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Write On

A Little Bit of Soap

Dishwashing soap, gloves etcThe day I killed Ryan, I started to live again.

The year leading up to the fatal shooting was the most trying time of my life.  The prime time show I’d been writing for was cancelled and the movie I’d been contracted to write scrapped.  The production company with whom I had a development deal shut down and for the first time I was unemployed.  My personal life was worse.  My father had a stroke, a close friend was dying, and my husband abruptly left me for another woman.  My life had become, well, a soap opera.

My heart broken, my pride wounded, my bank account dwindling, I poured out my heart to a friend who was an executive with NBC Daytime.  She responded with what seemed an absurd non sequitur, “Have you ever thought of writing for daytime?”  I laughed, “You mean, a soap?”  She explained that NBC was looking for new blood for their daytime division and thought I might be good for them.  At another time in my life, I would have rejected the idea out of hand. A soap opera?  The genre of baby switches and evil twins?  Where people came back from the dead?  Really?  I’d written for prime time!  I’d had films produced!  I had theater credits!  But now I was a single mom, the sole support of two pre-school aged children and I needed a job.

Prior to that day, I’d never even seen a soap unless I’d passed one on the dial on the way to a PBS station – a snob with no firsthand knowledge of the field.  Still, I accepted an assignment to write a few sample stories for “Another World” and I had to start watching the show.  The first day, I had trouble keeping the characters and the three or four storylines straight.  The next day there was some overlap, but also different characters and other stories.  In a week, I’d seen all the characters in the concurrent stories … and I was hooked.  I wanted to know if the evil countess Justine Duvalier (a dead ringer for the saintly Rachel Cory) was really going to wall up her future daughter-in-law in her cellar.  Was Sharlene’s alternate hooker personality going to ruin her chance at love?  And who was stalking the nurses at Bay City General?   In short, I’d gone from being a snob to being a fan.  I got it now.  I understood that a soap opera can have drama, comedy and tragedy all in the space of an hour.  The characters have developed over months and years and have histories and rich and complicated relationships.  They are friends you root for, lovers you wish for, children you worry for, the family you can count on to be there for you day after day.  Soaps are escapism in the purist form.  Watching “Another World” took me away from my own problems.  Writing for it gave me a whole new life.

I wrote my sample stories and was hired as a staff writer for “Another World.”  I was glad to have a regular job and a steady income and I loved inventing stories, loved getting into the heads of characters and taking them on a journey.  I loved being able to stay in New York and have a predictable enough schedule to spend time with my children.  My bad year was over.

Which brings me to Ryan’s murder.  There are certain “special days” on every soap opera, among them weddings, births and the death of a major character.  Within three weeks of my writing for “Another World,” I was entrusted with the shooting of one such beloved character, Ryan Harrison.  It was an important episode and after I wrote it I was informed that my contract had been picked up, that I would be writing for a soap for the next 13 weeks.  That was 15 years ago and I’ve written for daytime dramas without interruption ever since.  Incidentally, Ryan was really dead when I “killed” him.  Unlike many soap opera characters, he did not come back to life.  I am happy to report that I, however, did.

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Shelly Altman

Shelly Altman

Shelly Altman currently writes for ABC’s “One Life to Live.”  Prior to her Emmy Award-winning work in daytime television, Shelly wrote extensively for prime time (“Kate and Allie,” “True Blue,” “Katts and Dog,” etc.) and for film (“Sweet Lorraine,” “The Gnomes’ Great Adventure,” “Jewels of Main,” etc.).

9 Responses to “A Little Bit of Soap”

  • Shelly,
    Thanks for this perspective on soaps. Not only do they financially sustain many women in the industry but they also support some important woman-centered issues. I recently commented about them in the Ms. Magazine Blog.
    http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2010/06/25/daytime-drama/

  • Shelly,
    This is beautifully written. No wonder they picked you up and gave you contracts!
    Your ex was crazy to let you go!

  • Shelly:

    Ebony — Read your Ms. piece. Good ideas for preserving the soaps. We’re doing our darnest to introduce a new generation of women (and men) to a timeless genre.

    Stack — Thanks for the nice words!

  • Kyla:

    The day Ryan died was one of the saddest episodes of AW EVER!!! So great job on that one even though I was soooo disappointed my couple (Ryan and Vicky) were never able to marry, etc. But the dialogue between Ryan and Vicky right before he died was gut-wrenching, right along with the scene when she went home, put on his jacket and laid down on their bed…sigh…

  • [...] OLTL writers Shelly Altman first WGAE member blogger The Writers Guild of America, East recently re-launched their website and for the first time we have a member-written blog, Write On. Today’s post is by a soap writer, Shelly Altman (currently at OLTL). Shelly will be the resident blogger for the next 4 weeks. Her first blog is about the start of her soap writing career and ANOTHER WORLD. [...]

  • Aviad:

    Hi Shelly,

    thanks for sharing the beginning of your story. As a soap fan (and columnist) from Israel, I will love to read your thoughts about the genre’s status these days.

    Aviad

  • Darren:

    I saw Ryan walking down Columbus Ave a few months ago. He lives.

  • Shelly:

    Kyla — I think my favorite episode I ever wrote for daytime was when Ryan and Vicky were “reunited” in Heaven.

    Darren — Glad to hear “Ryan” lives!

    Aviad — I’ll address the status of the genre in a future blog.

  • Jay:

    Hi, Shelly. I think you got my job. I wrote an episode that took place the day after Ryan got killed (I remember writing Carl Hutchins ranting about the “jackdaw vulture” who’d murdered his son). I took part in a P&G writers workshop after winning a screenwriting contest in 1994 and ’95.

    As I said, I _didn’t_ get the job (though the man who ran the workshop told me I’d written the best script, and he thought Jill would hire me). Over the years, I’ve concluded that writing for daytime isn’t something you choose to do and then go after it the way you would any other career. Rather, it’s something you fall into, the way you did.

    I’d been watching ANOTHER WORLD since 1988, when I was home from work one summer day. I hadn’t even owned a television until that year. I loved AW instantly. Sharlene was assuring Josie that even though she was a farm girl, she was every bit as good as the Richie Rich Corys. I’ve always loved it when class conflict rears its ugly head in the dating arena. Eventually, I became obsessed with the idea that I should write for the show.

    I would love to talk to you about your ANOTHER WORLD experience. Please write me back if you’re thus inclined.

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