I grew up watching soap operas. My mom was a Young and the Restless fan, and I remember hiding under the coffee table so I could watch too. (Oh, she absolutely knew I was there—how could she not?—but bless her, she never put restrictions on what I watched, or read, for that matter.) Y&R was my gateway and then I got in deep. I was there for Marlena being possessed by the Devil on Days, for Ned and Lois (rich golden boy meets poor girl from Brooklyn) and the Sonny-Brenda-Jax love triangle on General Hospital, Jake and Paulina on Another World going from enemies to lovers—I watched them ALL. And Passions! OMG, Passions was BANANAS and so-bad-it’s-good, and I would totally rush home from school to see what kind of bonkers twist they would throw in next. My mom and I watched that one together too and would always say “we have to stop watching this, this is awful,” but we could not turn away. There was a witch with a doll child she brought to life, accidental incest, forbidden love, so many faked deaths, etc. And I haven’t even touched on the nighttime soaps like 90210 and Melrose Place, teen dramas on the WB/CW and Grey’s, the serial nature of the modern reality show (like The Bachelor), and soap operas around the world (telenovelas, etc.)
Watching soap operas were a formative experience for me, and I’m sure they fed into my love of romance. While soaps, like romance, often get dismissed as silly, frivolous things or “guilty pleasures” only for women, they’re much more than they appear on the surface. And from a craft perspective, there’s a lot to learn from soap operas as it applies to writing romance.
Any relationship on a soap opera can be distilled down to a trope. As long running as soap operas are, every trope in the book has been used in every possible permutations. What’s interesting about tropes in soap relationships that’s different from romance is that the focus isn’t just on one set of characters like you usually have in romance – there are no main characters in a soap opera, so you can see how the tropes in one relationships play out compared to other relationships on the show. It’s a great way to understand how tropes and world-building work together and also discover new parallels and intersections between different tropes.
You know when that music swells that something is going to happen that’s going to rock the world of the soap opera. Soaps are excellent at bringing the drama, but they often get criticized for being too over-the-top. And, you know, fair. (I mean, when Kimberly ripped off her wig on Melrose Place? That’s an unforgettable moment in pop culture.) But the takeaway here is soaps are always finding new ways to raise the stakes to keep people watching. Whether it’s an internal or external force putting pressure on the characters, creating these moments that surprise and elevate something that might be feeling a little stale is a great trick for a romance writer to have, especially in such a trope-driven industry where the familiar can get boring.
When it comes to cliffhangers, soaps are a master class in how to write them. What’s going to keep the viewer from switching the channel and then getting distracted with something else on a commercial break? What’s going to keep them coming back the next day or the next week? If you do it well enough, the viewer becomes a die-hard fan who has to know what will happen next. You’ve gotta leave them wanting to know more, and soap opera writers know exactly how to leave viewers dangling on that cliff. Likewise, romance writers have to keep the reader reading. You want your book to be unputdownable (it’s a word, shh), especially if you’re on Kindle Unlimited and getting paid by pages read. But even if you’re not in KU, you want the reader to keep going and get invested in secondary characters who star in the next book and become a fan who auto-buys your latest. This is not to say have cliffies for every chapter, but learn how to foster that sense of anticipation and compulsion to keep them reading.
The heyday of daytime soaps is long gone, but its legacy is still there in modern shows. Here are some soaps from around the world that you might be interested in:
Orgulho e Paixão (Pride and Passion) – If you are Brazilian or happen to speak Portuguese, I am very jealous because that means you can watch this Brazilian telenovela I have been dying to see since I heard about it last year. It’s set in Brazil in the early 20th century, and it’s based on all of Jane Austen’s works—so there’s Lizzy and Darcy, Emma, Marianne and Brandon, Catherine Morland, Lady Susan—but with more soap-y drama and mixing all the novels together. I’ve only seen one storyline done with English subtitles, and that little bit was lovely and I want more!
Romance Is a Bonus Book – This is a K-drama that I admit I started watching because of the title. (It’s set at a publishing company!) It is SO charming, with childhood friends doing a slow burn. I silently screamed at the screen while watching: “Dan-i! He loves you! Why can you seeeee???” It’s short—only 16 episodes—and on Netflix, and Eun-ho, Dan-i’s love interest, is very handsome and has a killer coat collection.
Kurt Seyit ve Şura – This was recommended to me in a romance group and it was sitting in my Netflix queue for ages, mostly because it seems like a commitment (46 hour-long episodes). It’s a Turkish drama set against the backdrop of WWI and the Russian Revolution, it’s gorgeously shot, and I’m a sucker for a period drama. (Also, the main actor looks like Chris Pine, only taller, leaner, and more intense and broody, which I am here for.)