An Interview with Sara A. Bibel
(SoapOperaNetwork.com) — Sara A. Bibel is a soap opera writer who’s written for CBS’s “The Young and The Restless” and ABC’s “All My Children.” She began her daytime career in 2000 as an Assistant to the Producers/Story Coordinator for “Y&R.” In 2004, Bibel was promoted to the writing staff as a Breakdown Writer and Script Writer. In 2007, she left “Y&R” and joined “AMC” where she wrote for a short time. While writing for “Y&R,” she earned a Writers Guild Award in 2005, 2007 and a Daytime Emmy in 2006. Bibel grew up in Berkeley, California and later attended Harvard University, majoring in English and American Literature – she insists despite the way that sounds, her childhood was more “Gilmore Girls” than “Gossip Girl.”
Xavier Toups: Did you grow up watching soaps?
Sara Bibel: My best friend got me into “AMC” in junior high. When I was in elementary school, my babysitter was a big “Y&R” fan. Little did I know how useful the hours I spent watching with her would be.
Toups: When/Why did you decide to become a soap opera writer?
Bibel: My junior high diary, in addition to the embarrassing passages about my crushes and arguments with my mother contains paragraphs about my dream of writing soaps.
Toups: How did you get your first job in the soap opera industry?
Bibel: After college I landed a job in Columbia-TriStar’s TV research department – the department that handles Nielsen ratings and focus groups. I asked to cover the studios soaps – “Y&R” and “Days Of Our Lives.” I went as crazy with it as the SON [Soap Opera Network] ratings thread. [Laughs] I also took a soap writing course through UCLA Extension. “Y&R’s” then Coordinating Producer Nancy Wiard was a guest speaker. That was how she found out I was interested in writing. When the Story Coordinator position opened up, she invited me to interview for the job.
Toups: What does a Story Coordinator do?
Bibel: The job entailed inputting the Head Writers edits for the scripts and formatting the scripts, helping with continuity and story research (finding flashbacks for montages, keeping track of things like characters addresses and birthdays), clearance issues (can we legally reference a specific book title? etc.), serving as a liaison between the writers and the producer/production staff. For example, if the set decorator had a question about what the writers wanted a set to look like, she’d ask me and I’d get the info for her. It was pretty much a writers assistant/script coordinator. The job had the title Assistant to the Producers when I started — a relic of what the job had been back in the ’70s. After a couple years, the title changed to more accurately reflect my responsibilities.
Toups: Did you write scripts or breakdowns at “Y&R” and do you have a preference?
Bibel: I wrote both over the years. Breakdowns are fun because the whole writing team works together and Breakdown Writers get to work directly with the Head Writers. I liked writing scripts because I enjoy writing dialogue. From a lifestyle standpoint, writing scripts was great because as long as I got my scripts in on time I had complete freedom to create my own schedule – if I wanted to stay up until 2:30AM writing, then sleep in the next morning I could.
Toups: Would you ever want to be a Head Writer?
Bibel: If I had the chance, I’d definitely go for it. I think every soap writer and viewer dreams about it. I won’t claim that I’d be brilliant. It’s the most difficult writing job in the entertainment industry. Not only does a Head Writer have to come up with a tremendous volume of material, but there are numerous administrative responsibilities, not to mention constant meetings with the network executives and actors.
Toups: Do you remember the first episode you wrote?
Bibel: I believe it was one of the episodes where Kevin was in the hospital after being beaten in prison.
Toups: What are some of your favorite episodes you wrote at “Y&R”?
Bibel: Michael and Lauren’s wedding. I was honored that they entrusted a relative newbie with such an important show. Any episode with an Abbott family breakfast. The episode with the first big Kevin-Tom confrontation. The episode where everyone in Genoa City learned John Abbott died – not my idea. I swear! Originally the material didn’t have anyone but the Abbotts reacting, but I felt strongly that his death should impact the whole town. That was one time when I felt my ideas enhanced the material.
Toups: Was there any storylines or events that didn’t happen but you wish it did happen and vice-versa?
Bibel: Story plans change for all sorts of reasons, both from external suggestions and stories simply evolving from their original design. With that caveat…
Originally, Victor’s epilepsy was going to be a much more complicated story. It was going to propel Victor back towards Ashley and Nikki towards Jack. I think that would have been interesting.
When she first came back, Victoria was going to work for Jabot, in opposition to the rest of the Newmans. That could have been fun.
Lily and Daniel were supposed to experience realistic financial and emotional struggles as married teens.
Hindsight is 20/20… Things I wish hadn’t happened: In retrospect, in my honest opinion, Cassie shouldn’t have died. She was a core character played by a great actress who was just getting old enough for teen storylines. A Cassie/Daniel/Lily triangle could have been a great story with multi-generational impact given the connections between their parents. John Abbott shouldn’t have died either.
Toups: What storylines did you really enjoy writing?
Bibel: The Tom storyline. I’d been a huge fan of Roscoe Born since his days as Mitch Lawrence [on “One Life To Live”] and Robert Barr [on “Santa Barbara”]. It was a thrill to write for him and I thought Tom was a great villain.
Daniel & Lily eloping. I thought Daniel and Lily had a sweet, fun romantic dynamic and I enjoyed their parents’ attempts to keep them apart backfiring so dramatically.
The beginning of “Phlick” [Phyllis/Nicholas]. It was the biggest risk “Y&R” took during my tenure, since Nick and Sharon were the show’s “franchise” couple, but it turned out to bring out new sides of all three characters. It evolved in a way I wouldn’t have expected, but the beginning was electric and exciting.
The too-brief Nikki and Bobby flirtation. Not only did MTS [Melody Thomas Scott] and John Enos have great chemistry, but from a character perspective it made sense. Nikki’s whole relationship with Victor was about her setting aside her working class roots to become a “lady”, while Bobby liked her because of her roots.
The original “enemies” dynamic between Adrianne Leon’s Colleen and Kevin. This is one of the few things that I can claim was mostly my idea, so I’ll pat myself on the back. [Laughs]
Toups: What storylines did you not enjoy writing?
Bibel: The Abbotts losing Jabot. It broke my heart.
Daniel’s porn addiction. It actually could have been a good story if it had been about a young guy who is married while everyone else in school is partying and hooking up, and he starts to feel like he made the wrong choice. It would also have been interesting if Lily reflected that attitudes of a lot of college aged women today who aren’t anti-porn. Plenty of college girls appear in “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Lots of colleges have their own sex magazines. I’m not saying that either of those are good things, but they’re out there. But we treated it like it was any other addiction and Lily basically clutched her pearls and acted like she’d never heard of porn before, despite her growing up in Europe in the fashion industry. We were also instructed not to play up the flirtation between Daniel and Amber even though she was sending him nude photos of herself. It was weird.
Jack and Nikki’s senate campaign. This was hard to write because I wasn’t really sure why either of them wanted to be senator. We didn’t give the audience any reason to root for or against the Clear Springs development, so there was no reason to support one character or another. There was no pay off. It was just months of writing generic campaign dirty dealing.
Toups: What type of storylines do you love?
Bibel: Slow burn, genuine romances – Billy & Mac. Relationship of convenience turns to real love – Jake & Paulina on “Another World”. Well structured business stories – Jack & Brad take over Newman [Enterprises]. Stories about strivers from lower-class backgrounds who are determined to make their way into high society – Jill Foster Abbott’s entire life.
Toups: What type of storylines do you hate?
Bibel: Plots that aren’t rooted in character history. They rarely satisfy the audience even if they’d be good stories in another genre. Social issue stories that are PSAs instead of character-based stories that touch on a social issue. Serial killers and unnecessary character deaths in general. The obsession with pregnancy related storylines. Sometimes they can be great, but they seem to have dominated daytime for the past 5 years to the exclusion of everything else.
Toups: How did you feel about the mass exit of long time “Y&R” writers, producers and directors?
Bibel: It was incredibly painful for everyone involved.
Toups: Were there any changes to the writing process when Lynn Marie Latham took over as Head Writer?
Bibel: We all had a shorter turnaround time for our assignments. There were constant personnel changes, so the atmosphere became far more tense.
Toups: What soaps do you currently watch?
Bibel: I’m trying to keep track of every show now that I’m blogging, but at the moment “One Life To Live” is my favorite.
Toups: What soaps would like to write for?
Bibel: “Santa Barbara.” [Laughs]
Toups: If you had the chance to work with any soap writer, dead or alive, who would it and why?
Bibel: Bill Bell. The man knows how to tell a story. His stories weren’t slow; they were carefully plotted. He set up the dynamics between characters and played them in every single scene so that the audience was drawn in and anticipated the payoff. Then he delivered more than they expected.
Agnes Nixon because she is a genius. She managed to create three-dimensional characters that the audience cared about as if they were real-life friends. Her shows from the 70s feel more contemporary than many of today’s soaps. She knew how to interweave plots like nobody else.
The Dobsons. “Santa Barbara” was a huge influence on me as a writer. It was such a witty, original show that trusted its audience was intelligent enough to handle sophisticated dialogue and satire. It also was incredibly romantic, creating supercouples that fans still remember. I had the privilege of meeting them one day when they visited “Y&R.” They were smart but incredibly down to earth. It’s a memory I’ll always cherish.
Toups: What was your first impression when you first met Bill Bell?
Bibel: I was in awe. I couldn’t believe the man whose career I’d followed since adolescence was shaking my hand and welcoming me to the show! I barely managed to stay calm. He was a warm, friendly man who truly was the heart of “Y&R.”
Toups: What are you fondest memories of the “Y&R” writer’s room?
Bibel: I had the privilege of learning from talented, experienced writers who were both mentors and friends. On a less serious note, one day only the female writers were in a blocking meeting. We set a routine conversation between Bobby and Paul in the steam room for entirely gratuitous purposes.
Toups: What are your highest and lowest moments in your soap writing career?
Bibel: Highest: Getting promoted to “Y&R’s” writing staff. Winning a Daytime Emmy – a true dream come true. Lowest: Getting fired.
Toups: What are some of the positives and negatives in daytime right now?
Bibel: Positives: The incredible fan response to Luke & Noah on “As The World Turns.” Ron Carlivati being promoted from within on “One Life To Live,” doing great work, and slowly being rewarded in the ratings. Negatives: Falling ratings, the downsizing of writing staffs and casts for budgetary reasons after the writer’s strike, the atmosphere of fear and pessimism within the industry that is reflected in the increasingly dark stories on many shows.
Toups: What do you think is the best way for a soap to hire a Head Writer, promote from within or bring in someone new who’s never written for the show before?
Bibel: I don’t think there’s one right answer. Carlivati’s doing a great job, but so did Michael Malone in his first go-round [at “One Life To Live”] and he was a novelist. I think people should be hired based on what ideas they have for that particular show, whether they truly understand its characters and history, not their reputation. As we’ve all seen, some writers do brilliantly on one show then not so well on others.
Toups: How do you think the downsizing of the writing staffs (elimination of Breakdown Writers) will affect the stories being written and the writers who write them? Do you think having Breakdown Writers is important?
Bibel: I think having enough people on staff is important to avoid burnout and maintain quality regardless of how the staff is organized. Right now some shows have a mandatory 7 day a week work schedule. That’s not going to work forever. I know back in the day Harding LeMay did it on his own. What people don’t realize is back then, writers were more or less left alone to do their jobs. Now on most shows the network goes through everything line by line. They can order changes that necessitate practically rewriting the entire week, but the writers aren’t given extra time to implement these revisions, so people are basically writing and rewriting constantly. Most daytime shows have smaller writing staffs then most primetime shows despite doing ten times as many episodes.
Toups: As a fan of the genre, what are your hopes and wishes for the future of soap operas?
Bibel: I hope soaps are still on the air in 25 years. I’d like to believe that the next Gloria Monty exists — someone who has the vision and will to turn daytime into must-see TV again.
You can check out Sara Bibel’s views on soaps at her wonderful blog at: Fancast.
Fancast also has full episodes of the entire CBS daytime line-up available for downloading.