I grew up watching soap operas.
First, my grandma introduced me to the genre during the summers when my sister and I would visit her for summer vacations in Indianapolis. I still have memories of underground cities and wild-west time travel throwbacks on One Life to Life, the soap my grandmother scheduled her whole retirement days around.
Later, on my own, I discovered The Young & The Restless and fell in love with a foursome of young Black upwardly-mobile, yet scandalous, characters – Drucilla, Neil, Malcolm, and Olivia – and a dramatic grand matriarch – Mrs. Katherine Chancellor – who used to walk around her mansion on the hill in her perfectly coiffed hair, furs, and diamonds… just because. And on a side-note, here’s some cultural capital and knowledge about Black people – every Black grandma knows about, loves, and wanted to be Mrs. Chancellor, and all their grandkids – my generation – still have fond memories of Dru, Neil, Malcolm, and Olivia, even though most are long-gone from the show.
Soaps were, and are, an escape and entertainment.
I followed not only the stories, but also the behind-the-scenes scoops about writers, actors, and how the art of storytelling came about. I learned that the masters, like The Young & The Restless creators Bill Bell and Lee Philip Bell, and the writers who trained under them, followed a steady, unique vision that valued long-term, somewhat slow, but always fulfilling, character-driven storytelling. This is opposed to a short-term, somewhat fast, but equally fulfilling in different ways, plot-driven stories that other soap teams valued.
Soaps were, and are, about fantasy fulfillment, and deliver fulfillment in multiple ways.
For those of us who write novels – specifically novels about LGBTQ romance, Queer romance, Same-Gender-Loving romance – our writing styles can fall along either continuum of the soap writing styles I mentioned briefly – slow, character-driven, and fulfilling; or fast, plot-driven, and fulfilling. Both employ equally valid methods for entertaining readers.
Ultimately, our novels, just like soap operas, are about fantasy fulfillment, escape, and entertainment. They also can deliver powerful messages and education about social issues and communities that people may not encounter regularly.
When I wrote Play It Forward, a novel for Bold Strokes Books, I had several of the elements of soaps in mind, although I knew I was working on a literary piece.
I thought first about romance, something that our readers (and I) think about often. I thought about opposites attracting — in the case of Play It Forward, a community activist and a professional basketball player. I thought about the ways such opposites might, by chance, come into contact with each other. I thought about Bill Bell’s technique – know your end game, which for LGBTQ romance novels and soap operas, is a couple ending up together, BUT prolonging the end game by considering what are the obstacles that happen along the way that keep them apart, make their love seem impossible, give readers the idea that maybe, just maybe, it just can’t work out. Many things – and people – happen along the way in Play It Forward, that make you wonder – will things work out for our main characters? Romance is key in my previous novels, too – Down For Whatever and Right Side of the Wrong Bed.
I also thought about the art of the cliffhanger – i.e. giving a “Friday, what’s going to happen on Monday” scene with several of the chapter endings.
And, as you’ll read in Play It Forward, I also pay homage to soap operas – some of the characters’ names, the use of flashbacks and fantasy sequences, name dropping past and current daytime and nighttime dramas. As you may or may not know, there are currently only four soaps on daytime television now – Days of our Lives, General Hospital, The Bold & The Beautiful, and The Young & The Restless.
One of the current podcasts and websites that I listen to and read regularly, Daytime Confidential, helps me keep up with the stories, since I can’t always watch daily. The show honors the historical and current legacy of soap operas – especially paying attention to the craft, writing, and production value of the four remaining shows, while paying homage to the legends who paved the path for dramatic storytelling. The discussions led by the Daytime Confidential crew have been instrumental in getting me to think not only about writing quality and keeping a steady vision on my creative products, but also about the entertainment value that consumers turn to television and novels for.
At one point as a kid, I wanted to be a soap opera writer. Secretly, I still do. Until that career opportunity avails itself, I will continue to use the elements of soaps that entertained me all my life in my fiction and novel writing.
Frederick Smith’s novel, Play It Forward, is available now at Bold Strokes Books. His previous novels are Down For Whatever and Right Side of the Wrong Bed. Contact him at www.FrederickLSmith.com or follow him on Twitter at FSmith827.