Posted by jenn on March 8, 2008
When reading Mary Ellen Brown’s Motley Moments: Soap Operas, Carnival, Gossip and the Power of the Utterance, I was struck by the many different things that can affect narrative construction. The incorporation of advertising (perhaps it is not as blatant now as it was in the past), actors leaving the show, viewer reactions, and multiple story lines stretching out over long periods of time. What I felt most characterized the narrative aspect of American soaps is Brown’s mention of the fact that “writers favor ambiguity in their story lines because it leaves more options for future development of the story” (188).
Ambiguity in American soap operas is key, with many questions left unanswered such as “is this character good or evil?”, “what might happen to these characters next?”, and the all-too-prevalent “I wonder when they are going to bring up [that thing that was mentioned once] again and make it into its own storyline.” I wonder about this in relation to some of the things we have seen lately on ATWT. A few weeks ago, Emily mentioned to Margo that she used to be a prostitute, and yet there has been no fallout from this. Is it at all possible that Emily’s revelation will go unmentioned? It is very doubtful that this won’t come up in its own storyline. We received slight mention of Barbara’s cancer a few weeks ago, and it now seems to be surfacing into a storyline…however, where it is going is ambiguous. Will Barbara putting her children in front of her radiation therapy cause the cancer to worsen and her to die? Or will she recover, battle it out and beat the cancer? Will she dramatically take a turn for the worse only to miraculously recover? Will she also lose her hair, as Lucinda did in the clips we watched from years ago? Where the story is going for Barbara is completely ambiguous right now. And what about Lily and Holden? While they seem to be on the mend, Lily is also holding out, talking of needing time to get over Dusty. And while this could have been the beginning of the recovery of their marriage, the fact that Martha Byrne is leaving ATWT means that their storyline could now head in a different direction entirely, emphasizing the influence actors can have on the plot. Where has Craig gone? The ending to his story is also ambiguous, with us not knowing if we will simply never see him again, or if he will be written in at some later point, returned from his life “on the run.” What is Matt’s role in ATWT? Will his role be long-lasting, or is he just going to be on the show for a short time spicing things up? I think that it is too soon to tell, but I hope that he stays for a while because I find him very interesting and I can’t quite figure him out.
The ambiguity in these stories allows for flexibility in the storyline – things can change, and sometimes, viewers can have an impact. We’ve seen it many times, where viewers will fall for a specific character, and they will start to enjoy more screen time than previously. Occasional guest stars can become regulars. I found it very interesting when Brown remarked upon the fact that American viewers have more power on storylines in their soap operas, for example, than Australian viewers in their own. Brown mentioned the screening schedule, and the ability of storylines to change because they are not filmed so far in advance. Soap operas in Australia, however, are often imported or have much longer screening times, so that by the time an event is happening on televised episodes, the rest of the storyline has been filmed already, and viewers don’t have a say. How important is that say, and the flexibility of the soap opera narrative? Would we still be as involved, if we didn’t think that we could somehow influence the plot?