For Christmas this year, my dear sweet brother and his wonderful wife gave me the book Days of Our Lives: A Complete History of the Long-Running Soap Opera (by Maureen Russell). It has the standard storyline synopses, which I always find amusing:
Justin’s temporary paralysis drew Justin and Adrienne closer together, but his Uncle Victor again interfered in the life of the couple and secretly gave Justin medication that made him impotent. When the couple left town for a vacation and Justin was away from the drug, his problem was solved.
Since I’m such a Steve and Kayla dork, I always read their story in these histories, looking for errors—which there always are, it’s unavoidable—and seeing if they go for “Patch” or “Steve.” The author made a nice choice, which I hadn’t seen before. She called him “Patch” at first and then had this sentence: “Kayla and Patch, to whom she now referred to by his given name, Steve, grew closer.” (I love all these “grew closer”s, it can mean so many things.) And thereafter the author, too, referred to him as “Steve.”
But what I really found interesting were the short chapters on “The Writers,” “On the Set,” “The Fans,” and so on. The book was published in 1995, but the chapter on the writers included mostly quotes from writers from the 70’s and early 80’s. (Can’t blame the author for making that choice.) Reading quotes from writers and producers from that time always makes me want to weep, because they all stress the importance of long term plotting and emotional realism—the two things I crave the most. Here’s Bill Bell (Days headwriter from 1966-1973) on secrets and reveals:
Today writers seem to feel they need the revelation to move on with the story. But there is so much more power in not revealing it. Experience in storytelling tells you that you have something terribly significant here and that if you wait for the right moment it is going to be explosive. But too often people rush into something […] If you wait long enough and keep playing it, then you will find that facets always open up, if you dig into the story and way inside your characters. I really like to motivate characters, and to motivate characters you have to know and understand them. You need time and depth. I often have something I know will have a lot of impact today, but I also know that if we wait, I do not know how long, but someday that moment is going to be there, where it has so much more impact.
Sigh. Bill Bell (who left Days to start The Young and the Restless) is widely seen as a master plotter. What he’s talking about here of course is giving the payoff, building up to it, exploring all the angles of the story, giving us some twists and turns, and then that resolution where it all comes together.
But speaking of payoffs, here’s a shocker, Bill Bell again regarding Doug and Julie:
I continued to be unalterably opposed to any marriage between Doug and Julie. All too soon the proverbial honeymoon with be over, inevitably the spark diminished, the love songs a little less exciting.
I had to read that over a couple of times. Did he mean never, really, never? I know what he’s talking about, of course, the old supercouple problem: what do you do with them after they finally get together? But the solution surely is not never putting them together. (He was serious about his opposition to the wedding—it took place after he left.)
Doug and Julie took eight years to make it to the altar, and I take my hat off to Bill Bell and Pat Falken Smith, who succeeded him as headwriter, for sustaining the interest and tension for that long. I think the stories told for Doug and Julie must have been different than the “supercouple” stories I’m familiar with—a detour like Doug’s marriage to Addie, for example, which ended up being a love match, isn’t consistent with the way the supercouple stories were told. Those stories really did play up the “I love only you” angle (and romantic sap that I am, it’s something I miss today—but it has to be earned!). Whenever I think about the supercouple love stories from the 80’s, I think two years, maybe three, is as long as the path to the altar could be stretched out. After that you lose tension, or the problems become artificial.
Of course, I’m all for drawing romances out. In fact, I’m dying for more of it now. But if you’re not Bill Bell, I think eight years is probably too long. Shawn and Belle, for example, also took about that long to finally get married. But putting aside the recasts, the lack of chemistry between the actors, even the thinness of the characters themselves, in purely story terms I don’t believe these two love each other that much. They keep saying they do, but why would Shawn run off with Willow as soon as they were both finally free? Shawn seemed pretty happy with Mimi, too. And now we’ve got Belle drawn to Phillip again, after she’s finally got Shawn. Yawn. Adultery aside, I’m sure there are Shelle fans who are delighted that Shawn and Belle finally made it. But mucking up the relationship for eight years and then slapping them together at the end is not a payoff.
Going back to the book, there was a quote from an early Days producer, Jack Herzberg, where he talked about the importance of pace. He said that some viewers only watch two to three days a week and you have to make sure that they can keep up with what’s going on. So it’s important not to go too fast. But then there are the people watching all five days a week, and you don’t want them to be bored with repetition. He said these five-days-a-week viewers are “like gold,” and you reward them with depth and really exploring all the emotional facets of what is going on.
I love this idea. Ken Corday is always talking in interviews about “rewarding” longtime fans of the show, and I think he really has no idea what that means. Yes, happy endings and payoffs are important. Even occasionally dropping an unpopular storyline, or satisfying a fan requested storyline can be good PR. But I would love to be rewarded for my five-day-a-week, minimal fast-forwarding viewing with intricate long-term plotting, delayed payoffs, and above all, depth.