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Drama vs Soap Opera


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I think we can generally tell if a TV show is a drama or a soap opera (though there will always be shows that are borderline), but what's the difference between the two in a written story?


One of the guidelines for a TV show is the tendency to end episodes with a cliffhanger, but I would hesitate to call the stories by our resident Kings and Queens of Cliffhangers (as voted by the Readers' Choice Awards) as soap operas. So how do you tell if a story is drifting from drama into soap opera?


Needless to say that this is not an idle question. I've been looking at the events in my current novel and I can certainly see soap opera elements. Since I don't want to write a soap opera....


My initial thoughts are that a written soap opera would have attributes along the lines of:

  • Story continues indefinitely with no end in sight
  • New plot elements added often to keep the story going


If others agree, then I'll be happy. My view on a story is that it's set up initially, but after that point the story should largely progress as a logical (or illogical for some characters) consequence of that initial set-up. Some new plot elements can be added, but these should be kept to a minimum and preferably have some logical connection with the rest of the story.


Any comments? What do you see distinguishes a drama from a soap opera?


As an aside, I quite like reading soap operas (or, more accurately, space operas), but I'm currently trying to write a drama....

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Would I be wrong in thinking that in soaps, the plot tends to lead the characters along more often, while in dramas, it's the characters who steer the plot?


The story in soaps will also usually progress from event to event with little (if any) downtime inbetween, whereas dramas are much less reliant on plot events to pull the story along.

Edited by MJ85
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I think the key is the point on logical progression. Soap opera's seem to have the characters get smacked in the face with something out of deep left field as a new plot element rather than have the new twist be lead in from previous events.


That is not to say that things don't hit from deep left field in life, but when that becomes the norm it looses its impact.

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I agree with Mj, Soap Operas are led by events. A new pregnancy, a murder, a sex scandal, etc. You may not even find out who done it at first, but the event still drove the story on. Where as Dramas, the characters and their decisions usually cause consequence and creative changes.


Soap Operas are shock value with little build up.


Drama, has substance and build up to those 'big events.' 

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Soap operas are also, generally speaking, marked by a certain degree of melodrama. 


That's a very good point.  I think when you have a lot of those 'frozen moments', when it's easy to visualize everyone stopping and gasping as ominous music plays in the background (like you'll find in the clip at 6:50), you're walking into soap opera territory. 


A blast from the past:


Edited by Mark Arbour
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I think we can generally tell if a TV show is a drama or a soap opera (though there will always be shows that are borderline), but what's the difference between the two in a written story?


As has already been said, soaps are about events driving the characters - essentially "what happens next?" A novel isn't a soap opera - that term only makes sense in radio and TV where there's a team of writers who can continue the thing indefinitely if the creators hit paydirt - but a novel can also have events driving the characters.


I think what you mean is "episodic" writing like Dickens or, maybe, even Conan Doyle - his trick was that the "new plot elements" were always the next adventure / mystery to solve. So Dickens's writing was often episodic within his novels while Conan Doyle's was, shall we say, episodic across a whole series. There'll often be cliffhangers in episodic writing - both these writers published serialized stories as installments in weekly / monthly magazines - but the drama is always eventually resolved within each story. Except that with the series there may be unresolved elements that can be carried across.


And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that if that's the style you want to write / the characters need, and your readers want to read :)


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