The Soap Box
Vol. V No. 9 September 1979
by Linda Susman
Like parents raising their offspring, soap opera writers have the awesome responsibility of creating and nurturing their show's characters and personality so that when it goes out into the world of daytime television, audiences will like it enough to become loyal friends.
Unlike a book, play or film that builds towards its conclusion with a prescribed set of circumstances in a specific period of time, the nature of the soap's continuing format puts it on a different plane. Henry Slesar, Edge of Night's super-sleuth, notes that "the key word in a soap is 'organic.' It has its own inner growth, and it changes because of the nature of the ingredients. Watching for change makes a soap more exciting and unique."
Behind that uniqueness, the philosophy and outlook of the writers provide the framework within which characters come to life and storylines achieve validity. For Edge, Slesar says, the personality is "suspense. We are definitely more related to the mystery magazine than to the confession magazine. We have a harder edge than most soaps because we are more plot-oriented. We must have the element of surprise and suspense that comes from very careful story planning." Slesar adds that his show is not without its share of inter-relationships. "There's no way of avoiding them--they are at the core of drama."
Ryan's Hope, the by-product of the "experience and fantasy lives" of Claire Labine and Paul Mayer, oozes warmth and familiarity, like an overstuffed easy chair in front of a blazing fire on a cold winter's night.
"We want to write about people who celebrate the human condition, who don't just endure it," Mayer says. When ABC asked the writing them (they had collaborated on the now-defunct Where the Heart Is, and later on Love of Life) to create a new serial, City Hospital, they rejected the idea, Mayer recalls. But they remembered the fun they had with a segment of Where the Heart Is that used an Irish bar, which they named the Red Hand Bar, suggested by an Irish tale about Hugh O'Neill. Mayer says they decided to write about an Irish bar--Ryan's--that's across the street from the city hospital. "We want Ryan's Hope to have a gaiety, a bravura quality," he notes.
In creating the basic concept of RH and inventing the characters that would bring it to life, Mayer used his own memories of the O'Neill family of his childhood. "They were dour, angry, and sullen," he observes, "filled with hatred for one another. The Ryans are the Irish family in which I wish I had grown up--strong, supportive parents who do not interfere in their children's lives; the children are competitive but care deeply for one another."
The writer who steps into an ongoing soap doesn't have the luxury of forming the character's past, while creating his present and future, but Another World ex-head writer, Harding Lemay, believes the advantage he had when he took over in 1971 was his lack of experience in daytime serial writing.
"I think a fresh start was better, since I didn't have preconceived notions of what could or couldn't be done," he says. When Lemay was signed for the show--after writing plays, educational television and a book--Irna Phillips was hired to serve as a consultant, to train him.
"She taught me how to get two or three stories going at one time, and she'd look over my scripts and make suggestions, which I wasn't obligated to take. Irna thought, for instance, that you couldn't have a good character do something really bad. I disagreed; the first major thing I did was to take a good guy, John Randolph, and have him involved in a tawdry relationship with his secretary. I wanted to tell the story of a young couple with children, where he works too hard, and it has a bad effect on their marriage. I was right about the story, because the ratings jumped," he comments.
Lemay views AW as an "interesting depiction of various kinds of personal ambition, not only material but psychological. There's a striving to get into 'another world,' a different world. Getting ahead is important."
Viewers who fall into the easy familiarity with the people, places and tone of their favorite stories might not realize the precision with which each episode of planned and structured.
Over at Edge, Slesar says, the latest development is that "stories are being paced much more quickly because of the show's tough position, coming on at a late afternoon hour. We want to make sure that the audience watches, that it's imperative to watch more frequently. That was a conscious decision, and we have to work harder since we need to write more stories."
With that overall goal in mind, it's unlikely Slesar will ever match his all-time favorite storyline which ran for 18 months: the introduction of the Whitney family, the elaborate machinations of a political matriarch trying to make her sons eminent. "That was a complex plot," Slesar notes, "with one single, strong thread." He feels that Geraldine Whitney Saxon will always "have somebody since people who are of a certain type will always seek to repeat the patterns."
Slesar says he plans very carefully, so elements can be concealed. There's a long-term story projection, day-by-day synopses, then scene-by-scene breakdowns. "There may be a fixed plot," he notes, "but the story bends with fresh ideas that come from the way in which the actors' own personalities are projected." Slesar doesn't discuss the story with the performers "since they'd probably promote their own roles," but he does watch the show carefully to discern their interpretations. He says the characters of April, Draper, Winter and Logan were created without the intention of a major storyline, "but now, I want to create stories around them that are sympathetic to their performances. A daytime actor does more than just speak the lines the writer writes."
Continue reading Revealed! Serial Writers' Secrets (Part 2)...