The 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.
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.).