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Confessions of an ex-soap writer


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I thickened the plot


...and other confessions of a soap-opera writer.

By David Hiltbrand


I’m an otherwise typical guy. I like football, fast cars and barbecue. But I have this dark secret: I’m hooked on soap operas. This is no casual thing where I know the names of a couple of the characters on Days of Our Lives. No. I’m a hopelessly habitual fan of several soaps. A serial serial watcher. My friends know not to call me in the afternoon, when I am caught up in my little world of infidelities, thwarted passion, evil twins and fabric-softener commercials.

Wait. It gets worse. I’m not just another hollow-eyed addict, craving my next dose of love in the afternoon. You see, I became a dealer, a soap lord. I spent the last year as a writer on my favorite daytime drama, All My Children.

I wasn’t raised amid soap watchers. The only place I was ever exposed to them was at work. It seemed every office had a small clique of women who gathered in the kitchen or a conference room at lunchtime to watch Search for Tomorrow or Guiding Light. Sometimes I’d hear the ladies offering advice as I passed by. “Don’t believe her, Lance,” they might say. “She’s a lying weasel. She was promising Brock the same thing yesterday.” I was never tempted to join them.

It was love that ruined me. In 1979, I began dating a beautiful woman from Pennsylvania. Her mother was apparently a big muck-a-muck in the soap-opera universe. (Gradually I would come to understand that Agnes Nixon rules the genre, having written for or created many of daytime’s biggest hits.)

One day I was fixing lunch when my attention was captured by Ryan’s Hope. Here was a world I found enthralling. Despite my Germanic surname, I’m as Irish as they come, and Ryan’s Hope was built around a big, brawling Irish family whose members spent most of their time in a cozy bar on Manhattan’s West Side. Some of the actors spoke in brogues. There was even a character named Siobhan (played most memorably by Marg Helgenberger, currently on the CBS series CSI).

The next thing I know, I’m planning my day around the show and sampling other serials as well. By the time Luke and Laura’s wedding on General Hospital became a national fixation, I was a soap snob. “You should check out Marco and Karen on One Life to Live,” I would tell soap novices. “Now that’s a couple!”

For me, the point of no return came in 1987. My girlfriend and I had married, were starting a family, and had moved to Pennsylvania. I went to work as an editor at TV Guide in Radnor. As the new guy at the magazine, I became, by default, the soap-opera editor.

Perfect. Now I could sit in my office every afternoon and watch soaps to my heart’s content and still fool people into believing I was working. It was like making a 7-year-old the manager of a Toys R Us.

From time to time my mother-in-law asked me if I would be interested in writing for her beloved All My Children. But the timing was never right — until the tail end of 1999. After years of lengthy commutes, I was burned out, and the prospect of working at home was tremendously appealing. Woe is me; I bit.

The division of labor at Children is the industry standard: There is a head writer (or two) responsible for the long-range stories — the wrenching twists and turns, the amnesiacs, the vendettas, the kidnappings, the car crashes, the secrets and lies that keep these melodramas so frothy. The head writers work closely with plottists, who portion out the action and cram as much romance as possible into hour-long packages with six acts, each with its own mini-cliffhanger to keep the audience from wandering away during the barrage of commercials. Finally there are the scriptwriters, who flesh out the outlines provided by the plottists, providing the dialogue and stage directions. These are the low scribes on the totem pole. I was hired as a scriptwriter. (Usually there are five plottists and five scriptwriters, one for each day of the week. The half-hour soaps — Port Charles and The Bold and the Beautiful — make do with smaller writing staffs.)

After spending a year in the glamorous milieu of soap operas, all I can say is Sisyphus had it easy. It’s grueling labor, and it never ends. No reruns in daytime, folks. I have friends who write for prime-time shows, and they complain about how hard it is. They do maybe 18 episodes a year — and they make a fortune. Soap operas do as many as 260, and you’re paid peanuts. (At least I was, but I was a newcomer without an agent to negotiate my contract.)

Each morning, the Airborne Express driver dropped off a number of packages, each as thick as this Sunday newspaper. To do the job right, you have to read all the scripts — not just the ones you’re assigned — at every stage in their evolution: the outline, the revised outline, the script, and finally the edited script. Evelyn Woods would have trouble keeping up. And you have to hold on to the old scripts, too, because soap operas are inordinately fond of flashbacks. You never know when you’re going to need to get your hands on a scene from two or three months ago. My tiny office started to look like a recycling plant.

Of course, you have to watch the show every day, and, if you’re conscientious, you also check out a few others just to see what the competition is up to. Then you sit down to write.

And writing for a soap opera has its quirks. It was drummed into me from the beginning that each day’s program must be tailored for long-time fans, but must also be accessible to the viewer tuning in for the first time. That’s a tough balance to maintain. It necessitates a dizzying degree of recapitulation. You find yourself resorting to hideously muscle-bound lines like “We wouldn’t be hiding in this cabin if you hadn’t forged those adoption papers for the baby you had with your ex-wife.” Try dropping something like that into casual conversation four or five times an hour.

In every daytime show, there are holes in the plot you could drive a wide-load trailer through. Edmund and Alex are in some remote, bucolic corner of England at the start of the evening, but they return to Pine Valley in time to read Sam and Maddie a bedtime story. How’s that work? Adrian, the black espionage operative masquerading as Palmer’s chauffeur, turns out to be Opal’s son. Opal may be the palest woman on the planet. She makes Nicole Kidman look ruddy. Adam builds an unbreechable security sanctuary off his den (in case of terrorist attack), yet there’s no switch inside the chamber to open the door. I’d sue the builder.

Initially, I kept trying to rectify the more glaring implausibilities. My efforts were not appreciated. The relentless pace of soap operas doesn’t allow for punctiliousness. While I am writing Monday’s show, other writers are simultaneously turning out Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s, Thursday’s and Friday’s. If I tweak the plot in my script to correct a faulty premise, it creates contradictions in the ensuing shows, because the other writers aren’t aware of my clever adjustments. I was quickly and firmly instructed to just go along, to play the cards I was dealt, no matter how stacked the deck might be.

As I learned the ropes of soap writing, I relied heavily on my mother-in-law’s wisdom. Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice was to move to Pine Valley, figuratively speaking. (The soap town, by the way, is based on Bryn Mawr — well, except for the fact that in Pine Valley you can go horseback riding on the beach.) To do the job effectively, she told me, these can’t be fictional characters who exist for only one hour a day on the TV screen. They have to become real people — at least in your imagination.

Turns out it’s easier to identify with some characters than others. I mean, how was I supposed to relate to Dimitri? Exposure to dashing Hungarian counts has been tragically missing from my life. (Michael Nader, the actor who has played Dimitri for the last decade with some panache, was arrested last month for selling a $20 hit of cocaine to an undercover cop in a Manhattan bar. Sounds like a plot line from Ryan’s Hope.) On the other hand, I did come to care deeply for Leo, Vanessa’s roguish, bastard son. I spent extra time polishing his dialogue, to make sure Leo always came across as witty and unflappable. He was like the younger brother I never had. I hope, in some small way, my extra attention made up for the fact that Leo’s (half) brother on the show, the caddish cardiologist David, treated him like dirt.

There is a danger for soap-opera writers of identifying too closely with the characters who are apt to vanish without warning. There is no one on All My Children I enjoyed writing for more than Trevor, Pine Valley’s blue-collar icon, a former mercenary. To my shock, Trevor took the rap when his wife, Janet, killed her former prison cellmate. (It’s a long story.) Anyway, Trevor went on the lam and, although Janet was eventually not prosecuted for the murder (another long story), Trevor never returned!

The fact is that the contract of James Kiberd, the popular actor who played Trevor, came up for renewal. He wanted more money. So long, Trevor. While the networks are lavish with most of their stars, they take a notoriously hard line when it comes to daytime talent, believing, quite justifiably, that there are always actors and writers looking for work in the soap factories. So if your favorite character on a soap develops a nagging cough or recurring headaches, watch out. He or she may be on the way out the door.

That is a very short trip, by the way. The strangest thing I learned while writing for the soaps was how tiny the sets are. Their unimaginably small scale makes a visitor to the studio feel like Alice in Wonderland. Hayley and Mateo’s condo, for instance, is in reality about as big as a phone booth. The richest man in town is Adam Chandler, but you’d rub your eyes if you ever saw the foyer and sitting room in his “mansion.” Together, they would fit inside a modest kitchenette. I marveled over the dollhouse size of the sets and how amazingly expansive the backgrounds appear on television. “Yeah,” said one of the stagehands, “but next time you’re watching, count how many steps it takes for someone to cross a room. It’s like three.”

My own exit from the show was as abrupt as Trevor’s. I was notified in February that my contract was not being renewed. My mother-in-law had stepped away from active involvement in Children about three months before.) No explanation was ever offered, but the behind-the-scenes politics at soap operas are far more Byzantine than anything that happens on camera. Ironically, the day before I was let go, I was nominated for a Writer’s Guild award (which I later won). And then I got nominated with the rest of the writing staff for an Emmy. I intend to show up at the awards ceremony. I think I owe that much to my fans.

It didn’t really sink in that I had been fired until the following morning. For the first time in months, no Airborne Express van pulled into my driveway, no pile of scripts had to be plowed through. My first reaction was relief. I had been liberated from the oppressive daily grind of soap-opera writing. But then I began to worry. Who would look out for Leo?

David Hiltbrand is a consulting editor for TV Guide. Direct e-mail to [email protected].


Was available at: http://inq.philly.com/content/inquirer/200...res/A25SOAP.htm

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Very enlightening. And it drives home the reason many soaps are disjointed and lack focus. If you think back to the 70's, when Y&R was written exclusively by Bell and Alden, and think about how focused it was.... you had one person driving the bus, and that's what a show needs. A different writer for each day of the week? that's ridiculous. I don't think all soaps do this. Didn't I read that on Y&R, certain writers are assigned certain characters? or Storylines? That would certainly make much more sense. It would also explain why I never could stand to watch AMC.

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I loved reading this piece. This is the clearest view into the world of a soap writer that I have ever gotten. It really explains why there is so much inconsistency in what the characters say and do from one day to the next. Why some characters are more tightly drawn and defined, while others are a mess and full of contradictions.

Thanks for posting, Sylph. This is a keeper.

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Thanks for posting, Sylph. This is a keeper.

:) I’m glad you liked it.

David’s email is available, now I think it’s a bit changed, but still available on Philly.com and perhaps Toups or someone can interview him. I bet someone who had such a history with soaps has lots of things to say about how we got where we are to day. And tons more.

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It's like peaking into a secret world! I knew that the writers work hard but Hiltbrand really brings home how details-oriented and all-consuming it is.

IA with alphanguy, too, about the lack of cohesive vision. Of course, back in the day, many great HWs were working on a half-hour (read: 20 minute) show, so they were able to write more rapidly AND spread out the story AND keep control of were everything was going. The show was utterly their creation.

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Also, I watched AMC during the period that David wrote for the show so a lot of the issues that he references are very familiar. I loved Trevor and liked Leo a lot. I thought that they were two of the most interesting characters at that time. Now I know that it was because David took the time and effort to with their dialogue.

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Very enlightening. And it drives home the reason many soaps are disjointed and lack focus. If you think back to the 70's, when Y&R was written exclusively by Bell and Alden, and think about how focused it was.... you had one person driving the bus, and that's what a show needs. A different writer for each day of the week? that's ridiculous. I don't think all soaps do this. Didn't I read that on Y&R, certain writers are assigned certain characters? or Storylines? That would certainly make much more sense. It would also explain why I never could stand to watch AMC.

Why would assigning each writer certain characters/stories make more sense? Wouldn't that create an even MORE disjointed show?

And why is it ridiculous to have a different scriptwriter for a show a day? Primetime shows have a rotating staff of two or three different scriptwriters per season, if not more.

With the way soaps are written, taped, and shot today, even a half-hour show can't function with just two or three writers. It would be downright suicide.

I agree there that it needs to be one person driving the bus, absolutely. But I think a "bus driver" with five scriptwriters, two/three breakdown writers and an editor can do that just as well.

And if you will forgive me for saying this, I don't understand your need for nostalgia where the "old way" of producing soaps is concerned. Even if someone could just write the whole half-hour or hour series by themselves, why bother? That's time that you spend running yourself into the ground could easily be spent working on editing, story projections, and creating the best product you can.

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I think it would be better if soaps had (and I presume I can easily be proven wrong) — the writers’ room. Some were never writers’ room soaps, some got rid of it. Yeah, there are conference calls, emails, faxes, whatever... But the room is something else.

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I think it would be better if soaps had (and I presume I can easily be proven wrong) — the writers’ room. Some were never writers’ room soaps, some got rid of it. Yeah, there are conference calls, emails, faxes, whatever... But the room is something else.

That is something I can totally see.

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It still amazes me to this day that Harding Lemay wrote every script of Another World's 90 minute run.

That was 5 shows a week - 90 minutes in length each.

He had other staff - in particular Tom King - but it was small and he chose to write all the scripts.

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It still amazes me to this day that Harding Lemay wrote every script of Another World's 90 minute run.

That was 5 shows a week - 90 minutes in length each.

He had other staff - in particular Tom King - but it was small and he chose to write all the scripts.

And from what I've heard AW at 90 minutes was terrible.

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Why would assigning each writer certain characters/stories make more sense? Wouldn't that create an even MORE disjointed show?

And why is it ridiculous to have a different scriptwriter for a show a day? Primetime shows have a rotating staff of two or three different scriptwriters per season, if not more.

With the way soaps are written, taped, and shot today, even a half-hour show can't function with just two or three writers. It would be downright suicide.

I agree there that it needs to be one person driving the bus, absolutely. But I think a "bus driver" with five scriptwriters, two/three breakdown writers and an editor can do that just as well.

And if you will forgive me for saying this, I don't understand your need for nostalgia where the "old way" of producing soaps is concerned. Even if someone could just write the whole half-hour or hour series by themselves, why bother? That's time that you spend running yourself into the ground could easily be spent working on editing, story projections, and creating the best product you can.

I don't think it would make the show disjointed at all. It would give consistency to have one writer write for a certain SL, they could execute the whole thing. And I don't think the shows today could do it with 2 or 3 writers, BUT.... when the show at 30 minutes was written with 2, why can't teh show at 60 minutes do it with 5? Why do they need 7, or sometimes 8 or 9?

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And from what I've heard AW at 90 minutes was terrible.

You heard wrong.

Only at the end when he wasn't writing and they were introducing all the Texas characters. It was way too many new characters.

The 90 minute period was when Douglas Watson did some of his best work ever.

It was also the period of the great Janice, Mac, Rachel, & Mitch quadrangle that lasted a little over a year and a half.

The show was very well written during this time. The biggest problem was that it was overkill and for some people too much filler as Lemay stretched the scenes out longer to fill the 90 minutes.

It was not as good as some of his earlier stuff but compared to today it was a Broadway play.

It was not everyone's cup of tea as it was not the exciting stuff going on at GH at the time.

Also this was the period of some of Beverlee McKinsey's greatest work. Her marriage to Brian ended and she got involved with the dastardly Kirk Laverty and was accused of his murder. She also learned she wasn't Mac's real daughter.

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