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Learning to Become a Better Writer

Now and then I contribute to a blog on writing. This one, published recently, is about watching soap operas to become a better writer. I thought you might be interested in how authors learn from scriptwriters:

Unless you’ve been hooked, you can’t imagine how addicting a soap opera can be. When I was teaching in the local school, I could leave there at 3:20, just in time to make the beginning of a 30-minute soap, The Edge of Night. I didn’t run anybody over, but I broke the neighborhood speed limit. That’s for sure.

Scriptwriters know how to keep their audience captivated. Their scenes are all action. (Don’t forget dialogue is action too). You can use dialogue the same way they do. You can lace it with foreshadows. The actor’s complaint of pain could mean he has a hangnail or a brain tumor. Or not. Foreshadowing will keep your readers captivated too.

Is your character speaking sarcastically or mournfully? Instead of cluttering your dialogue with adverbs and adjectives, zoom in on what the soap actors are doing. Is their upper lip curling, their brow furrowing, or their cheek twitching? Use those fine-grained gestures rather than modifiers to communicate your own character’s feelings. When a new character is introduced in a soap, notice how the actors gossip about his or her past. You too can use dialogue instead of description and exposition to tell your readers whether the woman being brought home to Mama is a brazen hussy or motherly widow.

And while you’re watching, observe the transitions. No lengthy explanations bridge the scenes. Trust your readers to navigate the same kind of shifts. Begin the next scene with action. Throw your characters into the center of a conflict. Then end the scene with a cliffhanger like the scriptwriters do every Friday.

Finally, see how scriptwriters weave subplots into their story. Subplots add breadth, depth, and complexity to a story. Moreover, they can slow the pace of the main plot, throw obstacles in the protagonist’s path, and prolong suspense by interrupting the action of the main plot.

So take an occasional break from writing to watch a soap opera and concentrate on how the scriptwriters use dialogue to foreshadow and reveal a character’s past and how they use fine-grained gestures to clarify a speaker’s meaning. Then focus on how they manage transitions and weave subplots into their story.

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