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What is a Soap Opera?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 23, 2024

A soap opera is a form of serial drama which is characterized by very cliché plots, themes, and situations. In addition, a soap opera has a continuous narrative and a large, complex cast of characters; most episodes end with a promise that the drama will be continued on the next episode. Viewers of soap operas are often kept on tenterhooks with cliff-hanger episode endings, and keeping track of the drama on a soap opera can be a laborious task. Numerous magazines, websites, and talk shows are dedicated to the discussion of this genre, and these publications include episode guides to keep viewers on track with complex plots.

The slang term “soap” has been used to refer to dramas created in this style since the 1930s. In the 1930s, several soap companies sponsored serial radio dramas, which aired for 15 minutes to half an hour every day. These dramas followed very predictable formats and they came to be collectively called “soaps.” With the advent of television, soaps made the jump to the screen, and numerous soaps can be found airing on daytime television on most major networks.

The creation of the soap opera genre is usually credited to Irna Phillips, who authored the serial drama Painted Dreams in the days of radio. These dramas were relatively easy to produce and they were profitable as well as popular; many listeners and later viewers love soap operas for the escape into melodrama and fantasy which they provide. While some people might be tempted to make fun of soap operas, these dramas were an important contribution to the art of storytelling in the west, and they laid the groundwork for other types of radio serials and television shows.

Modern soap opera is unfortunately a troubled genre, because soaps are expensive to produce. Most soaps air every week day and year-round, which requires constant filming in the studio. It can be expensive to maintain a cast and crew to support a soap, and some networks have turned to other forms of television for daytime entertainment, although the soap opera is unlikely to die entirely.

One popular subgenre of the soap opera is the telenovela, the Latin equivalent. Telenovelas are usually designed as mini-series, rather than long running dramas which never really end. They are aired in many Spanish speaking countries, or in nations with a large Spanish speaking population. Like soap operas, telenovelas are very predictable and melodramatic, although they do have their share of complexity and sudden plot twists.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Apr 25, 2013

@SarahGen-- Like the article mentioned, as cliched as soap operas are, they're also very complex. Most soap operas (especially ones that last for years) are written by the writers as they go along. So even they don't know how the plot is going to end up. We are glued to our seats because we don't know what's going to happen next. The surprise element is very important for a soap opera to do well. Otherwise, the viewer will quickly get bored.

I also think that most of us can find characters in soap operas that we can relate to and connect to. In every soap opera I watch, I tend to like and support certain characters over others. If they are happy, I feel good and if something bad happens to them, I'm upset.

By SarahGen — On Apr 24, 2013

Why is it that despite such cliched plots, we are glued to our seats when our favorite soap opera is on TV?

By burcidi — On Apr 23, 2013

I would like to thank the author for using the phrase "serial drama" to describe a soap opera. I have a friend who gives me the hardest time for referring to soap operas as "serials."

I understand that "soap opera" is the more common and perhaps proper term in the United States. But in other countries, soap operas can be referred to as "serials." I'm relieved to know that I'm not using an improper word for it after all.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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