Thursday, March 7, 2013

Five Things Soaps Can Teach You About Writing

As a lifelong TV junkie and erstwhile entertainment journalist, I’ve often joked I have the “superpower” of being able to sense where a story is going. (Friends have tested this theory. Exhibit A: the pilot for The LA Complex.) That’s because even when a show is throwing in every twist imaginable, crafting unreliable narrators and casting new roles, there is a narrative flow. It’s called a story arc for a reason. There are always clues and flags—and subtle signs that sometimes even a writer doesn’t pick up on—which hint at the trajectory of a given plot. And, often, a regular soap opera viewer (or regular reader!) is eagle-eyed when it comes to spotting missteps and deviations from the natural direction. Most of what I've learned about writing a riveting tale, or enjoying one as a consumer, I gleaned from being addicted to daytime soaps!

Five Things Soaps Can Teach You About Writing

1. Any seasoned serial drama fan can tell you what newbie has been brought on as a love interest for what veteran from the get-go…and they’re often a divining rod for untapped wells of potential as well. Whether it’s a meet-cute, a sparring match or a series of scenes where characters share the same space and the vibe is crackling, obvious pairing is obvious. That goes for storylines in general, too. Every story has a logical progression—even a thriller or a murder mystery. And if it’s working, stick with it. Don’t drop it or change it because you got bored or think you’re being edgy. Because that will show. It will feel forced. Don’t cheat your viewer or your reader out of being right for the sake of pulling an ineffective “gotcha!”

2. Further to No. 1, every story has a pace and specific beats. Even if you don’t know precisely how it’s all going to play out, mark out your high points and your peaks. A chapter-ending cliffhanger, a good exit line, a fight, a love scene…they all have a natural place within an arc. Don’t blow something in Act One if you really should save it for Act Three.

GH's 2007 Metro Court Crisis held characters AND viewers hostage.
3. Big “stunt” story points only work if you involve characters your audience cares about and integrate them organically. Many a February or November sweeps tragedy has belly-flopped into the shallow end because a writing team forgot that simple rule, and the same goes for written fiction. For a good example of disaster as an effective device, look at Jill Sorenson’s recent HQN release Aftershock, which takes place in the wake of an earthquake, or James Cameron’s Titanic. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Jack and Rose’s epic love story plus the plight of everyone in steerage, paired with the horrific visuals of the luxury liner’s dismantling, parked many a butt in a movie theater seat.

4. Even if common sense dictates that angst drives story and break ups are dramatic bread and butter, don’t underestimate the power of a strong, happy couple conquering adversity together. Writers since the beginning of time have insisted splitting up a “supercouple” is the only way to keep them fresh, but all loyal viewers want is unity—and you might just lose them if you keep pulling the rug out from underneath them. Internal conflict doesn’t have to lead to permanent rifts, and external conflicts can serve to bring a pair closer instead of driving them apart.

Tabitha saved Passions in more ways than one.
5. Do not be afraid to embrace the crazy if it’s jumping up and down in front of you going, “Pick me! Pick me!” Do not hesitate to use every trick in your bag, to pull the trigger on your biggest gun and to run full tilt at what’s coming. Passions and Port Charles were at their best when they turned the supernatural camp up to 11. Anders Hove’s most recent turn as General Hospital’s ubervillain Cesar Faison was excellent because he chewed the scenery like a rabid woodchuck, and Roger Howarth’s Todd has a manic joie de vie that makes every single onscreen interaction of his a joy to watch. Go big or go home. 

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