YOU WANT ME TO READ WHAAAAAAT? A Snob’s Guide to Alternative Sources for Structure in Plotting for Screenplay and TV Writing, Part III: Night Time Soaps

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essay 10This is the third in a series of essays about alternative sources for structure and plotting for screenplays and television series (for earlier entry in the series, see the bottom of the essay).

By alternative, I mean sources other than the usual tomes written by the usual gurus, sources you might not immediately think about, that can be used as guides in trying to tell your story, sources that you might not have even considered of any use in this area.

The idea of writing these essays originated with the sudden rise of what is now being called a second golden age of television, as well as a paradigm shift in the way movies are made. There are now so many different ways of telling a story on television, while in movies there has been a swing away from the Hollywood/Studio type of filmmaking, that I believe thinking outside the box when it comes to finding ways to tell stories might be a wise move to make at this time.

However, before proceeding any further, I would also like to say one other thing. You may look at many of my lists and recoil at the hoity-toityness of them all and even accuse me of being a snob.

Well, what can I say? I am a snob and I’m proud of it.

But I seriously doubt it would hurt anyone’s ability to write if they let a little more snobbishness in. In fact, it might help. You never know, so give it a try.

Today I will focus on night time soaps. These are series which have continuing story lines (i.e., the stories are not fully wrapped up in one episode or even one season).   These are shows like Mad Men, Empire, Dynasty, Dallas, Downton Abbey, etc. They have several through lines, a ton of subplots and a myriad of characters (though there may be one main character that is the focal point of the story).

However, this doesn’t necessarily include shows such as Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and Dexter.

What generally distinguishes the two types of storytelling is that in the former, who goes to bed with whom is as important, if not more so, than any other plot line (whereas in series like GOT, who goes to be with whom is subservient to and must serve the purpose of the main plot line).

In addition, what can also determine the difference, is that those of the latter belong to a particular genre: Game of Thrones is fantasy; Boardwalk Empire is gangster; Dexter is a psychological thriller).

At the same time, we may be playing an unimportant game of semantics here. The structural principles in many ways are the same.

Of course, the reading list I reference is not an exhaustive list, just some suggestions that reflect my personal preferences. So I apologize if I didn’t include your favorites. But please, do share. The more choices given, the more writers have to choose from

essay 11. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust is one of the greatest works of all time and is the snobbiest of all my snobby recommendations. Divided into seven volumes, it is told from the portrait of the central character (called the Narrator, but ostensibly Proust himself) and dramatizes his interactions with various nobles that befriend him, as well as his own personal love affairs. It is a ravishing portrait of a time and place and includes such subplots as a mistress the narrator thinks may be cheating on him with another woman; a nobleman who semantically takes apart rules of etiquette so he can attend a costume ball though his brother has died; and another noble who frequents male bordellos for S&M encounters.

essay 22. Bleak House and Little Dorrit are two of Charles Dickens greatest, though also darkest, of his many books. When it comes to constructing a story with a myriad of characters and multiple subplots, very few have come close to Dickens in achievement. In fact, almost any book written by Dickens will probably do, but these two are my personal favorites. Bleak House revolves around a peculiar British law that doesn’t allow people who are suing over a will to ever quit the legal proceedings, no matter how long it takes or how much money is involved. Little Dorrit has as two of its main through lines debtor’s prison (if you are in debt and can’t pay, you go to jail until you can pay even if being in jail prevents you from ever being able to pay) and the nightmarish bureaucracy of the patent office.

essay 33. Middlemarch by George Elliott is a portrait of an English village from 1829-32. Though there are a myriad of subplots, it primarily is driven by the story of two sisters and the marriages they enter into. Dorothea is intelligent with large aspirations. This causes her to enter into a disastrous marriage with an elderly intellectual in order to help him with his work, only to find out that, on an intellectual level, his work is now years behind the time and that, on a personal level, he cannot satisfy her sexually. Her sister Celia marries an idealistic doctor who wants to do scientific research; but she manipulates him into only thinking of money and giving her a more than comfortable life.

essay 44. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann is the story of an upper middle class German family made up of two brothers and sisters. As their lives are dramatized, it slowly becomes clear that the family line is going to end with them for a variety of reasons. Though quite nihilistic, it is so beautifully written and the characters so deep, it doesn’t feel as nihilistic as it is. It’s one of the main reasons for Mann winning the Nobel Prize of literature.

essay 55. The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy is probably the most soap operatic of all the examples here. It comprises three novels and two interludes and follows three generations of a wealthy English upper class family, the Forsytes. Enough goes on here to fill a few seasons of Dynasty. It has been done twice for television. Galsworthy wrote a sequel to the series, A Modern Comedy, but it’s a bit hard to get through.

essay 66. A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell is made up of twelve novels that covers the time period from 1914 to 1971 and follows a group of friends, their drifting apart and their continual floating in and out of each other’s lives over the course of two world wars, depression, and the Cold War.

essay 77. The Snopes Trilogy and Light in August, by William Faulkner. The Trilogy is comprised of three novels, The Hamlet, The Town and the Mansion and chronicles the rise of the vile Snopes family in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Nothing is too low for the Snopes who symbolize all that Faulkner detested about the rise of Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution in the south. The characters also appear in other novels by Faulkner. Light in August follows a group of disparate characters when a pregnant woman looking for the baby’s father and a volatile young man come to Yoknapatawpha.

essay 88. The Orphans’ Home Cycle by Horton Foote is a series of three trilogies of three one act plays based upon his parents, fictionalized here with the name Robedaux. It follows their courtship and marriage at the beginning of the 20th Century and follows them through tragedy and triumph as they face a world war, the Spanish flu epidemic and the beginning of the Great Depression.

essay 119. The Rabbit Series and Couples by John Updyke. John Updyke was one of the foremost chroniclers of the changing mores of the American middle Class. The Rabbit series is comprised of four books, Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest and traces the trials and tribulations of middle class Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom over several decades. Couples is a portrait of the changing sexual morality in the 1960’s and follows several couples who have affairs, wife swap and become swingers.


And just for kicks and giggles:

essay 910. Valley of the Dolls and other novels by Jacqueline Susann and The Carpetbaggers and other novels by Harold Robbins. Pure trash for the most part, but fun reading and about as soap operatic as you can get.


Remember, “the book you don’t read won’t help”: Jim Rohn


YOU WANT ME TO READ WHAAAAAAT? A Snob’s Guide to Alternative Sources for Structure in Plotting for Screenplay and TV Writing-earlier essays

Part 1: Epic Stories

Part 2: Rom Coms


So tell me what you think.

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