Friday, January 13, 2012

A Very Sad "Last" (Stephanie Kuehnert)

I know the theme for this month is "firsts," but this is YA Outside the Lines after all, so I'm gonna go outside the lines. Also there is only one thing that I could think about blogging about today, Friday January 13th, 2012, a date that has been seared in red in my brain since last spring, a day that I honestly hoped would never arrive. Today, a few short hours from now, the last episode of One Life To Live will air, and more likely than not, I will be reducing to a sobbing ball of snot.

Geez, she's being rather melodramatic about a soap opera, you are probably thinking. Well I ask you this... Dude, what other way is there to be about a soap opera?!?!

But seriously, One Life To Live has been a part of my life and routine for for about eighteen years and seven months now. I started watching it the summer before my freshman year of high school. I went to summer school that summer to get health class out of the way and learn my way around my new high school. After class, which got out just before noon, I would go to a friend's house for lunch. She was obsessed with both All My Children and One Life to Live and she got me hooked. When I started watching OLTL, two children, CJ and Sarah were trapped in a well, and a rapist, Todd Manning, had escaped jail. I had to see what happened next. And while those storylines unfolded and (veeeeery slowly) worked their way toward resolution, I became invested in others. I . Could. Not. Stop. I've spent much of my life ever since either watching OLTL when I was home from school/work or recording it to watch later.

One Life To Live wasn't the first story I've ever loved (that would be Peter Pan) or even the first series (that would be the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder). It wasn't the first TV show I rushed home to see every day (that would probably be Degrassi). It wasn't even my first exposure to romance (Sweet Valley High), steamier romance (Forever/we got cable when I was ten), rather twisted, creepy romance (Flowers In The Attic), or experience with overwrought, melodramatic arguing (I'd just graduated junior high). But it was the best combination of those things and more.

When I first heard that the show was being canceled, I wrote in depth about my history with it here. A few months ago I also explained on ROOKIE why I think it's "Literally The Best Thing Ever." I won't rehash what I said there too much. Instead I want to focus on what One Life To Live meant to me as a writer because it did present me with a first there.

By the time I started watching OLTL, I was already pretty serious about writing. Once again, Laura Ingalls Wilder takes the credit for that. Since deciding at the age of five that I wanted to tell stories like she did, I'd been learning all I could about writing in the traditional manner. I paid close attention in English class and went above and beyond for my assignments. I read voraciously, everything from mysteries to horror to fantasy to Shakespeare. I'd even gone to a few "young authors" conferences to do workshops with the pros. But One Life To Live was my first non-traditional writing teacher.


Yep, that's right, a soap opera provided essential storytelling instruction. And I'm not alone in seeingthis. I was very pleased to come across this blog, which states, "Any primetime show featuring recurring characters, storylines and cliffhangers -- from Star Trek to Friends to CSI to Mad Men and everything in between -- owes its heritage to soap operas. Without the storytelling techniques pioneered over the last sixty plus years by daytime serials, these modern-day shows would have lacked the blueprint for creating entertainment franchises of enduring popularity."

While I didn't learn everything I know about storytelling from One Life to Live, I learned a hell of a lot.

In terms of writing tension, OLTL was my best teacher, hands down. I learned how to draw out a moment, throw in twists and turns, and build a story note by note to that final showdown or explosion. I also learned from OLTL's mistakes about dragging out a storyline too long. I made mental notes of when I started to get bored or see all of the devices that the writers were using.

OLTL taught me just as much about characters. This may surprise you since soap operas are often stereotyped as having one-dimensional, melodramatic characters, but when the plot got stretched thin on One Life, it was often the characters (played beautifully by some of the hardest working, most underrated actors in the biz) that kept me invested in the show. There are so many characters on soaps and I'd found very few examples in literature dealing with such a large well-developed cast. I took hints on how to use big groups and still make individuals stand out. One of the key things I learned was giving even the villains a nuanced back story. The guy pictured at the very top of this blog is my favorite character on One Life To Live, Todd Manning. He is also as I mentioned earlier, a rapist. One of my favorite characters is a rapist. That sounds so wrong, but no one knows how to write bad guys you love to hate or bad guys who might get a little bit of redemption like a soap writer. In both my books I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, I borrowed from the Todd Manning/OLTL school of character development to create characters that I hoped readers would love and then be shocked to discover were capable of doing very bad things as well as characters that rode a fine line between love and hate, either you wanted to hate them because of one thing they did and yet you understood their motivations or you knew you shouldn't really like them, but they had this dark charisma that wouldn't let go.

Another thing I learned from One Life to Live is comedy. Yes, I learned comedy from a drama. The other two pictures above are great examples of both comedy and nuanced character development. The top is "Niki Smith" an alter personality for the very well-mannered lead character of Viki Lord. Yes, multiple-personalities is one of those out-there soap opera plots, but OLTL has always handled it so well because they manage to walk the line between using it for drama and being tongue-in-cheek. The second picture is David Vickers, an all out funny character, who is a great tension breaker when things are getting too dramatic. When I started writing, my stories were all tension and drama all the time. I made great strides as a writer when I realized the importance of injecting humor and I learned this primarily from watching OLTL. I love having oddball, fun characters like Harlan in BALLADS OF SUBURBIA. That book is a hard read, but he helps lighten the mood here and there. I also love giving my serious characters a not-as-serious side. The book where I've had the most fun balancing drama with a few laughs is the Bartender Book, which is just as much an homage to soap operas as it is to bartending, and now that OLTL is gone, I hope more than ever that the Bartender Book can find a home.

So, today I am not only losing a beloved show, one that has provided me respite after work or school five-days-a-week for almost nineteen years, I am also losing a teacher. I have to say once again that I am distressed that ABC has now replaced two hours of storytelling with more "reality" talk programming that focuses on telling us what to eat, wear, etc. Whether or not you liked All My Children and One Life to Live, if you are a lover of story this should anger you, too.

But as the saying goes, instead of being sad (or in this case, enraged) that it's over, let's be happy that it happened. I shared what kind of "first" OLTL was for me personally, but I'll close with a couple of important general firsts.

One Life to Live introduced us to this guy:
Many of you may know and love Nathan Fillion from Castle or perhaps like me you have a Firefly obsession. But just like Sarah Michelle Gellar will always be Erica Kane's daughter Kendall to me, Nathan Fillion, will always be Joey Buchanan, who dated his mother's frenemy Dorian wayyyyy before people were using words like "Cougar" to describe women like Dorian.

Also, though daytime TV is usually considered to be behind the times when it comes to social issues. A teenage Ryan Phillippe played network TV's first gay high school student in 1992 on OLTL. In 2010, OLTL also aired the first love scene between two men on a soap opera.
In case you are interested in more of what OLTL gave us, check out this short Good Morning America segment:


If you are a fan like me, please feel free to share what you learned or enjoyed most about One Life to Live. If you aren't a soap person, what are some of the TV shows that have taught you about writing/storytelling.

6 comments:

  1. I agree that most dramas with recurring characters are, or owe a debt to, soap operas. Shows like ER and LA Law and even Cheers and Friends (comedies) used many of the elements of daytime serials. One thing is sowing the seed of attraction between two characters and then having years of will-they-or-won't-they, now-they're-together-now-they're-apart. Another is the intrigue of people taking over each other's businesses, the betrayals and backstabbings.

    I watched Guiding Light when I was in junior high and high school. First place I ever saw Kevin Bacon! I loved being able to watch character arcs play out over a long period of time. But the one things soaps did that drove me crazy was accelerating the growth of children. Someone would have a baby, the baby would be there for a while, and then would go away and about five years later would come back as an 18-year-old, while all the adult characters retained their regular ages!

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  2. I know exactly how you feel, Steph...My show's GENERAL. I've watched it since the heyday of Luke and Laura. I was SO afraid that it'd get chopped, too. I've lived with the evolution of some of those characters since the '80s, and I'd sincerely miss them if I couldn't check in with them every day.

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  3. Jennifer, yes, so true! I love that will-they-or-won't-they stuff. Also love the backstabbing. But the SORASing (it's so common on soaps they coined a term for it, Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome) does drive me mad. Especially on OLTL when they screwed with it so much they made Dani older than Jack even though Jack was born first, gah!!!!!

    And Holly, they are bringing some of my fave OLTL characters to GH so I will be joining you in watching it now and really hoping it doesn't get the ax.

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  4. How cool! I'll be on the lookout for those new characters!

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  5. The three "stories" I remember watching religiously with my mother, sister and great-aunt are "The Young & The Restless", "Days of Our Lives" and "One Life to Live."

    While I enjoyed Victor's multiple staged deaths and Marlena's yearly possessions/exorcisms, OLTL was my favorite because despite the lovely over-the-top soapiness, it was grounded in a reality that I appreciated. Character development was always first and I definitely learned that delicately layering complex stories while still engaging an audience is an art form.

    Robin Strasser (Dorian) fueled my appreciation for complicated villains and I actually scheduled my pre-DVR-era college classes around OLTL so I wouldn't miss Nathan Fillion's (Joey Buchanan) and Kamar de los Reyes' (Antonio Vega) storylines.

    I'm sad to see these iconic programs canned, especially for the sake of more "talk" shows. There goes my secret dream of writing for a soap opera!

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  6. For four years in college I was on an All My Children and Once Life to Live jag (while everyone else was into Days of Our Lives). So sad to see them end. One of my most vivid recollections of childhood is coming home from kindergarten and watching The Young and the Restless with my mom while eating tuna sandwiches. It truly is an end to an era.

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