Soap Operas: The Cliff Hanger-The Backbone of the Genre
The cliffhanger has been the both a source of pleasure and bane to soap opera viewer since the genre was created. It is one of the hooks that keep the viewers coming back. From radio to daytime to the emergence of primetime soaps, the cliffhanger has been the one element that has remained constant. However, in the past few years with the movement away from the traditional soap opera format to one that is more titillating, the cliffhanger has also been cast aside.
In the era of multi-media and channel options, cliff hangers have become more important than ever in the success of a soap opera. With so many choices, all shows need to give the viewers a reason to keep tuning in. Historically, cliff hangers have been the genre’s best tools to create loyal fans. According the World English dictionary, the definition of a cliffhanger is:
1. Arts literature ending left teasingly unresolved: an unresolved ending in a serialized drama or book that leaves the audience or reader desperate to know what will happen in the next part
2. Arts drama serial with suspenseful endings: a drama serial that has episodes that often end in suspenseful unresolved endings
3. Tense situation: a situation full of tension or suspense because it is not clear what will happen next
By keeping the audience guessing, the writers insure they will tune in next time to learn what happens to their favorite characters. However, the more invested the viewer is in the characters the easier it is to hook them. Yet on the flip side, it is nearly impossible to retain the interest of the viewers if they can’t identify with the character or if the plot doesn‘t fit within the perimeters the show has already established. The more the viewers care about the characters, the more likely they will be loyal to the show.
Cliff hangers need storylines that are not only well written, but also well thought out and exactly timed. Cutting the scene in the middle of the action is not a cliff hanger; it is a poorly placed cut. In order to be effective, it has to be the logical progression of the plot throughout the episode. By properly organizing and timing the sequence of scenes, the writer builds the suspense and drama. Inter-cutting the primary storyline to build a secondary, not only heightens the tension, but it also initiates the next primary storyline and helps insure the show will end at climatic moment. As with comedy, timing isn't the only thing, it's everything.
Many of the current soaps have given up writing the complicated storylines that are associated with cliff hangers in favor of gratuitous sexual scenes that aren’t based in plot or character. Instead of developing characters or stories the viewers can identify with and care about, the writers have chosen to focus shallow characters and plots that more closely resemble soft porn, which is why the genre has been slowly dying. In traditional soaps, sex was the end result of romance that was gradually created over weeks of teasing, testing and sexual tension. Instant romance and relationships give nothing for the viewer to look forward to since they already know what the end results will be sex. Until the writers return to storylines, which are based on suspense, drama, romance and humor, cliff hangers will be a thing of the past, taking with them the whole genre.