What I Learned About Writing .... from soap operas?
For many of us, the best and
most rewarding stories are character driven, those in which the plot is advanced
by what is gradually revealed about the character, what he or she learns, and
how he or she changes. Add some suspense and a few good plot twists, and we’re
usually as happy as clams (if we could only figure out what makes clams
happy). But I have something more to add -- two
simple and valuable suggestions that I learned about writing such stories while
toiling in a rather unlikely field – soap operas. I realize that at first glance
this probably won’t reflect well on me as an author, but during one temporarily
stunted point on the way to here I spent two years writing soap operas for
television. This brief detour in a career that was otherwise spent almost
entirely writing books for teens and pre-teens began around 1988. At that time
the sales of the sort of YA books I’d been was writing -- often referred to in
the 1980s as problem novels -- had slowed precipitously. Editors felt that
nearly every problem a teen could encounter had been written about, some many
times over, and I found it difficult to sell any new ones.
At the same
time, the hottest thing in the YA book world was a new series called Sweet
Valley High. A second series for slightly younger readers, The Babysitters Club,
was beginning to look like it would be even bigger. Editors were interested in
ideas for series, but I didn’t actually understand how a series worked. Except
for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, I’d never read one.
For much of the
previous two decades I had only written one kind of book. It always began with
characters who had a problem and who learned and changed and grew as a result of
dealing with it. When it was time to start the next book, I began with a whole
new group of characters and a completely different problem. But a series had
continuing characters (until later when Fear Street and Goosebumps came along),
and could easily grow to be 30 or 40 books long (Sweet Valley High and its spawn
eventually reached 152 volumes; according to Wikipedia, the Baby-sitters and its
spinoffs gave birth to somewhere around 200). How could the same characters keep
learning, changing and growing through that many books? Especially when they
never appeared to age?
I felt I needed to find the answer, but I had
young children and also needed to make a living. One logical course would have
been to sit down and analyze a book series, but I’d recently met someone with
connections in the world of soap operas, and I was tempted because I thought it
might someday lead to others sorts of well-paying television writing.
truth, I’d never actually watched a soap opera, but I knew that they were series
with continuing characters and that some of the shows had been going five days a
week since before the invention of television (Guiding Light, where I would
eventually work for a year, began in the 1930s as a radio serial and moved to
television in 1952). In addition, soap opera writing paid well. Quite well, in
Through my friend I learned that CBS had a soap opera writing
program, and, through a friend of that friend, I managed to get into it. The
training program may have been geared toward writers with less experience than
me (the people at CBS weren’t certain they’d ever had a published novelist in
the program before), but that didn’t mean there wasn’t lots for me to learn. Or
at least new ways to look at the craft of telling stories.
characters in soap operas rarely seemed to change, or learn anything -- except
when they recovered from amnesia, or redeemed their wicked ways – they were
still very much character driven, and that is where I stumbled upon two ways of
approaching character that would stay with me for the rest of my
Both lessons will sound simple, but I hope that won’t diminish
their importance. Even to this day, some 100 novels later, I find them extremely
The first is, whenever writing a character, always keep one
question foremost in mind: what is this character’s motivation? What does this
character want? Characters drive stories, and motivation drives character. So
that basic motivation should never be too far from the character’s thoughts.
What does this character want and what is he or she doing in this scene to get
it? It’s almost a litmus test for the viability of a scene. If your character
isn’t doing something to get closer to what he or she wants, then you should be
asking yourself if the scene is really necessary.
The second lesson was
equally simple, but also valuable. If character A encounters character B after
an interval of time apart, always be sure to go back to the last time they were
together and see what their feelings were about each other. If they haven’t
interacted on your pages in a while, you may have forgotten that the last time
they were together they’d nearly killed each other, or fallen passionately in
love, or perhaps merely told a lie. In which case you would be remiss in not
recalling that fact in the current scene.
Going back over some earlier
(unpublished) writing, I was amazed at how often I’d have two characters meet
without the slightest reference to how they were feeling about each other at
their last point of departure. But such continuity is essential for telling a
good story. Readers read much faster than writers write, so while we may forget
what two characters did 60 pages ago, your reader won’t. When it comes to
character interaction it’s important to always pick up where you left
I spent two years writing soap operas before deciding that I was
much happier writing books. After quitting I almost immediately began my most
successful series, the 17- book Help! I’m trapped in… collection, which is still
selling – (as e-books) 20 years later.
It never would have happened
without soap operas.
I don’t recall now how long the CBS soap opera
training program lasted. All I know was that quite soon thereafter, I was hired
to write for Guiding Light. And that’s when I learned yet another lesson. All my
life I’d thumbed my nose at soap operas as hack work written by untalented
writers. And the truth is, some of the writers I met weren’t the most talented,
but others were some of the smartest writers I’ve ever met anywhere. Why they
chose to write soap operas I’ll never know, although money clearly had a lot to
do with it.