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It's a Living : Romancing the Soaps : DAYTIME WRITERS KNOW HOW AND WHEN TO FAN THE FLAMES OF LOVE

February 14, 1993|LIBBY SLATE | Libby Slate is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

Valentine's Day may be Sunday, but love makes the world go 'round every day on the soaps. More than any other storyline staple, romance is the name of the daytime drama game. Given the nature of the medium, the course of true love hardly ever runs smooth, but the men and women who write the soaps have enough plot twists up their sleeves to keep characters coupling and uncoupling for years.

Just why is romance so important to soapdom?

"Because romance is probably the most important thing in everyone's life, next to health," says William J. Bell, co-creator, senior head writer and executive producer of CBS' "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful." "We love to live it, and we love to watch others."

Adds James Reilly, head writer of NBC's "Days of Our Lives": "When someone is in a romantic relationship, it's one of the few times they show their true self. They're open to the other person, really vulnerable. Once a character has become embedded in an audience's mind, they want that person to share with another, not go through life on their own. The audience can experience the pitfalls and peaks of the character's life."

Various factors can influence the writers' decision to pair up particular characters, according to Agnes Nixon, creator of ABC's "One Life to Live," "Loving" and "All My Children" and executive head writer for the latter show. Often, a new character is created specifically as a match for an existing one--or even two. On "All My Children," she notes, Dimitri was brought in to play opposite Natalie, then opposite Erica.

Two established characters might be drawn together because of the actors' chemistry or popularity, or simply because neither character is involved with anyone else. A romance could be devised to fill what the writers perceive as a hole in the show's overall canvas. Occasionally, writers like to surprise the audience by pairing up arch enemies. That was the case, says former "Guiding Light" head writer Reilly, with the characters of Ross and Blake on that CBS show.

"I don't have a slide rule. It just has to seem right at the time," Nixon says. "There's no formula or recipe." Still, she adds, a well-written romance must have pleasing characters ("I try to avoid dull jerks"), suspenseful situations and conflict. "Conflict is drama in everything, not just romance," she says. "It keeps the pace going. Things can't be too pastoral."

Accordingly, even the most devoted couple can fall victim to such devices as the miscommunication of one partner's needs to the other or, even more common, the intrusion of a third party.

"It could be a former love who has come back and hasn't put (the relationship) to rest," says Reilly, "or someone who's part of the canvas, is in love with a character and works underhandedly to subvert the romance. On 'Days,' Bo and Carly love each other, but you have Lawrence, who's working however he can to keep them apart."

Non-romantic outside forces can also keep a couple apart, such as disapproving family members or a character's career. "Since the show continues on and on, you have to keep coming up with new things," Reilly says.

Not surprisingly, considering all the romance on the airwaves, the percentage of couples who actually make it to the altar is far lower than in real life. "You want to keep the audience intrigued as to when the couple will get married," Reilly explains. "A wedding should be the most important event in the character's life. If there are too many, it dissipates the impact. Plus, a wedding is such a big event in terms of production that you only want to do one once a year, or every other year."

The writers tend to keep their distance from the show's cast, to avoid getting to know the actors well enough to let real personalities cloud their perceptions of the characters.

What happens, though, when the actors playing lovers are romantically involved off camera as well? "It tends to hinder things," says Reilly. "At the beginning (of a soap relationship) there's a 'push-pull' in the writing. If they're already in a 'pull' in real life, it comes across that they're going to be together, and it kind of jumps the story."

Conversely, writers sometimes pull the plug on a romance because the actors don't click. "If something's not working, I jettison it and go in another direction," Bell says. "Awhile back, I wanted a hot love story with two actors. They gave us the hottest three shows you could ever see, but then something happened. There was no chemistry. I continued the relationship for a while, but the chemistry didn't work."

Always ahead of prime-time series when it comes to bold portrayals of love and lust, the soaps have kept pace with the times. Nowadays, for instance, the issue of safe sex is often addressed. "At first, just the idea of writing about condoms was a little jarring for anyone over 50," Bell acknowledges. "But we know how important it is. We have an impact on a lot of people."

Not even the writers always know how a romance is going to turn out. "I'm trying to figure out what's going to happen with Roman, Marlena and John," says Reilly of a twist-filled triangle involving a woman who at one point found herself married to both men. "You'll see something on camera that sparks the story. I have an idea, but I'm not sure. So I'm interested to find out."

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