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Television Soap Opera – A Formula for Success

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Caren Kennedy

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Where once the only soap operas available were Emmerdale and Coronation Street aired just twice weekly, these days soaps represent a huge slice of the television market with some producing up to five episodes every week, all year round.  To keep pace with demand, episodes are scripted by teams of writers and as a result many new ones get their first break by writing for one.

But writing soap is not for everyone though because while styles certainly vary, all shows follow the same basic forthy formula which must be adhered to. From Emmerdale set in England’s Yorkshire DalestoDesperate Housewives in the US, to Ireland’s Fair City, like it or not the formula remains the same.

So, what is it exactly? In essence, soaps centre round fixed communities caught up in melodramatic storylines involving family life, employment, and personal relationships.  To appeal to as wide an audience as possible, characters cross generations and include babies, children, teenagers, young adults, right through to senior citizens and occasionally even beyond this to the grave.  Storylines regularly entail convoluted tales of adultery, nervous breakdowns, sex changes, unwanted and / or thwarted pregnancies, bigamy, adoptions, divorce, religious conversions, theft, etc.  Unexpected calamities occur with alarming (and predictable!)  frequency at weddings, funerals, christenings, anniversaries and other major life events.

They are also extremely popular.  EastEnders is regularly watched by 8-12 million viewers and its biggest audience ever topped 30.1 million in 1986 – roughly half the UK’s entire population at the time. But it wasn’t a murder hunt or a bombing or even a ‘who shot JR Ewing’ storyline that drew these whopping figures.  Millions of people tuned in to witness Den Watts present alcoholic wifeAngie with her divorce marching papers … watch it here.

In any soap, there are always at least three stories running concurrently, not all are interconnected and most are generally spun out over several episodes before reaching a conclusion, whereupon the characters involved are invariably beset with a new, often bigger, crisis.  And this before they’ve even had time to draw breath or put the kettle on.

Some soaps, such as EmmerdaleCoronation StreetEastEnders and Fair City, are so similar in structure they’re almost identical – working class homes revolving around a local pub and workplace and populated by ‘ordinary’ people.  Within this, however, each show has its own unique style.  Where EastEnders focuses on the ‘reality’ of market street life in London’s East End; Emmerdaleconjures up ‘idyllic’ country living; and Coronation Street invokes Manchester’s notorious ability for producing ‘straight talkers’ with a sense of humour.

Desperate Housewives in the US, on the other hand, follows the lives of a group of beautiful women, as seen through the eyes of their dead neighbour, in what is … on the surface anyway … a seemingly quiet suburban neighbourhood.  Behind closed doors, however, these women face domestic situations dominated by mysteries, adulterous liaisons and murders etc. that often spill out onto the street.


Other soaps, like RTÉ’s Fair City, set in Carrigstown a fictional suburb in Dublin, have a more social-realist baseline.  Apart from the usual soap opera staples involving youthful romance, jealousy, teenage pregnancies, domestic rivalry, gossip, extramarital affairs, forgotten spouses and off-spring, Fair Cityhas featured numerous hard-hitting storylines reflecting topical issues of the day in Irish society.  Since its inception in 1989, when RTÉ decided it needed an urban soap to compete with ones being aired in the UK, the show has tackled controversial subjects such as rape, abortion, racism, immigration, homosexuality, prostitution, disability, drug dealing, addiction, bulimia, organised crime, domestic abuse, missing persons, depression, schizophrenia and suicide etc.

Phew!  Is it any wonder soaps employ so many writers and are an obvious area for the new writer to attempt to break in? Conversely, there are certain things a writer might find helpful to cultivate in order to write for one:

  • An ability to work closely with others as part of a team.
  • Dream up storylines and write scripts requiring a fast turnaround.
  • A passionate interest in everyday life.
  • A thorough understanding of the nature of the long running soap opera formula.
  • A genuine respect for, and interest, in soap and regard their dramatic content as worthwhile entertainment.
  • An active imagination capable of twisting local gossip and trivia in to high drama of Shakespearean proportions, along with a sense of humour.

By way of providing examples to some of the more bizarre storylines typically used in soaps, click here to read a December 2010blog entry posted on The Guardian’s website celebrating Coronation Street’s 50thanniversary.

So what do you think?  Are you up for it?!  And if you’re a soap fan, what’s your all time favourite?

*** If you enjoyed this post, please consider commenting and / or sharing it! ***

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