I’m amazed by the questions I’m asked when I tell someone I write for a soap opera. What’s surprising is that they’re almost always the same questions and never questions I was asked when I wrote for prime time. The first is, “How far in advance do you write?” For producers, the answer would probably be, “Not far enough.” For writers, it’s, “Too far.” The time between writing the breakdown (the outline from which a script is written) and the air date varies a little from show to show, but generally it’s 10 to 12 weeks. Producers like as much time as possible to handle the business of putting together a show. But with that much lag time, writers may introduce a new character and write for him or her for nearly three months before ever seeing them on the air. I’m not sure why this subject piques people’s curiosity, but that’s my cocktail party answer.
The second question is, “How do you come up with the stories?” The short answer is, “Every way conceivable.” Some stories are inspired by news items – a returning soldier coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, a governor hiding his homosexuality, a woman dealing with infertility and surrogacy. Some stories come from the characters themselves. Bringing back a character who was once in love with a woman now married to his brother … well, you can see the possibilities. In some cases the source is literary – take, for example, the story of a power hungry assistant convincing his boss that his wife is having an affair, leading to tragedy. Does the name Othello ring a bell?
The most common and most baffling question I get is, “So, do you just write for one character and one storyline?” I have no idea how this myth started but I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked. I’ve tried to wrap my head around how it would work. Imagine that “my character” is a young woman, Mireille. The story I’m writing is about her search for the man who killed her sister. An associate is writing for Rico, a doctor finding the courage to love again after a painful event in his past. A meeting between these characters might go something like this:
It was you all along! My sister loved you, she trusted you, but all you ever wanted was to take over
the company. You killed her, I know that now! And so do the police.
Will you marry me?
Actually, everyone on the team of writers for a daytime serial writes for every character in every story. On any given day there can be three or more overlapping stories and twelve or more characters whose lives intertwine. Writing for only one character … well, I think that’s called a monologue.
Lately, the question I’m most often asked is, “Will soap operas survive?” When I started writing for daytime, doom and gloomers told me soap operas would be dead in five years. That was fifteen years ago. Granted, there are far fewer soaps now than there were then. Women are out working, the target audience isn’t home during the day, and with a DVR, it’s no longer necessary to be home when a show airs. There’s competition from hundreds of cable channels. It’s a rough time for the daytime industry. But the numerous blogs and websites devoted to soaps, the magazines for daytime viewers and the fan mail we get tell me people still love their shows. They want continued drama. They want soap operas. But that doesn’t answer the question. When people ask if soaps will survive, I can only say, “I sincerely hope so.”
Some years ago, a Peruvian man who heard I wrote for “One Life to Live” told me he’d learned English by watching the show. When I started studying Spanish a few years ago, I decided to follow his lead and reinforce my Spanish lessons by watching a telenovela.
I began my foray into this literally foreign territory with a show called “Mundo de Fieras” (“World of Wild Ones”) because it was just beginning and aired at a convenient time in the evening. I confess I understood very little dialogue in the premiere episode – ¡Ay, caramba! They talked fast! – but I was basically able to follow what was happening on screen. It was about a struggle between twin brothers (I guessed the smiling one with a loving family was good and the snarling one with the eye patch was evil), and about their love for two women (I supposed the brunette leaving a convent was good and the one with the heavy eye makeup and the long curly blonde extensions was evil). Within a couple of weeks I’d picked up some useful vocabulary, like the oft-repeated embarazada. I wondered why one female character was constantly embarrassed, and why everyone else kept talking about her embarrassment until I understood that embarazada means “pregnant.” I wasn’t learning quite as much Spanish as I’d hoped, but I was getting an education. Though I knew telenovelas differed from American soap operas in that they aired for a finite time, generally six to nine months, and so progressed toward a predetermined conclusion, I discovered that the differences go far deeper.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that while American soaps are struggling to keep their audience, telenovelas are watched by an estimated two billion people in a hundred countries. What makes these shows so wildly successful? From what I can tell by having now watched several different telenovelas, they’re pretty predictable; the star-crossed lovers introduced in the first episode will get together in the last, the villain will be punished. The “good” characters will find their faith in God rewarded, the comic couple will marry. There will be some public service message, like on one episode of “Destilando Amor” when every character recycled his or her trash in appropriate bins (yes, seriously). Why, then, do viewers not only faithfully watch each episode of one telenovela but excitedly anticipate the premiere of the next one? Is it just a cultural phenomenon? Is it the structure of the telenovela itself, Dickensian in nature, a serialized drama with a satisfying ending? Is it seeing the same actors in different roles – a chaste heroine in one show transformed into a murderous vixen in another? (For example, actor Maurice Benard going from mob boss Sonny Corinthos on “General Hospital” to priest on a new show.) Is it that telenovelas air not only in the daytime, but also in the evening, when there’s a greater audience at home to watch, both male and female? Is it the variety these shows offer – one show may be a period piece, one a gritty urban drama, one a bodice-ripper romance? And is it something American television producers can co-opt?
I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, but as the American soap opera continues to struggle for survival, I think the producers of daytime television might be wise to look toward their cousins south of the border and study the secret of their success. As for me, I’m looking for the next telenovela to watch. Bit by bit, my Spanish is improving. But some things need no translation. Whether it’s an American soap or a telenovela, if two characters are simultaneously embarazadas, there’s a 100% chance those babies are going to get switched.
Eden. Jax. Greenlee. Markko. Soap opera names; exotic, outrageous, sometimes unforgettable enough to find their way into mainstream American life. How many 28 year-old Lukes and Lauras do you think there are today? If you search the internet for baby names, you’ll find tons of websites devoted to soap opera names.
Choosing the right name for a character on a TV show is critical. It helps define the character’s personality. The name Slade suggests danger whereas Joey sounds like your good buddy. Mary’s probably a sweet girl, but Jezebel’s trouble. When you add someone new to a forty-year old soap opera with a history of roughly 1,000 characters over the years, coming up with an original name can be a challenge. Over the years, I’ve found my own ways to meet it. Sometimes I name characters to honor people in my own life. On One Life to Live, lawyers Alex Cody and Morgan Guthrie were named for my sons. Their high school directory has provided names like Margay and Grayson and Asher. For their school’s charity fundraiser, I used to auction off the right to have a one-shot under-five character named for the highest bidder. When the last winner gave me a really hard time because she didn’t like her namesake’s characterization (even the audience has divas), I abandoned the practice.
Friends and family get a kick out of having their name loaned out to a television character and I’ll confess to some subtle brown-nosing by occasionally naming characters for my children’s schoolteachers. It wasn’t easy to work names like Ms. Takenaga and Ms. Kasarjian into shows, but it was worth it.
There’s a game in which you can come up with your own soap opera name by combining your middle name with the name of the street you grew up on. My soap name would be Margaret Huron, not a bad name for a character. Of course, city dwellers might end up with names like Jake 68th Street or Brianna Central Park West, but it’s still fun. Try it.
The most baroque way I ever named characters was via a surreptitious game I played with a fellow writer at Another World who by chance had noticed that in several cases if you combined one character’s name with another, they formed the name of a Major League baseball player. For example, we had a Gary and we had a Carter … hence, catcher Gary Carter. We had a Joe and a Morgan which together formed second baseman Joe Morgan. Albert plus Belle made outfielder Albert Belle. Knowing I’m a rabid baseball fan, he shared his observation with me. The next time I had to name a character, I mischievously did so with this in mind, naming him Frank to go with an extant character Thomas, wondering if my co-writer would notice. He did, and then one-upped me, calling someone Jim to go along with a Palmer already on the show. Not to be outdone, I made sure our Paul could be paired with a new character, Blair. No one else knew what we were up to and we kept up this name game for about a year when my partner in crime left Another World for a different show, but not before introducing a Professor Dawson as a companion to a character named Andre.
To my knowledge, the fans never figured out where our inspiration came from. Despite the private intrigue, we always maintained the integrity of the show and the names we created had to work on their own. To the audience, the characters are people, their names integral parts of who they are. And if people are naming their children for characters I write for, if there are Hannahs and Dorians and Reeds and Sierras out there because people heard those names on their soaps, I’m proud. Almost as proud as I am of the “A’s” my kids got from Ms. Takenaga and Ms. Kasarjian.
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.).