Everything I’ve Learned about Writing I’ve Learned from Soap Operas

dayslivesGo Figure: Musings from the Mind of Rob Wilstein

Like Sands Through the Hourglass, So are the Days of our Lives.

So true. So true. And so insightful. When you think about those grains of sand, dropping, one by one, inexorably, through the hourglass, we mortals unable to act, paralyzed in our efforts to turn the glass over, reverse the march of time, reset the clock on the incessant parade of the days of our lives, you discover the power of cliche.

Such too is the power of the soap opera, the bastardized descendant of Shakespeare, the daytime poor relation of Breaking Bad and The Wire, a form of entertainment developed to sell soap to bored housewives, to novelize the trials and tribulations of small town America in the most banal manner possible.

Thus, everything I’ve learned from soap opera results from close viewing, note-taking, and the dictum that whatever they do in soap opera, don’t do it in the novel.

1. The overheard conversation.

Scene.
Sami Brady and EJ DiMera, dressed as if for an audience with the Queen of England, are enjoying cocktails in the DiMera mansion, discussing the unfortunate incident in which Nick Fallon was bludgeoned and drowned. Sami’s son Will, recently out of the closet and married to Sonny Kiriakis, of the corporate zillionaire Kiriakiseseses, enters the house unnoticed, overhears the conversation, learns his mother is a murderess, setting in motion innumerable repetitive episodes.

Lesson learned. There has to be a better way.

2. The Soliloquy

Scene.
Kate Roberts, ex-mother-in-law to EJ, and grandmother to Will by way of her son, Lucas, Sami’s ex-husband, has just learned that Nick is an evil liar who has been bullying Gabi, the mother of Will’s baby. Kate is alone. In a jail cell that looks like it’s right out of Andy of Mayberry. We don’t know why. How to tell the audience what she is thinking, what she will do. In sotto voce, Kate outlines her plan.

If Nick thinks he’s getting away with this, he’s a fool. I’ve got to get Gabi away from that lying, theiving creep before he tries to rape and kill her.

Lesson learned. Despite the legacy of the soliloquy handed down from the Bard of Avon himself, skip the monologue.

3. The Coincidence

Scene.
Abigail Devereaux and EJ meet in the town square (the only place anyone ever meets anyone) to discuss their secret affair in the most public place in town. Sami, EJ’s ex-wife and fiancee, happens to be crossing through the town square at just that moment, eyes on her cell phone, when she bumps into EJ. Abigail and EJ stutter through an explanation plausible only to a five-year-old and Sami raises an eyebrow.

Lesson learned. Coincidences do happen, just not in your novel.

4. The Dream Sequence

priest
Scene.
Eric Brady, the defrocked priest who lost his collar when he was discovered to have had sex with Kristin, who drugged and raped him in a motel room, leading to many scenes in which Eric furrows his brow and laments the loss of his vocation, finds himself naked in bed with Nicole, with whom he is in torturous love, feverishly having sex, sweating profusely under the icon of Jesus Himself above his bed. The scene has a slightly fuzzy, off-color look, signaling to us that it is in fact, a dream. Eric awakens, furrows his brow, and talks to himself.

Lesson learned. None. I like the dream sequence. Dream on.

 

5. Using Dialog to Convey Plot

Scene.
Hope Brady, the police detective whose husband mysteriously disappeared two years ago, leading to suspicions about the rehab of the actor who played him, is out to get Stefano, the patriarch of the DiMera family who has been dead several times, only to reappear and take back the reins of the DiMera crime organization. Speaking to Abe Carver, the police chief whose wife died of a mysterious cancer, allowing the actress who played her an opportunity to pursue other projects, Hope recaps the last fifteen episodes for any viewers who were away on vacation.

Abe, you know how Stefano kidnapped Rafe, the police officer in love with Sami, who was married to Stefano’s son, EJ, who isn’t really his son, locked him in a dungeon, made an identical clone of him, who then committed unspeakable crimes in his name, while the real Rafe rotted underground but then got free and pretended to be the fake Rafe so he could get at Stefano, remember that?

Lesson learned. Trust in your reader. They’re smarter than you are.

So there you have it. Everything I know about writing learned from the longest running daytime soap, Days of Our Lives.
Full disclosure: I have never personally watched an episode of the show.

Lesson learned. Don’t believe everything you read.

4 comments

  1. Michael Nolan

    A most unique approach, Rob. Not a “must do” list; rather a “mustn’t do” list. And there are some good things to bear in mind in the piece.

    re: 5, Using dialogue to create plot.

    In my very first GS workshop, Chris Castellani scrawled EID on a certain paragraph of my humble offering. I found out it means “Exposition In Dialogue.”

  2. Cynthia Johnson

    Great plot twist, Rob! You had me going there with the specifics of the story. I kept wondering how in the hell does he know all this about this soap, but you saved the best twist for revelation at the end. A true master!

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