baby fiasco but no matter what is thrown at them, they will always make it back to each other (and they better be back together when the show ends!) So, writers, make your fans happy and put the lovers together. You can make them suffer and torture them all you want but you have to give your fans some happiness. Now, I won't say ALL stories end with the lovers together but I can say that a lot do and fans always want them to if the love stories are written well.

Kendall and Zach (Thorsten Kaye)

Natalie and John (Michael Easton)

5. Better double-check that coffin, Villains can always come back from the dead.

OK, so it helps if the villain originally had an open-ended death. You know, like his car went careening off a cliff or there was an explosion but nobody can find a body. Heck, if the villain is Stefano Dimera, they can still find a charred body, identify it as the villain and still explain that away later. Hey, that don't call him the Phoenix for nothing folks. On the other hand, good characters can come back from the dead too. All My Children's Dixie has 'died' multiple times, been impersonated and come back from the dead. Once she even died from tainted pancakes...yup, reread that, tainted pancakes. The character even appeared to family members as a ghost, especially to her soul mate Tad, yet she managed to come back to life. However,  people are happy when the good characters come back, not so much when someone like Stefano Dimera comes back. It's heart-warming when people like Dixie come back, it's worrisome when evil comes back. So writers, remember these tricks and you too can make the worst of villains come back to torment until they are successfully killed, and you can always give fans a little happiness by resurrecting the character they loved.

Days of Our Live's Stefan Dimera (Joseph Mascolo)

All My Children's Dixie (Cady McClain)

So here's to the soaps we have loved and lost and to the ones we still have to comfort us. I know lots of people like to laugh at this genre but if you look at the basics, these shows showcase the most important parts of stories, they just repeat them since they are on 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year. You have to give them credit for lasting so long! And yes, I know there are other soaps than these three but these are my favorites and I wish I could list more characters but if I did this blog could go on forever, just like a soap was meant to!

1 comment:

  1. I freaking love Sami! I didn't watch many soaps growing up but I was addicted to Days of Our Lives couple years.