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Culture

Love, Lust and Betrayal: German Writers Discover the Small Screen

Will Ansgar stay with Tanja and her baby? Or will he go back to his old flame, Nathalie? At the screenwriting school in Potsdam's famous Babelsberg Studios, German writers are learning about what TV viewers love to see.

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Big emotions on the small screen in "Verbotene Liebe"

Alexandra Tjia already knows what Ansgar is going to do -- but she's not allowed to talk about what will happen in the next episode of the long-running German soap opera "Verbotene Liebe" (Forbidden Love).

Tjia was one of the writers working on the show's script; for three months, she was part of the production team at public broadcaster ARD. She helped develop the roles of Ansgar, Tanja and Co., creating delicate blossoms of romance, and then stamping them into the ground through various intrigues and plot twists.

Paths to happi n ess

Erste deutsche Telenovela Bianca - Wege zum Glück

What path will Bianca choose in her search for happiness?

Making up storylines for "Verbotene Liebe" was part of Tjia's training to become an author for industrially produced television series, soaps or "telenovelas," as prime-time soaps are called in Germany. To learn "series theory," she took courses at the Grundy UFA School in Potsdam-Babelsberg. The Australian production company set up the course in July of last year when demand for TV writers skyrocketed due to the success of telenovelas such as "Bianca -- Wege zum Glück" (Bianca -- Paths to Happiness).

This week, Tjia completed her final exams at the school, putting her in the first class to graduate and earn the job title "storyliner." Together with 15 others, Tjia now has the skill to turn television viewers into soap opera junkies.

"You have to write the characters in a way that there'll always be a new conflict just around the corner -- hatred, jealousy, revenge," Tjia said. "The characters have to continually develop in this way."

Rich, poor, straight, gay

Take "Verbotene Liebe" heroine Susanne Brandner, for example. After her divorce, all she wanted to do was care for her children Lisa and Paul. "But then she fell in love with Carla von Lahnstein -- her sexual orientation changed pretty fast," Tjia said.

Homosexuality is a big topic for the series, she said.

"You have to try and incorporate real social structures and changes in the treatment," she added.

For this reason, characters in German soaps have vastly different problems on their hands than, say, characters in a Latin American telenovela.

"There, the conflicts mainly center around wealth -- rich versus poor. But that doesn't work so well in a German series," Tjia said.

Telenovela Verliebt in Berlin bei Sat 1

Unrequited love is the main theme of telenovela "Verliebt in Berlin" (In Love in Berlin)

But there is one common problem faced by series writers the world over: They have to produce masses of text in a very short time. One episode per day is not unusual. That leaves about 20 minutes for the teams to write each scene, said Anja Weber, director of the Babelsberg school.

"Our financial means are also limited," she said. "In a Hollywood production, you can write a scene where a helicopter explodes. But in a series, that would blow the whole budget."

Spinning exciting stories without the special effects is the craft of the storyliner, she said.

Tjia, for one, is not worried about a lack of ideas.

"Something new is always going on in my neighborhood, or among my friends," she said. "Anything could be the inspiration for a story."

Many of her friends, however, have asked her whether she intends to spend her entire career writing for soap operas. After all, before completing the writing course, Tjia did a degree in Latin American studies. But she defends her choice.

"Making up stories is a difficult task," she said. "It's a lot more demanding and complex than watching the shows."

Tjia's already secured herself a contract as a junior storyliner on "Verbotene Liebe." Starting in June, she'll once again have a hand in steering the chaotic love lives of the series' characters.

Bad boy appeal

Verbotene Liebe - Wolfram Grandezka und Meierhenrich

Wolfram Grandezka plays bad boy Ansgar in "Verbotene Liebe"

"I feel pretty close to these characters by now," she said. "Just the other day I caught myself talking about Tanja and Nathalie -- as if they were real people."

Her favorite character, though, is success-hungry businessman Ansgar von Lahnstein, the male villain.

"The evil side of his character means there's a lot of potential," Tjia said. "In writing his role I can explore my own mean streak."

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