As a writer, when I come up with stories in my head and put them down on the page, I’m always thinking about the surprise factor. The plot shouldn’t be predictable. If it is, and the reader knows exactly where I’m going even before the characters do, I’ve failed. There are certain situations where the first read surprise is intentionally stymied, such as when writing a synopsis to a literary agent (revealing all of the plot there still feels strange, even though I know it’s a necessary part of the process), but when I’m reading something or watching something or even listening to something, I don’t want to know exactly what happens next. Sure, I’m interested in hearing the premise so that I can work out whether I’m likely to be interested, but aside from that I want to go in blind.
Imagine the back cover of a book that ruins the novel’s ending. A movie poster from 1999 where Bruce Willis is rattling chains and wearing a white sheet. A monthly magazine that reveals all the plots of all the soaps for weeks in advance… oh, wait.
The element of surprise is such an important part of drama that I really wonder what universe soaps occupy. I just can’t get my head around it. A cottage industry has emerged in the last decade, the sole purpose of which is to systematically ruin every single plotline in Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and the rest. Magazines like Inside Soap are bought by people who actively seek knowledge of everything about every episode before they watch them. One might well ask, what’s the bloody point of even turning on the telly when you already know exactly what’s going to happen?
It’s not just those specialist magazines either. The tabloids delight in revealing “shocking” twists in soaps, failing to care that their exclusives mean they’re not shocks at all anymore. The strange thing is that official spokespeople from the soaps actively encourage and plant these stories, seeking the promotional opportunities they offer. It’s a completely different mindset to how I’ve always viewed the art of storytelling, where the writer has plot/character secrets that they want you to experience in the right way, and be floored by the surprise.
A popular soap trick is for major events involving character death or actors leaving, to be revealed many months in advance. Following this story today, I now know that Corrie’s 50th anniversary on the air is to play host to a special plotline involving a viaduct collapsing, which sends a tram falling onto the famous cobbles. But beforehand we’ll probably know the identities of most of the characters who get squished – after all, the actors’ contract negotiations will have been played out in the tabloids for months, and we’ll likely have a good few pre-show exit interviews to read. Maybe even a chat with the executive producer of the show who’ll tease it all. So here’s a question: wouldn’t it be bloody brilliant if nobody who turned onto Corrie in the week it happened, had any idea that the viaduct was about to bite the big one? From a storytelling point of view: oh God, yes.
It says it all that when the outcome of a major soap event genuinely isn’t known (who killed Archie Mitchell, who shot Phil Mitchell, who panel-showed David Mitchell?), it’s a massive, massive deal that only happens once in a blue moon. That’s the exception? Shouldn’t it be the norm? Isn’t drama supposed to surprise, to shock, to leave you on the edge of your seat, particularly considering the way in which soap plots are constructed over many weeks and months? Ask any TV writer who’s been through the soap system, and they’ll say that it’s a great learning ground that delivers surprisingly good drama, but it seems to me that the method of promoting some of the UK’s most watched programmes is anathema to the audience’s best interests.
An appeal, then. Soap producers – stop it, please. Have some balls. Let the audience be surprised by your hard-written stories for a change, just as they would be when experiencing any other type of TV drama, or film, or book. Who knows, they might even like being kept in the dark for a change.