Daytime Soaps vs Prime Drama

A friend from Russia e-mailed me that a friend of hers was looking for books how on to write for soap operas and could I recommend any? I couldn’t offhand (except for one written by a British writer many years ago about British soaps and which may now be out-of-print), but it did get me thinking about how you do write for soaps and is it any different than writing for primetime dramatic shows.

Despite their different formats five day a week serials and one hour/once a week dramas have more in common than not.

–In both, you need compelling characters, with equally compelling stakes/goals as well as difficult obstacles to overcome in order to achieve their goals. In “The Good Wife” Alicia Florrick wants to win her legal case every week. In “The Young and the Restless” Nikki worries over the missing Victor who disappeared after his wedding to Sharon.

–There should be strong antagonists, equally compelling, who serve to provide the obstacles to those goals. “The Good Wife” has a revolving door of fascinating antagonists: prosecutors, other defense attorneys, heads of corporations, government officials. “Y&R” has Jack Abbott, Victor Neuman’s arch-nemesis, Phyllis vs Sharon, now Nikki vs Sharon (to  name only a few). In “Days” there’s Stefano DiMera, at odds with, well, practically everyone else on the show.

–The central premise needs to be simple (so that when you’re telling someone what it’s about you can pitch it in a log line or one or two sentences), but at the same time the stories should have plenty of meat on their bones so that they can run for years. “Good Wife”: Alicia defends interesting clients with compelling cases each week  while simultaneously dealing with her cheating states’ attorney husband, Peter. On every soap: It always starts with a core family and the lives, loves, losses of its members.

Differences: Most primetime dramas air 13-22 episodes per season on average. But daytime soaps are five days a week, airing all year round, which means they naturally burn up story more quickly. So, the tendency on a daytime serial is to slow story done. Which explains why you can tune into your favorite soap a week or two after your last viewing and discover the story hasn’t moved very far forward. Characters spend scene after scene talking about their emotions, and are more character driven than plot driven. (Although I would argue that shows such as “Homeland” offer very compelling, character-driven story.)

But, characters represented in whatever format you’re writing should be three dimensional, with hopes, dreams, fears and faults. Their reasons for the actions they take should be in keeping with who they are, rather than because the plot dictates they need to take a specific action.

In other words, character, not plot, should drive your story. In soaps, most of the characters are driven by love, the desire to be in love, to hold on to their love, to protect their love, even to deny their love. In “Hollywood Heights,” the Nickelodeon soap I most recently wrote for, the heroine was in love with Eddie, the rock star. Eddie was in love with Chloe, his model girlfriend. Chloe was in love with Tyler, her sleazy wannabe actor friend, but was also in love with the lifestyle Eddie could bring her. Tyler was in love with Chloe. All four were driven by their love, with obstacles, revelations and heartbreak creating twists and turns in their stories.

So, if you want to know the first lesson of writing for soap operas, start with love

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