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Posts Tagged ‘daytime’

Dialogue for One

Sign for a laundry called Soap Opera by Brent Moore/

by Brent Moore/

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.”

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.


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.).