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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mythbusters, Soap Style - Part Two

I'm taking a look at a different myth in the soap industry every day, and today, I'm focusing on a rampant trend in daytime that only seems to be getting worse...

The Quick-Cut Myth

Ten years ago, there were approximately twenty to twenty-five scenes in each episode of a soap opera. I remember the episode where Grant Harrison died on Another World had about thirty scenes in it, and that was considered a LOT at the time.

Fast-forward to 2008, and it's a completely different story. Most shows these days have about thirty-five to forty scenes, and some shows are even flirting forty-five or fifty scenes per episode. Why? Because there's this myth that in this fast-paced, "MTV-style" age of editing (and frankly, I don't understand what MTV has to do with any of this, and I think they'd be happy if the phrase "MTV-style" disappeared from our buzz word lexicon forever... but I digress...) ...there's this myth that viewers these days don't have the attention span beyond anything longer than a two-page scene.

Now here's the thing - anybody who's taken Screenwriting 101 knows that quick scenes intercut with each other is a really cheap, easy tool to build suspense. So when you're talking about something like the tornado sequences on AMC, or one of General Hospital's famous shoot-outs, or John's plane crashing with all the Bradys inside on Days of Our Lives, then by all means - quickly cutting from one section of a set to another, in fast-paced scenes underscored with tense music - well, it's a great way to build to something. Something like this probably goes without saying... but I want to make it clear that I'm not always against this style of storytelling. I wrote the day the prison riots broke out at Statesville on One Life to Live, and even though I wasn't a fan of the storyline (it's a soap opera - why are we writing prison riots?), I remember really wanting to do it justice. If The Powers That Be want a real prison riot, let's give it to them. I watched action movie after action movie the weekend before to get my head in the right place, and devised a "24-esque" count-down in the episode, where it unfolded in real time, and Carlo, John, Hayes and Cristian were all moved like chess pieces to various locations inside the prison, when the lights went out and all hell broke loose. I think I had about fifty scenes in that show, and I remember lots of intercutting between Carlo looking at the clock on the wall, Hayes setting the tripwire on a bomb detonator, the dirty corrections officer downstairs taking an axe to the circuit box, Cristian desperately trying to stop it in time, but trapped in his cell, and John trapped in the warden's office as it unfolds around him. It was an undertaking, and while I still have issues with the fact that we spent three weeks in that crazy riot, I do think the kick-off worked, mainly because there was so much cutting back and forth to different locations in the prison, quickly and without time to catch your breath. (Let's not talk about where we were with it two weeks later...)

But what's disturbing to me is that this approach seems to be taken with emotional moments... like, say, Lily confronting Holden about sleeping with Carly on As the World Turns, or any number of women losing a baby on General Hospital (Pick any of 'em - it's not like there's a shortage of miscarriages on that show), or hell, Reva cleaning her fridge on Guiding Light.

Big emotional pay-offs, as far as I'm concerned, should involve excruciatingly long pauses. The kind where you're hanging on every word, every reaction, every emotional beat in a scene. And when there's only one beat to a scene before you cut to someplace across town? It kills all momentum. One of the things I really appreciated about Ed Scott's production at Days is that he knew when to play a three-to-four minute scene (i.e., Marlena and Belle saying goodbye to John as he died in the hospital), and he knew when to play a forty-five second scene (i.e. the afore-mentioned plane crash). You have to give a viewer time to get invested in a moment before you cut away, and it's damn near impossible when you keep cutting away from it.

There's a time and a place for quick-cutting, and when it's used effectively, it creates its own kind of suspense. But there's a myth that you can't build suspense in a scene of two people just talking to each other (or crying or arguing or throwing things at each other or pointing a gun in each other's faces)... and that's just ridiculous. Not only is it possible to write a four-minute scene that builds suspense between two "talking heads", but it's the foundation this genre was built on.

We watch five days a week to be invested in ALL of these moments - whether it's an action movie, or a melodrama that tugs on every heart string we have. But you have to let us feel it. And it's hard to feel much of anything when we're getting whiplash as we hop across town forty times in thirty-seven minutes.

Tomorrow... Myth #3. And it's another screenwriting lesson I think some executives should pay more attention to...


Julie said...

I was just watching an episode of Another World on Hulu and was thinking how nice it was to have real scenes with actual substance. Enjoying reading your mythbusting.

MarkH said...

Dare I confess...sometimes when I watch classic soap clips on Youtube or wherever, I find them too painfully slow. Agonizingly slow, sometimes. I'm using that little fast-forward slider-bar on Youtube.

This probably IS a form of ADD, introduced by music videos and other fast-cut entertainment since the early 1980s.

I think you said it best, when you talked about Ed Scott BLENDING scenes of differing lengths, based on what is needed. The ideal soap episode has as many scenes as it fixed number. So, if there is a moment of confession, or reveal, or simple character-establishing business, that scene needs to take time.

Anonymous said...

I agree the MTV style of scene construction is over. But I also can't abide the four or five minute scene. for me it doesn't work. Recently I was involved in a SoapNet show called nightShift. This show for me is where the genre should be headed. A prime time show with a daytime format edited like a film. This took a while for the audience to adjust to. But once there, they loved it. I am not saying it's perfect but it's an indicator as to what can be done with the daytime format. It's far from finished.

bl said...

The quick cutting only bothers me if it jumps illogically or it is overkill. Some episodes of GL do this to the point of it being spastic. Seven scenes (three or four of which have the same characters) before the opening credits is way too much.

Episodes as we all know are shorter now than they were in the past. I have an extremely short attention span, but there is something to be said for the old school emotional pay off. Sadly there seems to be less and less people in daytime that are capable of playing levels and numerous beats within a scene. A scene doesn't have to be long, to hit all the emotional tones, but the writing and the acting has to go hand in hand.

When it is an action story, I think quick cuts are effective. On the small screen, though certain allowances should be made. Not all of us watch soaps digitally on a 60 inch screen.

Quick editing being mixed with the "theatre" style (longer scenes) is the way to go.

lynn liccardo said...

so with you on this one. i too get whiplash from some of these quick cuts.

of course, my cynical side still believes that these quick cuts are part of a plot to make it hard for viewers to ff. with so many short scenes, you risk ffing through something interesting.

i agree that emotional payoffs do require pacing and pauses. so many times there's simply no time to absorb the emotions; it's all over practically before it's begun.

and i agree with mark that some scenes from older soaps did drag on. and, yes, i'm sure music videos were a contributing factor. but i the real problem, i think, is that so many of TPTB are simply not soap opera fans. so, when they listen to focus groups tell them that the shows are so slow, unlike ed scott, who understands the how to balance fast and slow (and, OLTL, as well) many figure the faster the better.