Soap Operas As a Writing Model

Now, before you laugh and shrug me off as a flake, please read this and think about it first.

Consider for a moment the following narrative situation: you are writing a large, sprawling storyline, involving a large cast of characters. You figure on your story being novel-length - lots of sub-plots and side stories leading to a final conclusion... but how do you keep all of your characters involved in the story? Even if some of them are minor characters, relegated to background appearances and the ocassional bit of dialogue, how do you make it all work?

Now, look at the way most soap operas work: a large cast of characters with many ongoing storylines. Each story could be self-contained, existing in their own space... but all the stories are set in the same towns, with a complex web of relationships to deal with.

How is this put together? Characters meet each other, their storylines blending together as sub-plots to each other. Common meetings between characters with differing storylines help to contrast the stories that they are involved in, or add layers to the storyline by simply appearing.

Example: Character A is being blackmailed by Character B. A feels that this secret revealed would shatter her life and her family, so she has been following B's demands to the letter.

Character C is a policeman looking into a murder in town. While tracking clues, he has found a possible lead tying B into the murder. B has been spending a lot of time with character A lately, so policeman C tries talking to A for some clues.

She seems very nervous at the mention of character B's name, making her actions during questioning seem suspicious. Because of this, C adds her to his list of suspects.

To clear herself, character A will have to reveal why she fears character B - but that could lead to her secret being revealed. She's caught in an even more delicate situation now...

For this structure, the soaps can be a great source. I'm not advocating aping the stories themselves; it's almost impossible to take a plot as hoary as Evil Twins stealing your wife without it being cliché or comical. I'm also not advocating taking every useage at face value. I've seen some downright contrived and overly-convenient methods used to get characters together. I'm merely suggesting that they have some use in the study of how to produce complex multi-character plots.

© 1997 by Jeff Boman

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Last updated July 19th, 1998

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