By: Laura Huie
Whether it be the traditional and long-running Days of Our Lives soap opera or a parody of the genre’s classic tropes like in Soap—the power of a good story can often transcend genre or medium. Soap operas are often underestimated when there are so many streaming television shows and mini-series flying across our screens every day. However, these episodic, heightened narratives with long-form plotlines and interwoven character arcs have stood the test of time for good reason—it’s pure entertainment.
With a healthy dose of melodrama, cliffhangers, and unexpected calamities, the theatrical soap opera often follows a tight formula. And what’s even better is when writers turn these guidelines on their heads to create a story that defies conventions while still operating as a soap. Read on for three essential tips for those who are looking to write captivating soap opera television.
Tip #1: Polish Your Plot
The plot is crucial for any writing project, but when building your ideal soap opera, the plot is everything. When you’re thinking of the traditional soap, storylines typically revolve around hyperbolic conflicts such as adultery, divorce, theft, secret siblings, and the list goes on. You can also usually expect significant plot points and confrontations to happen at weddings, funerals, family gatherings, and other major life events in which the cast of colorful characters can all come together.
And in any television soap, there are likely at least three stories running concurrently, although they don’t have to be interconnected. These plotlines are generally drawn out over several episodes before reaching an overarching conclusion. The result? Characters are challenged with bigger and more dire crises. The most effective soap operas are packed with plotlines that make you want to tune in for the most ridiculous yet satisfying squabbles and feuds.
For example, millions of U.K. viewers regularly sat down to watch EastEnders, a popular soap about the struggles of working-class families in London’s East End. When landlord Den Watts served divorce papers to Angie, his alcoholic wife—it became a British television phenomenon, still talked about to this day, despite the ubiquity of the actual subject matter. This just goes to show that major climaxes in your series don’t always have to go above and beyond for viewers to tune in. They just have to be emotional and entertaining.
On the other hand, Desperate Housewives in the U.S. follows the lives of a group of beautiful women as seen from the perspective of their dead neighbor. But what they have to deal with is not as quiet as their suburban neighborhood seems. Instead, plotlines surround murder, mystery, and adulterous liaisons, which threaten to impede their daily lives.
Tip #2: Keep Your Characters Close…and Their Enemies Closer
The other key component that will guide your plot (and vice versa) is character. Your characters provide the backbone to your story, they will drive your plot forward and are essential for viewers to keep coming back.
As with any story, your characters need flaws—even the heroes. Characters are a reflection of us, and perfection is something that just doesn’t exist. Create characters that your audience can connect with on an emotional and human level. Whether protagonist or antagonist, amp up what makes them tick, especially in the world of television soaps.
For instance, consider one of the most memorable villains in soap opera history: Stefano DiMera from Days of Our Lives. Diabolical and devilish as he is on the surface, the audience gets a sense of his backstory and motivation which makes us feel sympathy for him. Stefano’s love for his children and his undying obsession for the unattainable Marlena, allows us to better understand the affairs of the heart that afflict him. With this, we can even end up rooting for the villain despite disagreeing with their actions.
Begin your writing by building your characters and their core relationships with one another. This will help you find the crux of their motivations, flaws, secrets, and potential conflicts. Letting them tell the plot is best.
Tip #3: Experiment with Tropes and Techniques
Soap operas are known for employing a writer’s arsenal of tropes, techniques, and literary devices throughout their long-form dramas. Most of us know the cliché trope of when a character returns from the dead. However, using this trope can introduce a new storyline and reintroduce a character without the need for diving too much into exposition or backstory.
The same goes for the stereotypical character who suffers a head injury and ends up having amnesia. One way to use this trope to a writer’s advantage is to incorporate dream sequences that represent the character’s hopes, fears, and desires. Consider using the dream sequence technique to lead up to a climactic “a-ha!” moment at an opportunistic or shocking time.
Another classic device commonly used in television soaps is the cliffhanger. Whether it’s Sami Brady escaping from death row for a crime she didn’t commit in Days of Our Lives, or Alexis and Dex from Dynasty hanging in mid-air after being pushed off a balcony, the episodic format is ideal for nail-biting cliffhangers. Even television series that are not a part of the soap opera genre utilize the almighty cliffhanger often and well. Make sure you keep this device close to hand in your literary arsenal.
The Road to Soap Opera Success
Like with any good story or series, it takes a large amount of writing, editing, and watching to hone your craft. These tips are just the beginning when it comes to effective soap opera writing. If you’re looking to break into this classic medium, try watching one of your favorite series and dissecting what makes their plot, characters, and techniques successful. The more familiar you become with your craft, the sooner you can start to redefine it.
Laura Huie is an experienced writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.
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