Soap Operas & Story Creation: Secrets Make the World Turn


Much of the time in RPGs, we focus on what characters show to the world, namely their gear, actions, and physique. We might come up with some historic details or personality traits, but those are also meant to be revealed during the game. And that makes sense. Because tabletop games are group-oriented, we spend most of our attention on things that can be shared. Some players might come up with secrets they want to interact with during play, but many don't, and it usually isn't expected of them. The DM is the great secret-keeper, but even that has its limits. Generally speaking, an NPC with a mystery is about to have it solved. And once that mystery is done, it probably won't be replaced. The NPC will be dead or brought to heel, and the PCs will move on.

But soap operas remind us that secrets can be powerful influences and steady sources of drama. It doesn't really matter what kind of story you're telling: whether it's high action or family drama, secrets will spice things up. It also doesn't matter what kinds of characters you're using or where they are. If soap operas teach us anything, it's that secrets are everywhere, everybody has them, and anyone can become invested in them. In fact, soap operas offer a primer on how secrets work in fiction, and we can use what we learn from them anywhere. And we stand to gain a lot from doing so. After all, secrets are part of why soap operas are so addictive.

One of the greatest secret-keepers was the soap opera villain, Stefano DiMera (portrayed by Joseph Mascolo, seen below). The elegant mob boss played other characters like puppets, orchestrated murders, and survived multiple presumed deaths on and off for 34 years. As a Days of our Lives fan, you knew the moment Stefano showed up that things were going to get convoluted and nasty, and most of the characters wouldn't have any idea what was going on until it was too late. He knew just how to manipulate everyone and was the guy you loved to hate!

Joseph Mascolo, the actor who portrayed Stefano DiMera

"Joseph Mascolo" by Mother Goose Parade (resized) is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

They Are Universal & Humanizing

Soap operas insist that everyone has secrets. No matter how good and honest they seem, everyone is keeping something from someone. Lying is a basic human response to threats. We start learning how to hide as children and never stop. Why? Because all of us have flaws we'd rather not share, desires for things to be better than they are, and fears of losing what we have. Because we can all have circumstances turn against us and make quick decisions to save ourselves. Because we will try to spare ourselves and others the worst, and lying may seem like the only way to do that.

Secrets divide us from each other when they're acted out, but their very existence unites us. Where there are people, there are secrets. We're all implicated. No one is perfect. And anyone can be harboring a major secret that might be revealed at any time.

We continue to be shocked because our expectations go against this truth. In general, we're taught that it's bad to lie and good people will do all they can to avoid it. And that may be true. But soap operas show us that secrets can smooth things out for a while, and the truth can be disruptive and hurtful. Characters might avoid hiding things but eventually feel compelled to do so. The people we expect to be honest can fail to live up to our ideals - because they are people. As a species, we're largely in denial about the place secrets have in our lives. But they are ultimately humanizing. They reveal our flaws and our values. They reveal how far we'll go to get what we want and need. They underpin the human struggle.

Does this mean you have to know all the secrets for all characters in your game? No. But here's what it does teach us: 

  • Players should consider adding one or two secrets to their characters that really matter to them. Then, they should work with the DM to create openings to engage those falsehoods at different points in the game. Once revealed and/or resolved, players should eventually replace old secrets with new ones. Even if they "learn their lesson," there will always be room for dubious decisions.

  • DMs should vary the types of secrets, NPCs, and delivery times they use, in order to keep things interesting. This will make the entire campaign feel more real and dynamic. Giving NPCs new secrets down the line can inject new life into them and is a great way to extend the mileage you get out of them in the story.

Soap operas show us that timing matters. If major secrets are revealed in every scene, they'll lose their impact. If good characters keep being implicated in awful things, the audience will stop trusting that anyone is what they seem. And although they're surrounded by secrets, only so much paranoia is constructive; too much distrust can make a game miserable. For the best experience:

  1. Use a variety of secrets, from the smallest to the greatest.

  2. Assign them to different kinds of characters.

  3. Every now and then, choose a secret that deliberately conflicts with the audienceEvery now and then, choose a secret that deliberately conflicts with the audience'

  4. Finally, spread out clues and confessions so everyone has a moment to catch their breath.

Following these steps will keep revelations fresh, engaging, and encouraging for the players.

Motivations Matter

Soap operas imply that hiding things doesn't make someone a bad person; no, the situation can be far more complicated than that. Soap operas remind us that there are many reasons to bury the truth. Here are just a few of them:

  • Sometimes, secrets are kept to hurt or control a target, but only sometimes.

  • Other times, characters feel guilty about something they did which had awful unforeseen consequences.

  • A few characters only realized their decision was wrong after the fact.

  • Some are ashamed of not acting when they should have.

  • Others felt forced to do things they despised to ensure their survival or the well-being of someone they cared about.

  • A few seized shady opportunities to do better for themselves or others.

Why does the motive matter? Because why a character lies can tell you how they feel about it and how they'll approach it in the future. A character who keeps a secret to punish someone else is more likely to feel justified and proud of their choices. As long as they stay upset at the target and continue to hate them, they'll probably keep the secret going. They won't avoid thinking about the matter; gloating over it strokes their vanity. They might be more likely to do other underhanded things to increase their sense of satisfaction (and because they figure if they can get away with one lie, they can get away with other schemes). They may even be more likely to confess that they were behind the whole charade to their target, but only when it will hurt them the most.

This probably sounds like the stuff classic villains are made of, and it can be - until you figure out why they want to punish their target. It's one thing if they're doing it out of pure envy, and another if they're trying to punish someone else for crimes they got away with.

And different motives can take characters in completely different directions. A character who hates what they had to do to stay alive might feel justified but disgusted with themself, having to lie, and the whole situation. They might be more likely to confess because the weight is too much to bear. They probably won't go out of their way to do other things they'll have to keep hidden. Instead, they'll maintain the ruse and do whatever else they feel they must to survive, but that's it. Their secret isn't a badge of pride, it's a burden, and we're likely to sympathize more with them because of that.

Secrets Are Motivating

Ultimately, it's all done to avoid consequences. Simply put, we don't want to lose what we have or what we stand to gain. Soap operas show us that this is as true for the wealthy as anyone else. It doesn't matter how much someone has; they're always at risk of losing - or failing to obtain - what counts the most. Once you strip away all the complicated motives, maneuvers, and feelings, this is what you're left with. And that single, driving desire to avoid repercussions can move anyone to do nearly anything.

Soap operas remind us that secrets move and are moving. We tend to think of secrets as being stationary things, but they aren't. Even if reminders are tied to a single location, the hidden truth travels with those who know it. Even if they're not consciously aware of it, characters' lies haunt and agitate them. And even if they just try to avoid the past, secrets spur people into motion. They force characters to make choices, and sometimes those decisions end up uncovering what they were meant to hide. When you're creating a false reality, one false step can be all it takes to shatter the illusion.

This means that the pursuit and covering up of the truth can be part of any scene. Is your character going out of her way to visit a cemetery alone at night, sneaking away from the rest of their party to do it? It could be because the sister they never talk about is buried there, waiting under cold earth for justice the character yearns to give the old friend who left them both to die. Is the NPC snapping at their courtier for no apparent reason? It could have nothing to do with the courtier's performance. Maybe the NPC has been threatened and is trying to decide if they can stand being blackmailed to keep their secret safe. Do the PCs see someone following the local bard? Maybe they're hoping to catch the bard alone and grill them about a suspicious detail in their song.

Bothersome & Interesting

Mysteries often bother people until they do something to understand what's really going on. That, too, is part of the human condition, and soap operas show us why we should take full advantage of it. What may be dismissed as idle gossip and snooping in soaps is often a sign of keen observation and earnest investigation. A character has detected a falsehood and doesn't just accept what they're told. They might gain a lot from discovering the truth or lose a lot if the ruse continues. Either way, they have to know what's happening. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, they take action. What that action is depends on the story and setting, but it can be nearly anything: a verbal confrontation, a physical assault, an interrogation, and so on.

There's no reason why the pursuit of the truth (or efforts to keep it hidden) should be boring. Of course, not all secrets are earth-shattering or life-breaking. Sometimes, a character will fear the worst, only to find out that the situation isn't a big deal. It's perfectly fine to have an anti-climactic reveal now and then; it's realistic, even. Other secrets will serve to provide insight into a character. By uncovering something they did in the past and how they feel about it now, players can experience layers of an NPC that might not be accessible otherwise. Even if the NPC doesn't want to deal with the situation further, he might feel forced to explain himself to satisfy the PCs' curiosity and keep everything quiet. This can influence how the PCs deal with him in the future, whether they're inclined to blackmail him, pity him, or avoid him.

And when the truth is huge and life-altering? Well, then everyone is strapped in for the ride that follows the big reveal. Once they hit the public, uncovered secrets spread like a virus. Word travels fast, even in settings without advanced technology or magic to bridge the miles. Again, what seems like petty gossip may not be; spreading the truth is also a way of warning and educating others. Some may discover they, too, were victims of the ruse, while others may have to decide if they want to deal with the liar in the future. Even those who claim to be above rumor-mongering will be drawn in when a lie is serious enough. The story may mutate as it's retold and events are embellished or new details emerge. Consequences may pile up quickly, adding a sense of finality to the tale, even if it's not over. The player characters won't be the only ones who react - anyone who hears about it will form an opinion. No one is immune. And some may find their views and lives changed forever.

Sounds like a chance for some great and memorable storytelling, doesn't it? It should, because it is. And soap operas, as a genre, have written a veritable textbook on it.


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