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.”