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Lessons from the Aether: The Longrunner and the Soap Opera Trap

Tweet of the Day: Sympathy for a Good Villain


Longevity is a sign of success. We all want our work to not only hit a high note once, but to continue to do so as long as possible. Look at today’s box office and you will see the fourth, fifth or even sixth iteration of a franchise. Television shows try to be on the air for years. And book series can run into a dozen or more books published, not mentioning spinoffs, novellas, and short story collections. But inevitably the series wanes. The new installment doesn’t have the same flare as the older ones. The show jumps the shark. The audience tires of the trend, be it zombies, pirates, space marines cowboys or what have you.

Enter the Soap Opera Trap.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I am not a fan of soap operas. However, I can not deny that they have lasting power. American and British soaps can last for decades. They do so by pulling a series of tricks that keep the viewer focus on the immediate action without any regard to continuity, internal consistency or logic. Story lines get recycled, good guys turn bad, bad guys turn good. People die and the come back from the dead. Comic books, with some tittles going back more than half a century are even worse, with a tangle of story lines, character arcs, and generations, yes plural, of writers thrown into the mix. From them we get infamous reboots which now infect TV and movies (no surprise that super heroes are all the rage on those mediums).

But why use this bag of tricks?

Because all longrunners, even those who are episodic, that is they operate using self-contained episodes, run into a paradox: they must maintain the essence of their base formula while at the same time keeping things fresh. If they stray away to far from the basic formula then it will become unrecognizable. But if they fail to keep things fresh, then the audience will drift away, tired of experiencing the same thing over and over again. These tricks are designed to give the impression of momentous change when in fact nothing really changes.

The solution is simple: let the story end.

You can keep the setting, you write about other characters, but there comes a time in every writer’s life when they have to write: The End.


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