Once upon a time, my friends and I were all soap opera junkies. We loved our soaps, and I taped my favorite soap everyday for years. How times have changed. Now I don’t bother watching soaps anymore, and neither do any of my friends. We all stopped watching them years ago. I don’t think it’s our age. Both of my grandmothers were still watching their favorite soap operas when they were well into their eighties. I think it has to do with the fact that soap operas today are so poorly written. Soap operas used to be about love and romance. Then the producers decided they wanted younger, “more hip,” audiences, so the writers began writing outrageous story lines about demonic possession, characters being buried alive, couples going back to the garden of Eden, and UFOs. Good plot lines for The X Files, but definitely not what we wanted to see on Days of Our Lives.
Those of us who are fiction writers or storytellers know that basic plot structure revolves around conflict, and how the characters react to and resolve the conflict. For many, many years, soap operas relied on these classic plot lines which consistently worked and kept viewers watching. They were:
The Romantic Triangle. Boy meets girl. They fall in madly love. But another girl is also in love with the same boy, so she plots and schemes, relentlessly, to break them up, becoming, “The Girl We Love to Hate.” Such was the Steve, Alice and Rachel triangle on Another World that kept viewers watching for years. It’s even written up in Wikipedia.
Extra-Marital Affairs and Illegitimate Children. The side effect of the romantic triangle. Days of our Lives kept their audience riveted for years, wondering when Mickey would find out that Mike was actually his brother Bill’s son.
Long Lost or Unknown Half Siblings. Boy meets girl. It’s love at first sight. But one of their mothers is dead set against their relationship, and she does everything in her power to break them up. Soon the truth comes out. Years ago, Mom’s lover was the father of her child’s love interest, and they’re half brother and sister. Fortunately, this always comes out before the romance is consummated. A good plot twist is when later on, after they’ve both found other love interests, the other mother comes forward and says no, so and so was not the father of her child after all, so they were never half siblings in the first place. The fun never stops.
The Big Frame-Up. From time to time a villain has to be killed off, and what better way to do it than to have a favorite leading man or lady framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Of course, they would eventually be found innocent, but never until after they’d gone to trial, been convicted, and ended up in prison. This plot line can be easily adapted to 21st century technology by simply having the real killer tamper with the DNA test results.
Catastrophic Diseases or Injuries. Hodgkin’s Disease was common on soaps. So were brain tumors and comas. Pregnancies were, more often than not, high-risk. Miscarriages were frequent and could be caused by the strangest things, such as tripping over a wastepaper basket. And how many times did we see our favorite characters go blind or deaf? But, at least in Soap Opera Land, everyone always recovered–only to be struck down by another malady a few years later. The only disease that soap opera characters were ever immune to was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Amnesia. A rare medical condition in the real world, but at one time it was quite common on soaps. Having a favorite character lose his or her memory and wander off somewhere, with everyone else thinking they were dead, made for great soap opera watching.
Returning From the Dead. This is oftentimes the end result of amnesia. A favorite character is involved in a plane crash or other catastrophic event. He or she is missing and presumed dead, but the body is never found. The character leaves the show, only to return sometime later. (Sometimes played by a different actor upon returning.) This plot line has many possibilities. The character may be recovering from the aforementioned amnesia, or maybe not. Either way, the memories will eventually return, but oftentimes not until after experiencing another catastrophic event. The other scenario is when the character returns after having finally escaped from being held captive somewhere. Regardless of the circumstances, no one ever makes it back home until after their spouse or lover has moved on and found someone else. However, this plot can be overdone. Come on, Days of Our Lives. How many times can Stephano DeMira be brought back from the dead?
And there you have it. Any romance writer worth his or her salt knows that such stories of star-crossed lovers have worked since Romeo and Juliet. Too bad that soap opera writers abandoned the basics in favor of the bizarre. Once they did, they lost touch with their loyal viewers, and once an audience is lost, it’s nearly impossible to get it back.