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5 Things I Learned About Writing From Watching Soap Operas

Lessons in writing can come from various forms of art or entertainment. Author Alverne Ball shares 5 things he learned about writing from watching soap operas.

The power of a good story transcends genre and medium—at least that’s what I’ve come to believe. But as a young boy who didn’t know much about genre, medium, or even the basics of storytelling, I found that my first brush with a good story and how to tell one occurred every day on my grandmother’s couch watching daytime soap operas, or “stories” as we called them in my household. These soap operas, AKA telenovelas, were my gateway into worlds far removed from my own. But they were also instructional videos per se that got updated five times a week, and each day one could learn a new technique about writing and how to structure a story.

As a comic book writer, screenwriter, and author, people often ask me, “Did you know you always wanted to write?” To some degree I did, but the first time I realized that it was soap operas that gave me that power to write was when I started to script my first comic book. (There, I said it.) After writing the comic, I came to understand that the format I had used—and would later use to write two crime fiction novels, several graphic novels, additional comics, and comics series, screenplays for a South African telenovela, and a South African fantasy series—would all lead me back to one thing: the almighty soap opera.

With that in mind, here are five important basics of storytelling I learned from watching those soap operas that translate to just about any type of medium in which you want to create.

5 Things I Learned About Writing From Watching Soap Operas

Plot

In every story there is a plot. But no plot is more evident than in a soap opera. Plots are one half of the greater equation that drives the story in a soap opera. As viewers we can learn to discern a particular plotline in a story by understanding what the purpose of said plot does, not only to the story of the day, but to the overall story of the series.

For instance, I remember this one plot from Days of our Lives where there was a vigilante called The Pacifier who was catching bad guys in the town of Salem. Years later I’d come across a comic book called The Punisher in which a vigilante was killing bad guys in New York City.

The two parallels for their need to be vigilantes could easily be the same, and yet the plots behind their stories were told in two different mediums and in two different genres. Still, both plotlines would allow for the overall stories to shape their characters for many years to come.

Whenever I start to write, I think about those two plotlines and the characters within them, and how similar their outcomes to becoming vigilantes were—but I also consider the differences in their lives and what propelled each of them down that road. I try to take that same approach to my own characters and think about the similarities, but also the differences that could make one character a villain and the other the hero. What I find when I do this is that there is a thin line between the two, and that the complexity of a character can always be found by exploring who or what they want to be in this world.

And that leads us to the next storytelling element I learned from watching soap operas.

Characters

Whether hero or villain or somewhere in between, a good character is the other half of that equation that drives a story forward. Characters are the backbone, the make-or-break of any story, and thus are essential to a viewer or a reader.

Characters are the reflection of ourselves, our society, and a clear look into our humanity. Through characters we bond and learn more about our world and how we see ourselves in it.

Soap operas have a plethora of characters who can change on a daily basis based on their needs, wants, aspirations, etc. But one thing that is consistent in these characters is that they are complex, just like any individual.

Take for example, the villain Stefano DiMera from Days of our Lives. Some may say (myself included) that DiMera is one of the best and most unforgettable villains in all of villainy history. I mean, he’s the Darth Vader of soap opera villainy, and yet, when we learn of Stefano’s love for his children and his complete obsession/love for Marlena, a woman he can never seem to have, as a viewer I understand the affairs of the heart that afflict him and deep down, even though he’s the villain, I’m rooting for him.

Why?

Because he’s complex. He has his reasons and though I may not agree with all of them, what man or woman cannot love a villain who risks it all to ensure his children are happy and well taken care of?

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The other side of that coin would be the hero character who is unwavering in his pursuit of justice. Robert Scorpio from the soap opera General Hospital is such a character. As a cop and father, Scorpio is always looking primarily to protect the community of Port Charles, and by extension, the citizens of the world. He has put his life on the line and even strained his relationship with his daughter (hey, even heroes have to have a flaw or two) in order to save the world from contagious diseases, organized crime, and the likes of megalomaniacal madmen. He is the personification of the good in humanity.

Such complex bravado in characters is the same thing I look to bring to the page as a writer. When readers ask me about the relationship between my series detective, Frank Calhoun, and his upstairs neighbor, Gloria, and if they’ll ever get together while he deals with the fact that his father, a former police officer, is in jail? I know then that I’ve done my job of making Frank as complex as I can and showcasing that complexity on the page in a way that makes readers want to root for him even at times when he may come off as a jerk—especially in Gloria’s eyes. Think about your own work—where can you add more duality for your protagonists and antagonists?

Tropes, Techniques, and Devices

Like any good story, soap operas employ a number of storytelling techniques that may go over a casual viewer’s head, but are part of a writer’s literary arsenal. For example, most viewers of soap operas understand the clichéd trope of “the character with amnesia.” But from a writer’s perspective this technique might be utilized to incorporate a dream telling, in which the writer conveys the character’s fears, hopes, or a number of internal thoughts.

Case in point, in the graphic novel, Virgin Wolf: Birth of a Hunter, readers learn through a dream sequence of suppressed memories, AKA amnesia, that the supporting character/mentor, Hania, was there at the beginning when the first werewolf was born, and that he played a major part in that birth, more than what readers had known up to that point. This revelation puts the mentor at odds with the protagonist and we suddenly understand that his ambitions are slightly different from our heroine’s goals.

By using the “dream” technique, a ton of information about the mentor’s past is disseminated to the reader without having to explore that past, especially if it is not in service of the story.

The same could be said of the “return from the dead” character in any soap opera, in which a character is reintroduced to the viewer as a way of also introducing a new storyline. But from the writer’s perspective, this trope could also be used in a similar way to introduce a new character to a story without diving into said character’s background or past.

In my first crime novel, Only the Holy Remain, the deceased character Blue is introduced a few times throughout the book, but never once does the reader get a glimpse into his background. His mere existence is enough to help propel the story forward, but the reader doesn’t need background information about Blue since they know from the get-go that nothing about him is going to change—he’s already dead when the story starts.

Storytelling devices or techniques are the mainstay of any writer’s palette, but it always comes down to how a writer uses those devices to move the story forward, which takes us to pacing.

Ball 2, 10:16

Pacing

Pacing is a quality of storytelling that I, myself, have to grapple with in different ways because the genre can dictate the pacing of a story. Soap operas are a great avenue for studying pacing because the writers have to disseminate so much information in a short period of time. That means Mark Twain’s commonly used phrase, “Don't use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do ” is on complete display in regards to pacing and how every word matters.

As writers we must also take this idea of pacing, of making sure that every word that matters on the page drives the story forward, instead of allowing it to rest and lose steam.

The stories in soap operas never lose steam, they are always pushing forward toward the climax and they are always hitting the beats of their A, B, or C plots. These intertwined storylines are usually an amalgamation of a character’s ambitions, fears, and external obstacles.

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No matter what the form of storytelling, most prose writers are juggling multiple plotlines. But how can you tell if your plotting is balanced with your pacing?

One good way to measure one’s pacing is to watch a scene from a soap opera and write down everything that you learn in that one scene. Now read a scene from your own work and write or underline everything you learn about that character in that scene. Compare the notes from the soap opera to the one from your own prose.

Do the things you learn from that one scene in your prose further push the plot of your story forward like in the soap opera? If it’s stagnant, what can you shift to make it more active?

Cliffhangers

A cliffhanger is that thing that keeps you hanging on and coming back for more. I learned the art of a good cliffhanger from shows like Days of our Lives, All My Children, and General Hospital. Each one of these shows would reveal something about a character, such as one character believing that her baby had died only to find out that someone had stolen said baby. Or that a character was portraying him/herself to be a person that works in the medical field only so that they could sneak into the hospital to poison or kill another character. The list can go on, but the understanding of what makes a good cliffhanger is evident: Leave them wanting more.

Soap opera episodes are inherently written with at least one cliffhanger in mind because the writers know that they must entice viewers to return the following day, and the day after that, to keep finding out what happens next.

As a writer you also have this ability to make readers come back for more. What, don’t believe me? Well, here’s a tip on how to do just that.

Imagine you’ve just written your last chapter to a story and as you sit there, you ask yourself a simple question, “What big secret do I want the reader to know but I can’t tell them; instead, I have to show them?”

This question will almost always lead you to that cliffhanger moment of revealing that truth—and at that point, you can decide where you need to introduce it and how you’ll parse out the details so as to keep your reader interested but not end the story you’re trying to tell too soon.

When I was writing my first crime novel, one of the truths I wanted the audience to know was that Frank’s father was incarcerated, but I didn’t know why or for what reason and this kept the story stagnant.

Once I figured out the “real truth” of what motivated the main character (Frank) to want to solve this mystery and the external/internal obstacles he had to overcome to achieve his goal, the cliffhanger revealed itself. I introduced it in chapter two, and it pushed the story—and the reader—forward to the very end.

So, there you have it—a beginning list of things that soap operas can teach you about writing. I challenge you to go watch one and see what else you can learn about storytelling from one of the oldest contemporary forms of entertainment. Oh yeah, and if you still have your grandma in your life, take some time on her couch and watch one or two episodes with her. You may just pick up on the best dialogue and character interaction you’ll ever get to hear and witness first-hand.

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