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Posts Tagged ‘soap opera’

Crossing Town on the M86

I took the M86 bus west early this morning. A trip made seven days a week for months while writing Guiding Light. We started our work day at the Starbucks on 86th and Columbus, armed with the shiny, pink flowered schoolgirl notebooks we’d buy from Jay at the deli across the street. I still have that stack of notebooks under my couch, covered with dust and dog hair. I haven’t bought a notebook since.

Riding through the park I thought about two things as I watched the first dog run of the day. Two worries. The task of writing this blog and the fact that I was heading to meet a young person at the above-mentioned Starbucks who wanted my advice about television writing. I’ve never written a blog before. I HAVE spoken to young people about daytime television, many times over the years. They generally find my story amusing – the fact that my waitress job led me to my 17 year gig at Guiding Light. They’re impressed by the jobs I held there (lots) my Emmy (one) and the fact that I loved my work so much. But they wanted solid tips… advice. The truth is, some wonderful people gave me a chance. I showed up, accepted assignments, made my deadlines and was so damn happy they let me stay. When it ended, I staggered out of the studio, back into my “real” life, did my best to keep walking and talking, and finally got an office job just as the money ran out! What am I going to say to Nicole? Why didn’t she get in touch with one of the writers still writing TV? They could talk to her about sustaining and surviving in this business. I don’t even know Nicole very well. I’m not a television writer anymore. The flowered notebooks are under the couch. What do I say? Okay, I’ll buy the coffee. It’s the least I can do after wasting her time this morning.

Nicole arrives. I buy the coffee. She’s looking for answers. I ask her questions. What is she writing? What does she watch on TV? What did she study in school? Premed, then Columbia film school. Wow. I’m surprised by the stuff she’s working on and interested in her take on daytime. A friend calls while we’re there. When I explain our meeting she says “talk her out of it! Tell her to run back to med school.” I can’t. I am more practical than I used to be – keep your day job, money stress is paralyzing. But if you want to write, do it. Say you’re a writer. Don’t be shy. Take a class, work on a web series….I can’t talk her up to my EP and try to get her a sample deal. But I won’t tell her not to go for it. This could be a great time for young writers. Shows are tumbling left and right but still, exciting things are happening. Out of the ashes… I am dazzled by the people who are pouring their hearts into making web series. We still want to tell stories. The audience still craves them. We’ll have to tell them differently, we won’t make that 80’s and 90’s money… but stories will be told. And something tells me that Nicole – or Danielle or Brett or the Rebeccas or Nidhi or Michelle or David or Kimberly – one or two or all of them – could be the Irna, Agnes, Bill or Claire of the future. Why not?

Nicole and I finish our talk and go our separate ways. I hope I encouraged her without giving her false hope. I hope she has a story to tell. I’m feeling lighthearted and hopeful myself, with a couple of stories rattling around in my head. I buy myself a pink flowered notebook from the deli before I get on the 86 going east.
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Jill Lorie Hurst was raised in Detroit in the 60’s and 70’s, the daughter of a mother who watched CBS soaps and a father who loved New York. She studied theater and English at Wayne State University. She moved to New York in 1982 and started a ten year gig as a waitress in the garment district before finding a home at Guiding Light. Jill spent 17 years with the CBS soap as a receptionist, a writer’s assistant, a script writer, script editor, breakdown writer, story producer and finally, part of the co-head writing team until the show went off the air in September 2009. When CBS deactivated her ID, Jill spent 15 months or so wandering the city streets before settling into an assistant job in Manhattan. She has recently joined the writing team of Venice the series and is working on her first play. Jill lives in New York City with her husband Tony, dog Jocko and cat Molly.

Dialogue for One

Sign for a laundry called Soap Opera by Brent Moore/SeeMidTN.com

by Brent Moore/SeeMidTN.com

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:

MIREILLE
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.

RICO
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.”

¡Viva las telenovelas!

Telenovela billboard in Portugal

photo by Jaan-Cornelius K.

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.

Belly of pregnant woman

photo by Mahalie Stackpole

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.