Soap Writing 101: Plotting, Pantsing, and Pretty Little Liars

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about characterization and plotting on soaps—as kind of an expansion on a Twitter thread I wrote back in 2017. When it comes to most kinds of fiction writing, there are “plotters” and there are “pantsers.” A plotter outlines and diagrams every beat, every decision, that goes into creating a story. A pantser, as you might guess, just flies by the seat of their pants. You can’t be a pantser in soap operas, or when you’re penning any other kind of serial drama. You absolutely need to have a plan for every.single.arc. You at least need to know how it starts and how it might end. That doesn’t mean you can’t change the ending if you see that actors or fan response are skewing things a certain way. It just means plan. And like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, you have to leave yourself options. But to come in totally winging it is bad. So, so, bad.

Soap operas occupy a unique space in American pop culture, in that the shows have been on for more than 20 years and fans really pay attention. You can’t half-ass any of it. They’ll know…and they’ll let you know. When you write a soap opera, you are literally working on an ongoing book that’s had other authors before you. You can’t just make things up. You have to see what’s come before. And you have to properly play out the arcs you’re plotting in the present. Moreover, you have to follow through on your characters.

If you bring in five new characters, you better know 1) Who they are and 2) What they want. Do NOT wait six months to figure it out.

If I didn’t have a through line, I’d cry, too!

The writing team on The Young and the Restless brought on the character of Tessa Porter in 2017 with no idea what to do with her. She went from homeless busker to Nikki’s assistant to somebody with a sex-trafficked sister to a rising pop star to a corporate PA within a year-and-a-half. And now she’s an unemployed blackmailer, because…IDK why. The exploration of her bisexuality and subsequent romance with Mariah was something viewers pushed as a development—largely because it felt more organic than anything the show had thrown at the wall like limp spaghetti. Contrast that with Days of our Lives’ Leo Stark, aka Matthew Cooper, who debuted on that show in 2018. We knew from the get-go that he was a gay con artist who wanted money and power. And every decision he made going forward was rooted in that goal. It’s not rocket science. All it is…is clear motivation. You don’t necessarily need a year-long arc plotted out for one character. You just need a few dominos to knock over, so that the rest fall into line.

I specifically brought up Tessa and Leo for another reason as well—to illustrate the relationship between characterization and representation. They’re both queer grifters. Why is Y&R’s Tessa a failure for some viewers while DAYS’ Leo is a win? Speaking for me personally, I thought Tessa was poorly written for the reasons I’ve outlined above…and making the character bi didn’t magically fix any of those weaknesses. I think actress Caitlin Fairbanks has done as much as she can with what she’s been given. As a performer, how do you commit to a character’s arc when your writers haven’t done so? It’s not an easy proposition. And I’m not so desperate for bisexual representation that I’m going to hand-wave away that it’s the only thing about Tessa that’s worked in two years. Plus, we have Mariah, a character with solid motivation and history with the show, whose bisexuality reveal was handled much more deftly. It didn’t feel like a patch on a leak with her…because we’ve seen her in disastrous relationships with men over the years, seen how she’s constantly trying to find her place in town, on the canvas, and in her own family.

Meanwhile, Leo came into DAYS already established as gay. It wasn’t a “reveal” or a coming-out arc. Leo is first and foremost a classic soap schemer, the gold-digging vixen role usually occupied by women. That he happens to be a gay man is icing on the cake…not something added to the cake later to try and fix a Pinterest fail. Additionally—and this is key to me—the awful things he does, he does to people he doesn’t actually care about yet. So far, Leo loves no one above himself. Again, because he’s got a clear goal. (This is also the way Mariah was brought on in 2014.) Tessa, meanwhile, lies over and over to the woman she professes to love and then sulks about it. How is that root-worthy? Also, how is that entertaining?

There’s a difference between a schemer who revels in their scheming and one who’s just going through the motions because plot point, plot point, plot point. If Tessa was actually having fun stealing song lyrics, blackmailing people and lying, the character might’ve had some more heft. ‘Cause here’s the thing: “fun” Is a valid character choice. Especially on a soap opera. Be a chaos agent. Shake things up! Morose sad-sack…? Does not make for good soap.

To bring it back to writing and plotting vs. pantsing…it’s all about making strong choices. There are things you need to have at least some inkling of from the beginning as you create a new character. What kind of person are they? What do they have and what do they wish they had? Sure, you might not know somebody swings a certain way until you put them in a scene with somebody else and the magic happens, but you need to leave yourself room to explore that beat…and then do that beat justice when the time comes. Imagine what Tessa’s arc could have been: Discovering her feelings for Mariah while she’s dating Mariah’s brother, Noah, and then exploding that into a full-fledged triangle where she’s sneaking around with two siblings. Mess, mess, mess! If you’re going to make that character choice, COMMIT. Instead, alas, Noah was shipped offscreen after Tessa and Mariah shared all of one chaste kiss. What a letdown!

No writer wants to let down their audience. Or themselves and their story. So what’s the takeaway from this 1000-word rant of mine? It’s pretty simple. Be true to your characters, craft them and their journey with care, and the story can only benefit.

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