Saturday, August 6, 2011

Guest Blogger: Frances Pauli

Today I am honored, priveleged, and damn lucky to have the wonderful Frances Pauli here as my guest blogger. Since today isn't about letting me blither and blather on, I'll turn you over to her loving care.

Thank you so much for having me over for a visit.

When Voss first suggested the topic of writing serial fiction, I was tempted to say a great many things. I intended to discuss characters, and how having a big, quirky cast does wonders for keeping the story alive, how you can switch protagonists if necessary when the current one happens to plot themselves into a corner. I planned to cover tangents, which can get us in a great deal of trouble in the novel, but serve as a gold mine of side trips and looping plotlines to fill and extend the serial author’s box of tools.
Both of these things are great points, and true. But then I remembered the grand, holy grail of episodic fiction technique. I remembered where I learned it all in the first place.
Soap Operas.
Stay with me. I know you want to bolt, and yes, they’re awful. But one would have to be incredibly stubborn—or simply stupid—to ignore the fact that here, in the afternoon drama fest, are stories that have kept an audience riveted for decades. Some of the classics have entertained generations of audiences, have spanned twenty, thirty, fifty years or more. Every day.
Do you believe you can write an episode a day for half a century and keep your audience’s attention? If you could, wouldn’t you be damned proud about it? Maybe these wicked, low-brow, fiction nightmares just might have a thing or two to teach us.
So I shuffled back through my memory. You see, I never actively watched Soaps, not even in High School when my friends were hanging on the turbulent relationships of Felicia and Frisco or if they preferred a different channel, Beau and Hope.
I turned up my nose at them all. Okay, there was a short period in my late twenties where I became mildly obsessed with Passions, but it didn’t last. And, I mean, it had witches and stuff. Sue me.
No, it wasn’t through my personal experience that I learned the mystery of the serial drama. It was by proxy. Rewind some more and my childhood play was often acted out to a backdrop of my mother’s soaps. We had Luke and Laura then. We had J.R. Ewing. I mentioned the nighttime version didn’t I?
Oh dear. An entire country joined in camaraderie to figure out Who SHOT JR? I’m not kidding. It was like the moon landing…It was, well, big. I also caught snatches of Dynasty, Falcon Crest etc. Basically, call it what you will, the nighttime serial drama is the shadier version of the afternoon Soap Opera. It has the same bones.
And when Bobby Ewing turned up NOT dead, and a whole season was written off as a dream, America let out a collective groan. Well, we can learn from others’ mistakes as well as their successes.
Hands down, the Soap Opera is the ruler of serial drama. It has what it takes. Like it or not.
I watched a documentary awhile back entitled, Never Ending Stories. It addressed the Soap Opera phenomenon and, I believe, offered superb advice to the aspiring serial author. I can’t reiterate it all here, but if you see it pass on your cable or Netflix or whatnot, spend a little time on it. I assure you, its worth the little wound to your pride. In the meantime, I will pass on a few things I picked up from it…and from a lifetime on the edge of the Soap Opera addiction.

#1 The Ground Rules. Soap Opera fans know the rules. The industry has established tropes that are reliable and comforting to the viewer. There are too many to list, but things like: once you’re dead, you can come back any time you like (surprise!), and if anyone ever disappears, is abducted, or has major surgery, when they come back they are most likely an impostor. You get the idea. Now, you don’t have to adopt the, somewhat ridiculous, tropes of the daytime drama, but you can develop your own. That could be fun as well.
#2 Bigger than Real Life. Everyone in a Soap Opera is either filthy rich or a dangerous criminal. We don’t really want to examine the reasons for that too closely, but suffice it to say that people watch these things like their life depends on it because they want to BE those characters. They want to live that life, face that danger, sleep with that…okay, we understand escapism, but the point is: extreme and exaggerated. Nobody in a Soap is ordinary. Even the housekeeper was once a porn star who killed a man and ran off pregnant with his child and is now hiding from the mob under witness protection so that she can testify against…someone. Simple? I think not. Character as caricature is the rule here.
#3 The Cliffhanger. Have you seen the end of a Soap episode? I know its hard to watch them all the way through, but if you do, you know the shot: one person’s face, horrified, wide-eyed expression, maybe an open jaw and a tiny hint of over-dramatic head shaking. They’ve just walked in on something, and it’s awful. It’s so monumentally awful, or possibly impossibly wonderful, that the camera is required to zoom in close enough to see their pores so that you can examine the emotions ravaging their face. BUT, we’re not going to tell you what they saw until tomorrow. Worse than that, we won’t tell you until almost the end of tomorrow’s episode. You know, cause we have to spend the first part recapping and building tension. Some weeks we’ll wait until Friday to do this, so you can enjoy an entire weekend of concern and speculation. Then, whammo. There it is, and probably, as that settles over you, we’ll do the whole thing again with another, bigger head jiggle to boot.
Okay, I’m poking fun here a little, but you know. A milder version of these steps will work. You can mock at will, but you can’t argue with a track record like that. And so, what began as me seriously pondering the tools of a serial author has landed me here, admitting that everything I ever needed to know, I probably learned from the Ewings.
Oh dear.
The good news is, unless you lived in a home without television—which I’ve heard is possible—you probably learned it all too. So get out there and write that Soap, I mean, Serial. That’s it.

Frances Pauli writes Speculative Fiction with Romantic tendencies. Her Urban Fantasy and Science Fiction series are available through Mundania Press, and she also publishes romance stories with Devine Destinies Her ongoing serial fiction can be found at: and more information on her works and writing at:


Emmy said...

What a great post, I never thought to look at soaps that way before. I had a landlord that always wanted me to come watch them in the afternoons with her. She was super nice so I usually did but I wanted to pull my hair out most of the time. Guess I should have paid more attention. rofl.

M.Baker said...

Chicken, that blog rocked. That is a totally worthwhile thing to watch (the never ending story) it was a three part Minnie series. See they couldn't even do it in one go. Thanks for the Great post Frances and thanks for all the helpful insightful data you post on this blog Voss.

Frances Pauli said...

Thanks for the comments, and thanks so much to Voss for being a wonderul, and gracious host. :)