Plots and storylines
The main characteristics that define soap operas are "an emphasis on family life, personal relationships, sexual dramas, emotional and moral conflicts; some coverage of topical issues; set in familiar domestic interiors with only occasional excursions into new locations". Fitting in with these characteristics, most soap operas follow the lives of a group of characters who live or work in a particular place, or focus on a large extended family. The storylines follow the day-to-day activities and personal relationships of these characters. "Soap narratives, like those of film melodramas, are marked by what Steve Neale has described as 'chance happenings, coincidences, missed meetings, sudden conversions, last-minute rescues and revelations, deus ex machina endings.'" These elements may be found across the gamut of soap operas, from EastEnders to Dallas.
In many soap operas, in particular daytime serials in the US, the characters are frequently attractive, seductive, glamorous and wealthy. Soap operas from the United Kingdom and Australia tend to focus on more everyday characters and situations, and are frequently set in working-class environments. Many of the soaps produced in those two countries explore social realist storylines such as family discord, marriage breakdown or financial problems. Both UK and Australian soap operas feature comedic elements, often affectionate comic stereotypes such as the gossip or the grumpy old man, presented as a comic foil to the emotional turmoil that surrounds them. This diverges from US soap operas where such comedy is rare. UK soap operas frequently make a claim to presenting "reality" or purport to have a "realistic" style. UK soap operas also frequently foreground their geographic location as a key defining feature of the show while depicting and capitalising on the exotic appeal of the stereotypes connected to the location. As examples, EastEnders focuses on the tough and grim life in the east end of London; Coronation Street and its characters exhibit the stereotypical characteristic of "northern straight talking".
"If we want to blend an actor back into a show, there's always a way. You can generally find a way to twist and manipulate something. You rarely see a dead body, but hey, even if you do, he or she can always come back to play the evil identical twin."
– Marlena Laird in 1992, during her time as a line producer and director for General Hospital.
Romance, secret relationships, extramarital affairs, and genuine hate have been the basis for many soap opera storylines. In US daytime serials, the most popular soap opera characters, and the most popular storylines, often involved a romance of the sort presented in paperback romance novels. Soap opera storylines weave intricate, convoluted and sometimes confusing tales of characters who have affairs, meet mysterious strangers and fall in love, and who commit adultery, all of which keeps audiences hooked on the unfolding story. Crimes such as kidnapping, rape, and even murder may go unpunished if the perpetrator is to be retained in the ongoing story.
Australian and UK soap operas also feature a significant proportion of romance storylines. In Russia, most popular serials explore the "romantic quality" of criminal and/or oligarch life.
In soap opera storylines, previously unknown children, siblings and twins (including the evil variety) of established characters often emerge to upset and reinvigorate the set of relationships examined by the series. Unexpected calamities disrupt weddings, childbirths, and other major life events with unusual frequency.
As in comic books – another popular form of linear storytelling pioneered in the US during the 20th century – a character's death is not guaranteed to be permanent. On The Bold and the Beautiful, Taylor Forrester (Hunter Tylo) was shown to flatline and have a funeral. When Tylo reprised the character in 2005, a retcon explained that Taylor had actually gone into a coma.
Stunts and complex physical action are largely absent, especially from daytime serials. Such story events often take place off screen and are referred to in dialogue instead of being shown. This is because stunts or action scenes are difficult to adequately depict visually without complex action, multiple takes, and post production editing. When episodes were broadcast live, post production work was impossible. Though all serials have long switched to being taped, extensive post production work and multiple takes, while possible, are not feasible due to the tight taping schedules and low budgets.