Wrestling with Soap Operas

Back on the train of transmedia thoughts from ARGfest.

The next presentation/discussion I participated in was “Can Transmedia Save The Soap Opera?” by Brooke Thompson. The talk covered a lot about soap operas, what little bit soap operas have done in experimenting in the transmedia space, and what more transmedia could do to keep this style of storytelling alive. But what interested me more the look at how soap opera writers need to write to a variety of audiences all at once, and what writers in other media can learn from that.

Ultimately, soap operas are written for three kinds of groups: people who watch very infrequently (once, maybe twice a year), people who watch somewhat infrequently (a couple of times a month, say), and people who watch religiously. I think Brooke broke it down to “when my kid is sick,” “when I’m skipping class,” and “every day” watchers. One of the things that Brooke found interesting was that the writers on soap operas worked to engage each of these fans simultaneously: providing a compelling story for casual watchers while rewarding hardcore fans with nuances of story that made sense only by knowing the story to a intricate level of detail. During the panel, I pointed out that professional wrestling also works on this multi-tiered writing style, although I admit it’s more heavy-handed – the recaps to catch up casual watchers are excessively repeated, and sometimes depth of history between wrestlers is ignored or downplayed, but the multi-tiered writing style is still prevalent in professional wrestling. I didn’t think about it at the time, but established comic book series do the same thing – trying to engage new fans while also dropping bits of lore for fans who have been following a series for years.

Russell and I keyed on quickly on how this can be adapted to video games. MMOs also have the similar distinctions between hardcore fanatics and more casual players, and content that can be pitched to these multiple groups would be interesting to see in that space. It’s also something that the classic World of Darkness did to good effect: each new book added new content to the world, but would often contain easter eggs of content that reward fans who have read many of the other books. But either way, it’s the same balance – when you have a lengthy backstory and history, you have to consider the balance between casual audiences and fanatical audiences. In interactive fiction, the biggest resource your audience spends on you is time, so you have to reward both small and large investments of time in your product.

Do you, my loyal readers, have some concrete examples of multi-tiered writing?

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