The other day I had the clearest memory of sitting at my grandmother's large island on a bar stool, eating lunch with her and watching "The Young and The Restless." I can't recount to you how many times this took place-- I just know that through the years it happened numerous times.
Then I had another memory. We were watching one of the soaps and had planned to go out for lunch. But something big was going to happen that day. We were in a quandary. My grandmother had nothing for lunch. We were hungry. But we couldn't miss the exciting thing that was going to happen either.
Then my grandmother hit upon an idea. She had a portable tv we could take with us! We grabbed the tv, drove down the street to a little deli, set up the tv on our table and munched on our lunches while watching happily. It's one of my best memories of my grandmother.
As I thought of these memories I realized that-- make fun of them or not-- what my grandmother and I felt that day is a fine example of engaging the audience. When people talk about not being able to put a book down, it's the same thing as not being able to go eat lunch for fear you'll miss out on the "big thing" that's about to happen. Promise your audience a "big thing" is coming and you'll keep them glued. I learned that from soap operas. A good novel is just a succession of big things happening... each building upon the next.
I also learned other things, I realized, as I processed those afternoons watching soaps with my grandmother:
If you are creating an ensemble cast-- presenting multiple points of view-- they need a point of connection. I remember thinking as I watched the soaps that it was highly unlikely that people would spend as much time at the hospital or the police station or the local boardinghouse as we are made to believe they do. I for one have only visited a hospital when I had to and have never elected to hang out at the police station. And yet, there simply has to be a connection point for these characters to interact or there'd be no story. In a novel it might be one character's house that has the gift of hospitality. Or a restaurant they all frequent. Or a school they teach at and their kids go to. It becomes the hub in the center of the wheel, linking all these characters' plotlines at one juncture.
It's good to get your reader invested in the characters. My grandmother honestly felt a kinship with these people. It was like she didn't realize they weren't real. She really got invested in whether so and so were going to stay together or so and so was going to find out so and so's secret. We want to create characters our readers will be that invested in-- characters who are so real that the audience forgets they're not. One of the best compliments I can get is when someone reads my book and tells me later they found themselves wondering how the characters are doing... then feeling kind of silly when they realize with a giggle that of course these people aren't real. That tells me I've done my job. I want you thinking about them even when you're away from the book.
And finally soap operas teach you how to get the audience to suspend their disbelief. Just like me thinking that no one really spends that much time in a hospital or police station, I willingly suspended my disbelief in the name of being carried along with the story. I wanted to believe there was a place where people lived life that way, where you could run into your neighbor or your mom or your evil twin or the sister you only thought was dead in the halls of the hospital. I wanted to believe that people really could break up and get back together 27 times even after having 4 different babies by 4 different people. I wanted to believe because I craved more of the story. A novelist has to write a story so compelling that your reader will also dive deep with you, submerging themselves in the flow of your story just because they want the rush of the wild rapids you've created.
Soap operas taught me a lot about writing. I make fun of them but the truth is, I learned some good lessons. My grandmother is dead now and sometimes I find myself with a longing so sharp to travel back in time and sit with her just once more, watching her "stories," and learning how to fashion a story from bits of dialogue, scraps of settings, and the multi-colored threads of drama and intrigue. Maybe one day I'll write a novel about a girl who gets to do just that.