A few thoughts on soap opera writing

As I mentioned previously, writing a soap opera, or writing for a soap opera, is something I have given a lot of thought to. It is definitely on my list of different writing genres, or forms, that I need to try.

As I also mentioned in the aforementioned post, I feel like I am getting a lot of experience out of my play writing class with dialogue, something that is so immensely important to soap opera writing.

Recently, I have been staying up at night later than normal for some reason. Sometimes, I’m watching my soaps (The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful) while the fiance is sleeping, and so I’ve taken to using the word captions in conjunction with having the sound way down.

Without meaning to, I stumbled upon a perfect way to study soap opera writing: by reading the captions. It is truly fascinating to watch how much emotion the actors put into their lines, that, when are simply read, or viewed as literal words, initially seem so flat and dull. It is amazing how the actors can read their lines and know how to couple them with hand gestures, eye rolling, pacing around the room, etc.

Indeed, as I’m learning in my play writing class, a lot of writing for actors involves letting go of things we the writer have no control over; directors often ignore stage directions, apparently, for example. A significant aspect of writing lines that people will say out loud is allowing the actors and the director to do what they will with what you have given them.

In studying and thinking about soap opera writing, there are two thoughts I would like to delve into here, and the first one is an observation made by a guy friend of mine from college.

A couple of my guys friends over the years (God bless them) have been willing to watch my soaps with me, and one of them one time said, “You know, there are almost never more than two characters in a scene at a time in a soap opera. When the the third person shows up, it’s all awkward, and everyone is like, ‘oooh, the third person is here.'”

I never forgot that description, and it still makes me laugh today. How well most of us can picture this scenario: Two soap characters are in the heat of the moment, probably in a big argument, and a third person appears somewhere in the background, listening in for a moment before making their presence known – if they even decide to do so at all.

This brings me to my second soap opera writing observation: I really enjoy and appreciate it when a character is intentionally devious and manipulative in order to get what they want – and I will explain why.

It happens all too often in soap operas where someone just happens to overhear a conversation they should not, or just happens to walk into the restaurant at the moment their spouse is having dinner with their ex, or someone in some way just happens to be at the right place at the right time. (Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it.)

Because those type of coincidences happen so often on soaps, I really appreciate it when a character actively goes after what they want, instead of waiting to be at the right spot at the right time.

I am going to use a recent The Bold and the Beautiful story line as an example so – SPOILER ALERT – if you just happen to be a die hard fan who has missed the past week or so and needs to catch up. Read no further, friend.

If you’re still with me: Taylor’s long time rival, Brooke, got pregnant by her sister’s husband and then had a miscarriage. Through keeping her eyes open and succumbing to her underlying suspicions of Brooke that are always there, Taylor discovers that something is up, but she doesn’t know what. After she finds out what it is, she dramatically outs Brooke at a family gathering, letting everyone in the whole world know about the affair and the pregnancy.

Now, instead of the writers having her accidentally overhearing something, Taylor finds out this information by going to Brooke’s doctor’s office and snooping through her records – this is an especially exciting moment of giving into this type of behavior, because Taylor herself is a doctor, and therefore risks losing her license for illegally obtaining this confidential information.

The writers knew that Taylor had to find out Brooke’s secret, and the show had been building up to this for quite some time. The dramatic scene at the party when the secret is revealed is amazing, in no short part to the terrific acting.

I just want to go ahead and give major props to the B&B writers for deciding to have Taylor snoop through the doctor’s office instead of coming about the information coincidentally. Because, again, that happens all too often in soaps. Plus, active characters who take action and go after what they want are much more interesting than passive ones who sit around waiting for things to happen to them.

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