Diva of drama
Writer bursts a few bubbles about soaps
Shelly Altman is a storyteller for daytime dramas.
Michelle (Shelly) Altman ’75 was promoted in November 2013 to head writer for CBS TV’s top-rated daytime drama, The Young and the Restless. Altman was previously a television and film writer who joined the soap
Another World in 1995. She also has written for General Hospital and earned an Emmy Award in 2008 for her work on One Life to Live.
Question: How are you able to write five scripts a week?
Answer: That’s five days a week, 52 weeks a year — no reruns, no hiatus! We have a team of writers to keep up with the output, but even so, the pace can be frenetic. First drafts have to be pretty close to the finished product.
Q: Where do your ideas come from?
A: We often borrow from today’s headlines and try to stay current and topical. Also, Shakespeare and Dickens are great sources for ideas; Othello and Great Expectations are terrific soap operas.
Q: Has reality TV changed soap operas?
A: Reality TV has definitely affected daytime serials by offering audiences a different kind of daily drama. There are now only four network soaps in a field that once had more than a dozen and I think a lot of that has to do with reality TV, going back to the O.J. Simpson trial, which pre-empted our daily programming but provided alternative drama.
Q: How influential are soap fans?
A: Our fans are extremely loyal and often quite vocal about what they like and don’t like. We still get letters, but most of their communication comes through fan sites and Twitter. Fans tweet about what’s on the air, which was written about two months prior, so we can’t really change a story at that point. But we do pay attention to what fans are saying as we plot future stories.
Q: When you are not writing soaps, what are you reading or watching?
A: I just read Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, which is great. On TV I’ve recently gotten into Masters of Sex and Breaking Bad.
Q: Do you have a favorite plot twist?
A: While I love all the baby-switching, mistaken-identity and return-from-the-dead stories, my favorites have been the real human dramas we tell.
One of the best stories I wrote was about a woman struggling with weight gain after giving birth and all the emotion surrounding it. There was some pretty powerful stuff that the fans really related to.
Q: What should a soap-opera novice know?
A: I confess I was not a soap viewer before I started to write for one. I came out of film and prime-time TV and was a bit of a snob. So the surprise for me was that soap operas are relevant with well-told, well-acted stories that require a lot of skill and imagination to produce. Watching one day randomly won’t turn someone into a soap fan. But if you watch three days in a row, you might just get hooked.