Introduction to Popular Culture Studies

Ambiguous Narrative

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?


7 Responses to “Ambiguous Narrative”

  1. Giada said

    Martha Nochimson in her “No end to her – Soap Opera and the female subject” writes: “Patrick Mulcahey (…) who has written for Search for Tomorrow, Loving, Guiding Light, and Santa Barbara, defines the craft of creating suspense in the soap opera episode by means of an analogy. He tells of driving in New England and seeing a roadside sign bearing two lone words: “Frost Heaves.” The possibility in language for perverse opacity, captured for Mulcahey by the eruption of this ambiguous sign before the traveller, is, he implies, the essence of the daily soap opera scene.” (p.126 of my 1992 edition).

    You may know what happens on soaps, but you never know how it happens. And even if you know that, you want to WATCH IT HAPPENING. THAT is the pleasure.

    As an Italian viewer, I have sometimes watched soaps many years after they aired in the US. And I’ve always been very much involved. I knew in detail the plot, at times, so what happened was that I concentrated on other aspects rather than the plot. Right now, I follow soaps only a short time apart. What I miss is the opportunity to interact to a greater degree with the soap community (with chats, discussions and so on), but the pleasure of watching soaps remain unadulterated.

    Also, I turn the question to you: would you still be so involved in your own life if you knew what was about to happen next?

  2. samford said

    Good points Giada, and a great post, Jenn. For me, this may be the most exciting characteristic of soap opera viewing and storytelling. A thread may never be picked up again, but it could be 10 years from now. I still want to see the fallout surrounding Craig Montgomery’s murder of Don Creel, which happened several years ago and has rarely been mentioned since, although Lucinda referenced it. I really want to know what happened to Kirk Anderson and Samantha, Lucinda’s sister, after they disappeared one day from the dock in Oakdale, never to be seen again. There’s a good chance I’ll never find out; there’s also a sliver of possibility that I will. As for the unanswered questions you point out, there could indeed be reasons we never find the answer. The writers could decide never to show the fallout of Margo telling Tom, especially with other events coming the couple’s way. Or it could come out in an explosion 6 months down the road. Craig may never come back. Or he could be back a year from now, played by Scott Bryce, or someone new. This leads to some of the soap fan’s greatest frustration–when you have burning questions never answered, or directions are taken to circumvent questions you really wonder…What will happen to Lucy and baby Johnny now that adopted father Dusty and mother Jennifer are dead, while Craig is gone? But this also leads to the greatest promise on soaps as well. What other Snyders might someday return? What are characters doing off-screen, and will we someday hear something new about them, or even have them return to Oakdale? The fact that there’s always that glimmer of possibility in the future drives soaps viewing. Re: Luke and Noah, Jenn, you wrote about hope–perhaps hope is what drives soap opera viewing in general.

  3. Joseph Jones said

    Ambiguity is absolutely vital in the soap opera genre, not only in terms of narrative and character, but also in terms of the complex, ambiguous feelings the fans have for certain characters.

    I think this is why, for example, the whole Alison/Casey/Matt/Gray/Vienna/Henry storyline is working so well, both from an aesthetic point of view and from a populist point of view. The motivations and background of Matt and Gray remain a mystery, and, especially in the case of Matt, we see him engaging in criminal behavior, but doing so reluctantly, and we see him grappling with some kind of guilt (or whatever his secret is). In addition to that, his relationships with both Alison and Casey are marked by ambiguity: given both of their pasts, Alison and Casey are determined to make a clean start and do the right thing, but while both are “attracted” to Matt (as a potential boyfriend in the case of Alison, as a friend for Casey), both also sense danger from him.

    Likewise, the audience/fans find themselves rooting for Matt to be “redeemed,” even though he came on the show as a seeming bad guy; our questions about his real motives for being in the Hughes family makes us more interested, and thus invested, in his character.

    It’s interesting to note that fans of soap operas–through internet forums, by contacting the show directly, through the soap opera press–can indeed have such an influence on the direction/narrative of the show. Of course, “the powers that be” sometimes listen, sometimes don’t: Vienna, for example, was originally just a short-term character in the summer of 2006, playing Simon’s girlfriend and thus a foil for Katie, but audience response was so positive that she was brought back and eventually paired, successfully, with Henry; conversely, I would be hard-pressed to find even a handful of fans who even remotely like the character of Sofie (many more literally hate this character), yet she remains on the show….

  4. samford said

    Great points, Joseph. As I was reading through your comments, I started thinking about the umbrella story currently underway surrounding implicating Kit, and I agree that some degree of mystery helps. Soaps storytelling is least interesting when a new character comes on and–on the first day–we come to realize who they are going to be “programmed with,” as they say in wrestling parlance. If a new man shows up in town and is seen staring at a particular woman the first day, it leaves no mystery as to how they are going to eventually fit into the Oakdale canvas. That’s what I like, for instance, about Sophie’s relationships with Paul and Chris. Neither were really expected, as it seemed that Aaron was who they were building up to her being with, so it’s been fun because it’s hard to know what will happen next. Same with Gray. It seemed at first he was just there to be a foil in the storyline with Henry and Vienna, but now we see there’s something more going on, involving Matt and the Hughes family…

  5. Joseph Jones said

    Sam, I’m very curious to know what the class really thinks of the character of Sofie, and if they’ve taken a look at some of the fan forums around the net regarding this character…?

    Certainly, the individuals on these fan forums are a very small sampling of the total number of viewers for ATWT, but having said that, I can’t recall the last time a character was so disliked by so many people. Oh, there was some disdain for Jade, particularly when she came between Gwen and Will, and plenty of negative comments about Emily during her psycho-obsession phase with Paul, but, in my experience, neither approaches the level of genuine hate among so many fans that there is for Sofie. The irony, of course, is that unlike Jade or Emily, Sofie is not a manipulative villainess–in fact, I think it’s precisely her lack of calculation and guile combined with her whimpering acquiesence to the various men in her life that has made her so unpopular.

    What I’m trying to get at is that I notice a distinctly different perception when I read the posts from the group of people here, which is a much more positive appreciation for Sofie, and I wonder if that’s a reflection of the fact that these are all new viewers, not only to the specific show, but to the genre itself. And I’m particularly interested to know how they perceive Sofie in comparison to the other women on the show, such as Lily, Carly, Lucinda, Emily, Susan, and even Alison, all of whom strike me as being more headstrong, determined and decisive.

  6. jenn said

    Hi Joseph-

    Well, I can tell you what I think about Sofie, to start. When we first encountered her, I absolutely hated her. She seemed absolutely insane, and I couldn’t believe she stole the baby. Yes, Barbara was mean when she told Sofie to leave and that she couldn’t see the baby, but there were well-established rules in place for Sofie’s visitation, and for her to just freak out because she couldn’t see the baby one time…it really bothered me. Just taking the baby to NYC and not knowing what she was going to do…it was unacceptable. Then when she initiated the custody suit against Will and Gwen, I was really bothered because I didn’t think that she deserved to have the baby. I feel like her character was poorly developed here, because she just looked somewhat insane, and we only saw her as this annoying girl who stole Will and Gwen’s baby.

    Now, that being said, I like what they are doing with her character right now. It seems like they plan on keeping her on the show for a while (perhaps to give the fans someone to hate?) and I find it interesting that they are involving her with both Chris and Paul. Now we get to see some of the sane side to her (though the transition was a bit swift for my taste). I also think this will provide a good story for Gwen and Will to leave, as they are rumored to, if Sofie keeps causing trouble and they decide to move away for a bit.

    I go back and forth on some of the other female characters too. Sometimes I am sympathetic to Carly, and other times I find her really annoying. Lily has her moments, but on the whole I find her lacking so much common sense it is difficult to really like her as much as some of my classmates do. And while I initially hated Alison because she was being all bossy to Casey and we didn’t know any of her backstory, she is starting to grow on me.

    I guess the more you know the characters…

  7. samford said

    People seemed really conflicted during the viewing about who should get custody of the baby, even though Sofie got on several people’s nerves at the beginning. Part of that could be because Will and Gwen are also not particularly favorites for some of the students. But I think this also has to do with the fact that the character became much more interested separated from Aaron. She had used Aaron as such a crutch, I think it helped generate a lot of the disdain for her. With both Paul and Chris being unpredictable love interests, the story takes an intriguing twist…I was one of those longtime viewers who loathed Sofie at first, but I have to admit that I’m intrigued by where they’re going to go with her. I’m having some of the same reaction I had to Vienna, in that as they flesh her out more, I’m inclined to not mind her staying around quite as much. I don’t particularly think it was the actress people had objected to, either, but primarily the character and the writing for Sofie.

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