Writing a Complex Plot: A Soap Opera Study

Here’s my confession: I love watching soap operas.

It’s not what you think.

It started last summer while I was still unemployed. My mom turned it on just to catch up on the whos and whats of her programs, and I happen to be in the room applying for jobs online.

Subscribe to KLWightman.com Blog Upper Button

To me, soap operas are a lot like curling. When I watched curling for the first time, I mocked the sport that called its players sweepers and used brooms to get the stones in the house. But twenty minutes into the game, I was shouting, “Sweep! Sweep!” at the TV.

So I mocked the soap operas for months: the repetitive dialogue, how there was always a reason for the actors to take off their shirts, how the actresses looked terrified before cutting to the next scene.

But by the fall, I was hooked.

I couldn’t put my finger on it at first. I wasn’t losing sleep at night wondering who will end up with who or if the company will survive the latest scandal. I didn’t even find myself living vicariously through their romance novel lives–I was actually more motivated after each episode to get out of the house.

So what makes these soap operas so appealing to me?

After scrutinizing the genre for several more weeks, I figured it out: soap operas have mastered the art of the complex plot.

There are numerous (we’ll say 3 to 5), interwoven complicated plots occurring like a symphony on screen. While one plot piece is blowing up for days with maximum climatic tensions, another plot seed is being planted quietly during a two-minute scene and not revisited for a week.

In other words, the next climatic problem is planned while the current one is taking place.

I give soap opera writers a lot of credit. That’s a lot of storyboarding and outlining to create a complex plot that never loses sight of the big picture.

This isn’t a very common practice in other genres. Short stories and novels focus on completing a full movement. Plays and movies sometimes have several mini-plots that solve themselves out in the end. Some TV dramas even take a shot at it, but usually all the characters are dealing with different complications of the same plot conflict. Serials and book series are the closest, but these genres aren’t quite there because their complicated plot usually continues only one storyline.

So what separates the soap opera from the other genres?

Nothing ever is fully solved. He may be professing his love to her today, but his eye will wander to another stiletto walker next month. The company may have cleared its name today, and profits may skyrocket tomorrow, but there’s another jealous employee plotting revenge in the corner of the screen.

How can we apply this to our writing, especially to genres that aren’t meant to continue on for eternity?

Know the Big Picture

What complex plot points do you want to happen in your story? Where do you want your characters to go and how will you write them there? Freewriting is a useful practice to sort out ideas, but you must know the complicated plot arc in order to have a direction worth writing towards.

Make Your Characters Struggle

This is hard as parents of our characters, but the most intriguing stories are the ones where the characters have a lot to overcome. Make a list of all the ways that will make solving the problem difficult and put your characters out of their comfort zones.

Get Everyone Involved

See how many characters can get caught in the plot web without it getting too crowded. Know everyone’s role in the problem. See the problem from every character’s point of view and personal challenges. Never lose sight of one character or bend a character’s personality/challenges for plot convenience.

Storyboard Your Plot

Create a timeline to keep track of what’s happening when. Draft out each problem for every character cluster side by side and see how the plots can snap together. Toss any unnecessary plot points and replace them with ones that give value to the story and your characters.

Want to try this out in your writing? Here’s your practice round:

Writing Exercise

Who: 6 characters minimum

What: 3 plot problems minimum involving all characters in any sequence and/or overlap

When: Writer’s choice

Where: A house party or dinner party

Why: To master the complex plot

How: Transition from problem to problem smoothly without messing with the chronology of time

In the meanwhile, I’ll be watching today’s soap opera episode…and searching for the next curling broadcast.


  1. Wow, I don’t even write fiction, and I’m tempted to find time to do your exercise! A great analysis of the power soap operas hold because of their construction. Even if they don’t appeal to you, there is certainly something to be learned from studying their construction! Thanks! 🙂

  2. Someone necessarily assist to make significantly posts I’d state. That is the very first time I frequented your website page and so far? I surprised with the research you made to make this particular publish extraordinary. Great activity!

  3. As a school project, we are writing and performing a part of our own soap opera that we have to come up with. We already have the basic outline (a family dealing with a son who died in a car crash) but we are not sure where we can go with it! Please reply!!!

  4. Interesting how things come around and around. In the mid 90s I did almost exactly what your exercise says to do, multiple stories, a party scene, drama and so on. It was for college and I tried to produce it in a local community cable channel studio (only place for affordable equipment). Now a days people can use their phones and shoot these in their homes, edit them on a computer and upload them to YouTube with little holding them back.

    Anyway, I’m now taking the old scripts (made several 20 minute scripts to fill out story lines) and am trying to convert them to something that can work in a graphic novel format. The only thing that worries me is if readers can handle the multiple threads that bait the next 120 page book.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.