Have you ever watched soap operas? Come on, admit it. I won’t make fun of you. The only soap opera I’ve watched, so named because they were sponsored by cleaning products in the beginning, has been Days of Our Lives. It has been on the air for 47 years. Some of the actors have been on the show for what seems like since the beginning, but they haven’t aged a bit. I grew up with my mom, my grandmother, and my aunts watching the show. Before I was really old enough to realize what it was, when they talked about Marlena or Alice Horton, I wondered, who are these people? Do we have other family members of whom I’m unaware? What amazes me about Days of Our Lives is I can miss it for days, months, or even years (my husband watches it in December when he’s on his vacation he has to use or lose) and I can pick it right back up. Within fifteen or twenty minutes, I’m up to speed with what is happening. I admit to still putting Days of Our Lives on my TV. I can’t say that I really watch it closely because I’m usually doing something else like eating lunch or working. But it’s on and I’m listening. As cheesy as soap operas can be, if you are a fiction writer or even a storyteller, you can gleam some practical advice from them.
For a soap opera or story to be good, it needs to contain compelling characters. First, it helps if they have catchy names like Jack Deveroux or Stefano Dimera. Like in soap operas, these names will help your readers or listeners stay engaged in the story as they go along. Second, although it is good to make them lean one way or another, you don’t want to make them angels or devils. Every character has a set of redeeming qualities and a set of flaws. So even if the character is hated, there must be something about them with which your readers can sympathize. People are hopeful so they want to keep reading, watching, or listening to see if the characters will ever change. Will they ever realize the error of their ways and become better people? And in soap operas, sometimes they do. But, eventually, they cycle back closer to evil because being deviant and dishonest are who they are in their cores. Granted, soap operas can take this concept to the extreme. For awhile they’ll have a couple of characters who hate each other, do terrible things to each other, and even try to kill the other (or they do kill the other but they come back to life), but then they make up and they don’t care that this other person tried to murder them once.
Another element of soap operas that can help someone to write fiction is the abundance of problems. Soap opera characters just can’t seem to catch a break. Finally, someone will end up with her soul mate, the person you know she belongs with and they are finally walking down the aisle to get married when someone bursts in to reveal some deep, dark secret that derails the whole thing. A lot of times, the character will solve his problem, but then you realize either it wasn’t really solved at all or solving the problem created a whole set of new problems. This is just what you want in fiction books. In order for the story to move forward and be interesting, the characters need to have problems. Who wants to read a murder mystery where the detective immediately finds the murder weapon, figures out who it belongs to, and is accurate about the assailant? Boring! If it happened this way, either the story would be over in three paragraphs or readers would snap the book shut. Another key element about problems in soap operas is they are almost always a result of the characters’ own decisions. They lie about things they don’t need to lie about and you know if they’d just speak up, everything would be fine. But they don’t. In fiction writing, you want your characters to learn something or change throughout the story; to make better choices. So how do they learn how to make better choices? They need to make a bad choice first.
Finally, soap operas are great at leaving cliff-hangers. If you want to get the essence out of a soap opera, you could really just watch the last ten minutes on Friday and the first ten on Monday. The cliff-hangers are devised to keep you coming back for more. From day-to-day, they leave small cliff-hangers but on Friday, they leave a big cliff-hanger because instead of holding your attention over night, they have to hold it for a whole weekend. Cliff-hangers in soap operas are never-ending because the soap operas are never-ending. In novels, you want to leave cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter except for the final one. You always want to leave the chapter on a question or an unknown so readers will keep turning pages. So they will lie in bed at night, finish a chapter on a great cliff-hanger, glance at the next chapter and seeing it is only a few pages, they’ll dive ahead. Pretty soon, it is three a.m. and they are still engrossed in the book.
Writing lessons can sometimes be found in what first may appear to be unusual places. Of course, soap operas are written by writers so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise to find an author or storyteller can take valuable lessons from them. But as negative as the soap opera image is as a tawdry, low-quality, time-waster enjoyed by stay-at-home moms folding laundry, there are reasons they last so long. It’s because they have compelling characters who have a ton of high stakes, big, important problems and they leave cliff-hangers that constantly pull people back in for more. So if you ever have a notion to write a novel or the opportunity to tell a story, keep soap operas in mind and let them instruct you.
About Jodie A. Toohey
I am the owner/operator of a professional writing and editing company, Wordsy Woman Word Sales and Service. My poetry book, “Crush and Other Love Poems for Girls,” was published in 2008 and my next poetry collection, “Other Side of Crazy,” is planned for release by 918studio in September, 2013. My novel, “Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters,” about two teen girls, one in the United States and the other in Croatia, who deal with their own turmoil, one of depression and the other of civil war, by writing letters to each other in the early 1990s was released in late 2012. I also volunteer for the Midwest Writing Center, including teaching a creative writing workshop in a partnership between it and the Center for Active Seniors, Inc. and am working to earn my MBA.