Writing and Producing Soap Operas
Soap Opera Storylines
Soap operas storylines have a 13 week rotation schedule which is based on one primary, 2-3 secondary and multiple filler plots. Although primary storyline may contain several sub-plots, there is one central theme or question that runs through from beginning to end. Unlike movies, soaps and all continuing series have plots that are designed to over lap; it is this intertwining of stories that keeps the show running indefinitely.
Over the decades the format has become very styled and fixed; the timeline is broken in to thirds. During the first third, the primary characters are introduced and the conflict is launched. In the middle third the conflict is developed by adding sub-plots, which gives both helpful and misleading details. The final third is the resolution to the conflict. Even though the portions are listed as being in thirds, they are rarely expressed in equal lengths of time. More often than not it is the middle section that is the longest and contains the most drama.
Each storyline has five sections: beginning, mid-point, body of the story, conflict resolution and the denouement (also call the end of the end). In the beginning, characters are introduced and the conflict identified. At the mid-point a crisis develops that forces the main character to make decisions. The body of the story is where the main characters works through the conflict. The conflict resolution is just that; the characters must face the challenge with either a positive or negative result. Denouement is French for end of the end. It is the last of the story that gives a hint to what will happen in the future. Not all stories have this tail at the end, but I think it is a nice touch In soaps, the denouement, becomes the basis of the next storyline that will involve the characters. The beginning and the mid-point will usually be found in the first third. The characters are introduced and the conflict is set up. The middle third contains the mid point and most of the body of the story. This section contains the clues--both real and false, the subplots, and character development. The body contains the bulk of the story. It gives dimension to the characters and adds suspense, by heightening the drama as the characters are forced to make decisions which limit or change their options. A correctly written conflict is best describes as staircase. With each step, more information is given, but also options are limited. The conflict resolution, including the crisis moment and solution, and the denouement will be contained in the third section. However, in soaps, the end is never the end, but the beginning of another storyline.
The primary storyline is the one that is front and center. It consumes the most air time and resources of the show. However its development is very specifically controlled to maximize suspense and keep the viewers coming back. Usually the primary story airs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Fridays used to be the cliffhanger day that left the viewer hanging, insuring they that they would be back on Monday. The first part of Monday was to resolve the tense moment from the week before, while the second half started the story moving forward. Wednesdays are also hump days for storylines. They are designed to keep the plot moving forward and set up the viewer for the cliffhanger on Friday.
Secondary storylines air on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Although there may be two or three, one will be favored and will become the next primary storyline once the current one is resolved. Usually at the mid point which is about week seven, one of the secondary stories will be accelerated. However, it’s own clock will not started until it takes center stage.
Filler stories are plots that have just begun to form or scenes that are character building. They are unstructured and can be placed any where time needs to be filled or a character needs to be developed. Although they may seem like fluff, in reality they are a very important parts of the soap structure.
Soaps, like all scripts written for commercial television, have four different versions: creative, working, shooting and post production.
The creative script is very much like a stage play. It contains the dialogue, some stage direction, and the scene transitions. But very little else. It is the starting point and ending reference point for every episode.
The working script is more detailed. The page is divided into two columns; one for the audio or what the audience will hear, the other half contains what they will see. The audio describes what audience will hear--dialogue, music, special effects, etc. The video half explains what is happening on the screen. It has all the blocking of the actors and the props. It is the equivalent of the storyboard in movies.
Shooting scripts are used primarily by the directors and techs; however, the cast also finds the information useful. . This script list the specific shots for each camera and in what order the cameras will be used as well as what the camera need to focus on. The director along with the audio tech, stage manager and camera operators will organize the shots and the lighting after watching the rehearsal. Although the director preside over the set, the cast does have input into the blocking and their characters portrayal. Television is not only a team sport, but it is also an interdependent activity. In spite of the egos, the cast and crew do need to work together in order to create a quality product.
Both the working and shooting scripts are organized for convenient and efficient production. All scenes that use one set will be shot together and edited to be in their proper order. These scripts are also the time keepers for the episode. During rehearsal the scenes are timed in order to keep the proper flow and to keep the episode within the broadcast time limits.
Post Production is where the individual shots are edited together into a complete scene. Music, special effects and credits are added. The scenes are then edited together into a complete package that will fit into the broadcast format for time and commercial breaks.
Broadcast Standards for Hour TV Shows
Even though a show technically fills an hour, the show itself is not an hour long. Commercials take up from six to eight minutes of air time in order to make a profit.
Not only does the FCC still regulate the amount of advertising that can be shown in entertainment shows, but they also have standards that the stations must comply with.
Stations are legally required to identify themselves at the top and bottom of the hour; however, they have a two minutes margin on either side in order to meet the standard. The identification must include the station’s call letters and location. During sweeps weeks, most stations also identify themselves at the quarter hour in order to insure their station receives the proper credit for the viewers.
The amount of advertising breaks in a show depends on the target audience. Children’s programming is more restrictive; not only is the advertising time shorter, but there has to be a very clear separation between programming and ad. Advertising for adults or general audience programming is not as restrictive, but the time is also limited to 6 minutes during the half hour plus the 1 1/2 minutes between, which leave only 22 minutes for actual show time.
In soaps, there are breaks at the top, bottom, and around the quarter hour. In addition there is also a floating break. At the bottom of the hour there are is actually closer to a three minute break which is split between the network and the local station. It is the reason for the five second bumper that states the show will be continuing. The second half hour continues with the same format of three breaks during and the one at the end.
Soaps are a for profit business. However, each time they break away for advertising, they risk loosing their audience, which is why the pace and flow are so important when it comes to the writing, directing and editing. It is the reason why scenes are cut at climatic moments for commercials and why a well written show ends with a cliffhanger. If you keep the view hungry for more, they will keep coming back to the table.