What Soap Opera Taught Me About Writing

Author Alverne Ball has a post on the Writer’s Digest website in which he describes what he learned about the craft of writing from watching soap operas when he was a child.

Alverne Ball is the author of the crime fiction novels Blue Religion aHe is also the writer of a bestselling graphic novels and the forthcoming, multi-issue comic series, Crook County. Alverne is the 2019 Tin House graphic narrative scholar and the recipient of 2014 and 2015 Glyph Comics Rising Star Awards. Alverne earned his MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College.

Alverne Ball
Alverne Ball

I have provided excerpts from his post below:

“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 were my gateway into worlds far removed from my own.

“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.

Plot

“In every story there is a plot. But no plot is more evident than in a soap opera. 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 vigilantes could easily be the same, and yet the plots behind their stories were told in two different mediums and in two different genres.

Characters

“Whether hero or villain or somewhere in between, a good character is the other half of what drives a story forward. Characters are the backbone, the make-or-break of any story. 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. 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, I understand the affairs of the heart that afflict him and deep down, even though he’s the villain, I’m rooting for him. Think about your own work—where can you add more duality to 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 internal thoughts. By using the “dream” technique, information about the character’s past is given 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 the character’s background or past.

Pacing

“Soap operas are a great avenue for studying pacing because the writers have to conmvey 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 display as to how every word matters.

“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.

Cliffhangers

“A cliffhanger is what 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 the baby. Or that a character was portraying him/herself to be a person that works in the medical field 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.

“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.”

While I agree in principle with Mr Ball’s points and that each of them can be applicable in literary fiction, there may be subtleties at work which affect the technique and the extent to which, for example, a cliffhanger can be applied.

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