Sunday, December 13, 2009

As the World . . . Went

by Libby Malin
www.LibbysBooks.com


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.

13 comments:

  1. But I don't think anything could ever beat the Cassadines and their weather machine. That was so over the top it did me in on GH. I "went over to the dark side" of GL. And then it went bye-bye this year. But I'd actually stopped watching years ago (15 maybe). Funny how you could turn it on 15 years later and see Josh and Reva, and Mindy and Philip, and Rick, etc. Like family - you don't always like them but you keep coming back.

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  2. Judi, I know what you mean about turning on a soap after years away and still seeing some of the old stand-bys. For Days', it's Stefano Di Mera, the villain. They did just get rid of some long-running characters, though.

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  3. I was a huge Ryan's Hope fan way back when. After that, I did OLTL and AMC, but after having kids, I just couldn't spend that much time in front of the TV. Now I don't even do prime time TV. It's the news, NCIS, and TopGear. Even with those I'm falling behind.

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  4. The only soap I ever watched faithfully was Dark Shadows (when I was a teen). General Hospital was on now and then in our house, but I never really got into it. Nowadays, I can't keep up with a series that's only on once a week, let alone every day!

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  5. It's hard to keep up with all the twisted family relationships, too, on soaps. I imagine the writers have to be very careful with making sure someone's not dating their half-brother.

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  6. I was never a fan of day time soaps, but I know a ninety year old man who bought a four inch TV so that wherever he was, he wouldn't have to miss his "story."
    And don't you love it that he called it a "story" not a "program?" I think it's significant. The soap really came closer to replicating the storyteller's art in visual form than any other platform I know of by showing internal POV through voice-over.
    Though I was never a fan, I'm a little saddened to know another soap is gone.

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  7. I don't watch them that often but when I do I'm sucked back in again.

    It's really sad, an end of an era.

    Linda

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  8. I was a huge fan of GL and ATWT in high school and college. I'm very sad to seem them go. It's the end of an era for sure.

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  9. Mary Margaret,
    My grandmother called it her "story" too! My Aunt Kay, who died last Friday, was still complaining about GL going off. She would've been beside herself to hear that ATWT got the axe too. Like her mother, she also needed her daily "story" fix!

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  10. I don't remember what my grandmother called her soaps, but she definitely watched them. She was from Germany originally, and would refer to one no-good character (on Another World at the time)as "that schneaky Schven." I dedicated my book to her.

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  11. I quit watching soap operas ages ago. But I am of the generation that was hooked on General Hospital and the Luke/Laura story. Our entire dorm population would gather at 2pm everyday in the common room to watch GH. Everyone planned their classes around it, and woe to anyone foolish enough to interrupt that hour or - gasp! - try to change the station!

    And, yes Judi, I remember the whole Cassadine storyline! Man, that show did rock even in its ridiculousness.

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  12. Hi Libby! Great post. When I had surgery years ago, I got addicted to The Young and The Restless, but then I recovered, and haven't watched it for years. Sad to realize that.

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  13. If there's one thing, no matter how insane the storyline, Soap Operas are always a great source of drama and inspiration. I remember being a teenager and getting sucked into all the shows (especially the summer I was a nanny to a 3-month old--all I did was watch tv!). I agree, Libby, and hope more aren't cancelled. When you hear how long some of them have been on the air, it's a shame when they end.

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