Monday, December 15, 2008

Storytelling Engines: SOAP

(or "Confused? You Won't Be, After This Week's Column")

When it comes to needing a storytelling engine, there's nobody quite in the same position as a soap opera. I've talked in the past about the volume of stories needed for a monthly comic or a weekly TV show or a series of movies, and how a good storytelling engine can help provide ideas to a writer who desperately needs them (because deadlines don't wait for inspiration)...but a soap opera puts all of them to shame. Sixty minutes a day, every day, every week, every year for decades. (There are some soap operas that actually predate television.) Even granted that most soap operas will stretch out a plotline over multiple episodes to keep people tuning in tomorrow, that's a heck of a lot of ideas.

When you realize that, it's not too surprising that soap operas get so bizarre, so quick. Evil twins? Alien abductions? Affairs, cults, returns from the dead, ghosts and hypnosis and amnesia and murders? Some soap operas have all of the above in one episode. The soap opera is the storytelling equivalent of mulligan stew, where everything and anything that can be used will be used.

And it's that approach that forms the basis for the series "SOAP", which ran for four seasons in the late 70s/early 80s. It's kind of difficult to call it a parody, since parodies are generally over-the-top versions of the source material, and it's frankly impossible to be more over-the-top than a typical soap opera. Let's call it a soap opera with jokes. But whatever you call it, "SOAP" tried to consciously emulate the chaotic, borderline absurd atmosphere that soap operas have adopted more or less out of necessity. They crammed as many soap opera standards into the opening set-up as they could (a rich family, a poor family, marital infidelity, impotence, mob connections, and a gay son, although "SOAP" decided to be more open about that one than any of the soap operas that preceded it...which means that "SOAP" actually gave soap opera writers a whole new area to be convoluted in. Wow.)

Then it was just a case of grabbing whatever soap opera tropes came to mind and slotting them in as fast as the plot would allow. Demonic possession? Got it. Amnesia? Got it. Alien abductions? Got it. Long lost secret sons and missing mothers? Got it. Characters having affairs with convicts on the run from the law while on the rebound from their affair with a married congressman? Got it. Distilling the forty years of traditional soap opera plotlines into a single half-hour weekly series gave the writers of "SOAP" more to do than they could ever fit into four years of their series, which may be why "SOAP" ends on a cliff-hanger. (Or it may just be time-honored tradition; a good soap opera never wraps everything up. You have to end it on a shocker to keep people coming back.)

The particular storytelling engine of "SOAP" gave its writers two key advantages when coming up with stories; one, they were working with source material that had already churned out loads of potential storylines to parody, and two, they were working in a genre that held, as one of its genre conventions, that no plot twist was ever too unbelievable to be used. These two things combined meant that "SOAP" just needed to keep delivering the jokes, because the writers never had to worry about their characters (a man who talks to his ventriloquist's dummy?) or their storylines (Jessica falls in love with a South American revolutionary?) becoming too implausible to fit. It was a godsend for any comedy writer.

But the truly important thing about "SOAP", and by extension about soap operas, storytelling engines, and indeed writing in general, is--


Mory said...


Anonymous said...

Did you know that they took Perry Mason out of the Perry Mason radio show and turned it into the soap opera Edge of Night? That became a popular radio soap and eventually moved to TV.