What we can learn from Soaps 


Lessons from popular drama.

My family always laugh at me for watching so-called soap operas on television. ‘You’ve got a degree in English Literature,’ says my husband – what on earth are you doing watching ‘Coronation Street’? Well, for one reason my mother was addicted to the programme, and although she’s been dead for fourteen years, I still feel it connects me to her.

The other reason is that it helps me write. Yes, really! Soap operas, which are essentially dramas, are written in scenes. Each scene has its own setting and group of characters, and the action conveyed is part of the dramatic arc. Over time, scenes build up consecutively to tell us the story. Prose writers talk about writing scenes in the same way, each forming a fragment of the big picture and earning its place in the story. When we write scenes, it is helpful to ask ourselves the following question: are they moving the story forward? Do they contribute to the whole? Do they illuminate character or action or some way? If the scene was cut would the story still make sense? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ (or no in the last instance) then they have earned their place in the novel. If not, painful though it might be, they need to go.

In most television dramas, there are continuity experts to check that the story details, characterisation, dialogue and scenery are consistent. We need to do the same with our writing. It is easy, when writing a whole novel over a long period of time, to change details without realising it. Characters can change names, eye colour, personality and speech styles. Or we can set too many scenes in the same place – one of my many faults is to have too many meals in my novels (I’m big on food!) and I need to be aware of this. In fact, knowing our weaknesses is important as we can look out for and rectify these mistakes.

Because writers and producers of soap operas want us to keep watching, they often ends scenes and episodes on a ‘cliff hanger’, a dramatic moment that leaves the action in a tense place, and the viewer desperate to know what happens next. Although this tool can be overused in fiction, it certainly has its place as a hook to keep the reader motivated.

 And of course, because human nature and behaviour is essentially the same wherever our dramas are set, soap operas can give us great ideas for stories and plot elements.

So there is a lot we can learn from the soaps. I certainly won’t feel guilty the next time I watch ‘Coronation Street’. I’m only doing it for research – honest!

PlotGill ThompsonComment