by Libby Malin
Sad news for those who love storytelling-- the soap opera As the World Turns, on the air for more than half a century, will go dark next September, one more soap opera fading into history. (Guiding Light ended its 72 year run on the airwaves in September of this year.)
ATWT's head writer, Jean Passanante, helped me a great deal as I wrote my 2010 release, My Own Personal Soap Opera. A writing acquaintance put me in touch with Ms. Passanante, and she patiently and thoroughly answered my questions about how stories are put together on daytime dramas and who actually writes the scripts.
My story, like most fiction, uses reality as a springboard, not a cage, so I deviate from the real-life world of soap writing, stretching the truth to suit my own tale. Ironically, My Own Personal Soap Opera is a story about a failing New York-based daytime drama and the machinations the head writer goes through to keep it on the air.
I know a bunch of folks still look down their noses at soap operas, but I've been a loyal soap fan for years, dating back to my college days when my schedule allowed me to catch Another World (alas, another soap lost to broadcasting history), following the sagas of Rachel and Mac and Iris and Steve.
I still watch Days of Our Lives and recently have been in awe of how the writers keep a cliched story of baby-switching fresh as well as engaging, pulling the story out like taffy to stretch over months.
When I first started watching soaps, I just wanted to know who was going to end up with whom and what secrets would come out, what characters would be spared from jeopardy.
Now I'm more likely to be thinking: "Now, how on earth will the writers resolve this story without completely stepping over the boundaries of incredulity?"
In fact, I think it's the writers' challenges that keep me entranced as much as the stories they actually tell.
Soaps regularly dance around that line between awe-inspiring and, well, awful. Characters come back from the dead. Children who were toddlers one year are teens the next. Villains have phenomenal powers to control their prey, while "good guys" have just as much power in order to combat them. Characters are spirited off to secret islands, to dungeons, to foreign countries resembling the Emerald City. Couples split and remarry. . . and split and remarry again. Family ties become so complicated that a fellow's best friend might also be his uncle. On Days, a major character even underwent an excorism after being possessed by the devil.
Are you smiling? I am when I think of all these fantastic plots. But skillful soap writers keep their audiences enthralled by knowing precisely where the line is between character-driven story and caricature-led plot. If you ever start to think, "That character would never do that," the story doesn't work, and the audience feels manipulated rather than entertained. Good soap writers know this.
As a writer, I've learned a lot while watching soap operas. The news about ATWT is sad. I hope it's the last of soap cancellations for a long, long time.