Lynda Hirsch
Too Many Writers Spoil the Plot
Posted Sunday, June 20, 2010 8:39:05 PM
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She's known for her syndicated column and numerous television appearances. You can even find her work in the Smithsonian. Now, Lynda Hirsch brings her daytime experiences to the Internet -- exclusively on And look out because Lynda's got a lot to say when she's Lathered Up.
Everyone knows too many cooks spoil the soup. My mother had a great recipe for chicken soup. An aunt of mine also made a killer soup. Had you combined the recipes, you would have made something tasting like Alpo.

If too may cooks are bad for soup, then too many soap head writers usually have fans stewing about the changes in their soap. One day a character takes one stand. The next day they are on the other side of the fence.

Here is a tutorial about the hierarchy of soap writing. The head writer has the vision of characters and stories. Even when there is one head writer, he has to contend with the opinions of the show's executive producer and, at times, the higher up daytime officials. Writers have to switch storyline gears when a focus group doesn't like the story. Fan mail also has an influence. The late, great Doug Marland head wrote Guiding Light, General Hospital, and As The World Turns in the salad days of daytime drama. Marland once told me he never listened to anyone when it came to storylines. "No matter what I do with a plot, half the viewers will not be happy with it." He knew he would get comments from producers, but since he always delivered high ratings, they usually let him go with his proposed storylines

One day, Doug told me he had exciting news. "Agnes Nixon and I are going to create a new soap." We were having lunch. I almost choked on my pasta primavera. Doug wondered why my eyes got as big as saucers. Simple, I knew that they were both great writers. I also knew their approach was very different. Agnes comes from the Irna Phillips soap school. Like Irna, Agnes sometimes blurred her characters with her actors. One great story was when Agnes decided that one of the actors on All My Children would be a perfect match for one of her daughters. The actor had a different idea. Agnes was so certain that the character was perfect for her child that when the actor was not interested, she killed off the very popular and focal point character. Agnes did not spend a lot of time with the actors.

Doug was the opposite. He knew that the actors and the characters were not the same. He was a writer who would often call an actor and reveal if he liked or did not like how the actor was portraying a character. He hosted many parties for his cast. Unlike Agnes, who thought a tidbit about a future storyline was akin to revealing the secret of the atom bomb, Marland often leaked future plot lines.

While the Marland/Nixon partnership did not end in acrimony, Doug did not stay with Loving, the soap he and Agnes created. "Doing Loving was great for me," he said. "When I was bought out by the network, I never needed to work again." One of the things he did with the money was to rent a yacht and take 20 of his closest friends on a Greek cruise. Many of them were actors he had written for. No, I did not make the cut. He did show me the pictures. Of course, work again he did, winning many awards and lots of ratings for many soaps.

Back to our soap-writing lesson.

After the head writers come the breakdown writers. They decide how the story will progress. Next are the dialogue writers, they put the words in the character's mouth. The head writer does supervise the entire writing crew, so his vision is not decimated. There has never been a successful novel written by two authors. True crime, yes -- one writer is in charge of the facts, the other writer is in charge of the prose.

There was a novel experiment years ago. The tome was called "Naked Comes the Dawn" by Penelope Ashe. It was horrible. The reason was that 12 writers each wrote a chapter of the book. The writers were gifted, but they could not incorporate their vision and chapter with the others. Like any good writer, they had their own idea, their own style, and would not waver to anyone else's. Just imagine if sparse Ernest Hemingway collaborated with verbose James Faulkner.

Don't imagine -- it will give you a migraine.

For some reason, at least three soaps -- All My Children, Young and Restless and Days of Our Lives -- have more than one head writer. I cannot imagine what those writers meetings are like. Just ask my editors when they want to change a word in one of my columns. I act as if it is akin to ripping out my creative heart. Ask any of my editors. They want to change or cut a word. I think not. "How dare you change 'and' to 'but?' I created this. You can't do that!!!" I write short form columns. I can't imagine what it would be like if one head writer wants a character to be a good guy and another wants the character to be a villain.

At one point, NBC may have gone too far with the one head writer concept. They had a single head writer for two soaps. The late James Reilly had the stuff for one soap. I think writing Days of Our Lives and Passions at the same time was one too many things on his plate. Reilly at least needed a sous-chef.

In budget strapped times, why would a network want to pay for two head writers? Hopefully they are making equal salaries. If not, that would be the cherry on the top a flat soufflé.

Remember, when a writer takes over a show he has to deal with what the former writer has done. The previous writer was not let go on a whim. Obviously the stuff they were doing was not working. So the new co-head writers not only have to contend with their separate ideas, they have to work in the framework of the old writer. A new writer cannot suddenly change everything. Wait maybe they can. Mac Carey told a story about a radio soap he had done. "We got a new writer. He really hated what the other writer had done. He had the whole town go on a picnic. The bus they were riding on went over a cliff. Everyone on the bus died. The show then was set in the town where the accident occurred. All the actors stayed on to play the new characters. Now that is one way for a writer to say, "Get out of my kitchen."

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