Characteristics of the telenovela

The first Brazilian telenovela, Sua Vida me Pertence/Your Life Belongs to Me, by Walter Forster, provides us with some clues of what characteristics and language elements remain and those that have changed. The melodramatic matrix is the main similarity between the first Brazilian telenovela and the current ones. The first Brazilian telenovelas followed the format of the feuilleton, already incorporated by radionovelas, with elements used until today. For example, every chapter has a main story that ends in a scene of great revelation, left open for the viewer to desire the next chapter desperately: the cliffhanger. It is usually a critical scene of high emotional impact: a reconciliation, a punishment, a devastating revelation or action without a clear outcome - an accident, for example - intentionally cut off at the height of the action. According to Alencar, “The end of the narrative at the key moment, which receives the most appropriate name of a cliffhanger, is an art, the art of making the viewer wait” (2002). It is the cliffhanger that offers the viewer the feeling that the story is advancing. Cliffhangers are also widely used in current series, fostering the practice of binge-watching on digital platforms. Author Gloria Perez tells how she began writing telenovelas and soon reasoned that it was necessary to work with the rules of the feuilleton of the last century, which meant “using the cliffhangers that created the expectation of the next chapter and privileging the sensational over coherence” (Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008).

There are also the so-called false cliffhangers that do not lead to a significant transformation in the story - when the sequence of the scene the next day does not bring real advances or changes to the plot, although the author tries to deceive the viewer to make it look like it would. A famous example is in Gloria Perez’s telenovela Carmem (1987), written for the now defunct Rede Manchete, based on Meri nice's short story. At the end of the chapter, the main character fired six close-range shots at her husband. The scene ended at the height of the action. However, in the next chapter, the viewer realized that no shot had hit the husband, either because the character had bad aim, or because she did not want to really hit him. As the act did not have a direct consequence on the narrative, it is called a false cliffhanger. The author Carlos Lombardi, responsible for several telenovelas, usually pays homage to this false cliffhanger of Gloria Perez in his telenovelas in a parody tone. He repeats the scene, and as always, the six shots do not hit the target (Bebe a Bordo/Baby On Board, 1989, Perigosas Peruas/Dangerous Dowagers, 1992, both for TV Globo).

When writing telenovelas, the author may have to use false cliffhangers at the end of a chapter - possibly because he or she could not find a scene of high emotion, action, transformation or impact at that moment of the narrative. There are many reasons for this: the chapter is too long and, consequently, needs to end before the author initially planned; it is too early to reveal a big secret; it is a chapter of preparation for a big plot twist. In such cases, a classic false cliffhanger would be for the protagonist try to tell a secret, but arrives too late, or feels unwell and eventually faints, for example. False cliffhangers should preferably be accompanied by action and never happen only in dialogue. There are two reasons for this: first, the action can help exacerbate the effect of a formerly weak cliffhanger; second, pleonasm is part of telenovela language, and for a weak cliffhanger, it is worth reinforcing dialogue with action. A critical element of telenovela language is pleonasm or reiteration, associating actions with dialogue, restating not only what happened in previous chapters but also the actions of the characters. There is a specific spectatorship for a telenovela: the public may watch the show while doing household chores, talking to the family or using social networks.

An element of radionovelas that remains today is the narrator. The narrator may also help strengthen a cliffhanger through a comment. The narrator, currently, is also used in telenovelas to make a quick recap of the previous chapter just before the next chapter begins. The recap is necessary because the public is not necessarily assiduous. As a telenovela chapter always ends with a cliffhanger, which usually is also the first scene of the next chapter, the summary of the previous chapter - or even the story - can better the experience, especially for sporadic viewers.

A striking feature of the telenovelas, the verisimilitude with everyday life in dialogues, plots, themes, and especially in imperfect and more realistic characters, has not always been present. As Bahia notes,

The success and consolidation of the telenovela as the most popular and profitable genre of television was focused on a change of language: gradual substitution of the theatrical and fanciful, by realistic language and themes of contemporary Brazilian daily life that is always updated by the fashion culture.

(Bahia, 2014)

A significant milestone of this transformation is the telenovela of the defunct TV Tupi Beto Rockfeller, 1968. To Carlos Lombardi, “Beto Rock- feller took us out of the nineteenth century and brought us to the twentieth century, or rather to the end of the 19th century. He came out of romanticism and entered realism and naturalism” (Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008). It was the first successful telenovela with colloquial language, and 80% of the scenes were recorded outdoors, in real locations near the headquarters of Tupi TV, in Sao Paulo. Conceived by Cassiano Gabus Mendes, the telenovela was written by Braulio Pedroso, a theatre graduate and a journalist for the newspaper О Estado de S. Paulo. At the time, the adaptations of foreign authors were still popular. Ricco and Vannucci (2017) reveal that Luis Gustavo, who played the leading male role, was allowed to improvise and this helped to create a naturalistic impression. According to the authors, “Recording a scene to be aired on the same day was something relatively common in Beto Rockfeller and required team strategy, much confidence from director Lima Duarte and the certainty that the tape would arrive on time” (Ricco and Vannucci, 2017). Even though this sounds like a producer’s nightmare, it certainly brought freshness to the narrative, helping the telenovela feel up to date. The telenovela tells the story of Alberto, a young middle-class shoe salesman who lives with his parents and is dazzled by Sao Paulo’s high society. He then comes up with the alias Beto Rockfeller and impersonates a third cousin of the US oil tycoon. Ricco and Vannucci (2017) ponder that by breaking with Hispanic original texts and seeking national elements and facts of our daily lives, Cassio Gabus Mendes and Braulio Pedroso bet on something risky but fundamental to bring viewers together due to a greater identification with the story.

Director Daniel Filho ponders: “One thing, however, I am sure - television identifies intimately with the place and time where it is made” (2001). The contemporaneity of Beto Rockfeller, which can be translated into verisimilitude with everyday life, in the approach of issues in tune with the society of the time and colloquial dialogue, is still a trait of current telenovelas - especially prime time ones, which are rarely historical pieces. According to Alencar (2002), it was also in Beto Rockfeller that the first merchandising appeared. As the main character drank whiskey, the merchandising was precisely the hangover remedy “Engov.”

In his memoir, media mogul Jose Bonifacio de Oliveira Sobrinho (2011), “Boni,” reports that one of the great obstacles he faced to reformulate TV Globo’s telenovelas, making them more contemporary, was the supremacy of Cuban author Gloria Magadan. She began her career on the radio in Havana and then worked on several Latin American telenovelas through the advertising department of Colgate-Palmolive, a company that was one of the main sponsors of the first Brazilian telenovelas. In 1965, TV Globo hired her to direct the newly created telenovela department at the invitation of the then director-general of the station, Walter Clark. Gloria Magadan thought telenovelas should avoid reality, privileging romantic fancies and, in general, set in distant scenarios - just the opposite of what Boni wanted to do in TV Globo, influenced by the success of the telenovela Beto Rockfeller on another station, TV Tupi. Gloria Magadan, however, had a contract, signed by Walter Clark before Boni entered Globo, which gave her perennial powers to choose and supervise what would be the telenovelas produced by the station. Boni discovered a gap in the contract, which did not stipulate the number of chapters that each telenovela should have. According to Boni (Sobrinho, 2011), with the director Daniel Filho’s support, he reduced the chapters of all her telenovelas until she left Globo, unable to tell the stories the way she wanted. Gloria Magadan thought they would have to hire her back, but Boni was already renewing the network’s team of authors. Years after the event, Boni ponders about Gloria Magadan’s contribution to the success of the format on the network: “Without Gloria’s work, it would have been much more difficult to start from scratch” (Sobrinho, 2011).

The departure of Magadan and the end of her text supervision for all telenovelas made Globo approach contemporary Brazilian themes. Period telenovelas continue to be produced and exhibited, especially just before prime time, but in general, prime time telenovelas are contemporary.

Over the past decades in Brazil, telenovelas have undergone several transformations. While the first one had 15 chapters, aired on only two days of the week, today, a prime time telenovela will have no less than 150 chapters, airing Monday to Saturday. Thus, the risk of so-called paunches increases, which is when the plot of a telenovela does not seem to advance. Besides, a contemporary story will undoubtedly feature more than one narrative core. Concerning the narrative, the viewer is less and less patient, therefore scenes are shorter, and there is more than one story going on, even though chapters may be up to one hour long. This impatience of the viewer alters the dynamics of the telenovela. Carlos Lombardi, in an interview, considers:

“The chapter has changed in size, for two reasons: first, because it lasts longer on the air; second, because the narrative rhythm has changed. If you watch old telenovelas, you’ll say, ‘My God, what a slow thing! Was that the way it was?’” (Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008).

The longer duration of the telenovela combined with shorter scenes has led to the increase of parallel plots: the different nucleus. According to Flavio de Campos, the “nucleus is the set of characters with a trait or a common circumstance” (2007). As a telenovela is an extensive work, which is written and produced while being exhibited, it becomes necessary to increase productivity. After all, if six one-hour chapters are shown per week, six one-hour chapters need to be produced per week. The strategy is several daily recording fronts, with different actors and sets. For this to be feasible, different stories must happen in diverse scenarios, with distinct actors, as much as possible. Alternating studio scenes with external scenes and in the scenographic city, it is conceivable to plan on several fronts. The material recorded daily goes to the post-production already pre-edited during the recordings. On the other hand, despite the various nuclei and secondary stories, the author cannot lose the focus of the main story that is responsible for most cliffhangers, if not all.

Mirian de Icaza Sanchez worked for 26 years at TV Globo Quality Central, analyzing research and products until 2016. Sanchez ponders that the main plot of a telenovela should be simple enough for the viewer to know how to tell it (Svartman and Sanchez, 2018). Daniel Filho notes that there is no rule for the success of a telenovela, but some aspects are fundamental. “We have to be simple in the way we present a story: it must be very clear and have few central characters” (Filho, 2001). He cites as an example Rainha da Sucata (1990), the first telenovela for prime time written by Silvio de Abreu, on which he was an actor and also an artistic supervisor. With an excess of characters and an unclear division between the genres of drama and comedy, the telenovela only got the desired audience after the author defined the main plot better. Silvio de Abreu also evaluated that the telenovela’s audience increased when it became clear what the nuclei of humour and the drama was (Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008).

Another vital element of current telenovelas, a result of the growth of the plot cores and nuclei, is the repercussion. When a significant plot twist occurs, it needs to resonate in the nuclei of the telenovela. Therefore, if a secret is revealed, it is necessary to build parallel action scenes in which the viewer can accompany the repercussions of this revelation. The audience expects to see the reaction of different characters to the same event. The importance of this element comes from the fact that the different nuclei often serve different portions of the public. The viewer wants to watch the character with whom she or he identifies most and see his or her reaction to that event. As professor Flavio de Campos ponders, “Movies and telenove- las often establish connections by empathy and identification with viewers. However, as the telenovela speaks to very disparate viewers, more than a film, the writer has to create different cores of characters through which different viewers can feel empathy or identification” (2007).

The flashback is an element present in the cinema and in the radionovela, but for the telenovela it became essential. The flashback of a scene has the function of reminding the viewer of a crucial moment of the plot. The first night the romantic couple spends together, for example, is a scene that the director shoots bearing in mind that it will be shown more than once. Telenovelas often have “sacred objects”; these are objects that refer to essential moments of the plot or feelings or relationships. For example, if the good guy gave the young lady a necklace, it becomes a sacred object. Sacred objects can trigger flashbacks. Then, when the young lady touches her necklace, the memory of their first night together is given by a flashback. Various elements of the audiovisual language are used to clarify that it is a flashback scene. They can have a different look from the rest of the scenes, the edges of the image may be blurred, or the dialogue may have a unique effect, and the transition usually is a fusion of images of the past and present: leaving the close-up of the character and going into flashback, for example. Many authors also use fake flashbacks. A fake flashback is a scene that has not appeared before in the telenovela, though it will have the same aesthetic that the director has chosen for the flashback scenes.

Nowadays, other transformations in the telenovela also stand out, especially with the recent influence of TV series, a format that has grown significantly abroad and in Brazil in recent years. Between 2009 and 2017, Ancine, a Brazilian audiovisual agency, reported 3,639 series produced in Brazil, including productions for broadcast and cable television. According to Martin (2014), in the book Hard Men, which chronicles the creative process of the American TV series since The Sopranos was released in January 1999, there are more complex stories and long-arc series with multifaceted characters. For the author, this is the beginning of a new golden age of series - which supposedly lasts to this day. Mittell (2015) also notes how the American series today have absorbed melodrama techniques and more extensive and dramatic narrative arcs. For him, this transformation is not necessarily the direct influence of American soap operas. According to the author, other serial works from different media, such as comic books, film franchises and 19th-century literature, have also influenced series in general and all, in turn, have their connections to melodrama. The taste for serials can be seen in the work of Brazilian telenovela authors. For example, Joao Emanuel Carneiro in 2015 gave a title to each chapter of his work, the telenovela A Regra do Jogo/The Rule of the Game. This is a format associated with TV series, especially the procedural ones, i.e. episodes with a new story. This influence is also present in the telenovelas I wrote. During the process, I realized the importance of plots that are solved on the same day, usually from secondary nuclei. This strategy makes the chapter exciting for a sporadic viewer.

The telenovela has suffered various influences and transformations since 1951. However, the resilience of the format is due precisely to these changes that maintain massive audiences to this day that, in turn, make the product commercially viable. These changes are related to transformations in spectatorship, to the subjective dimension of Brazilian society, and, consequently, to the public that interprets, approves or rejects the stories of the telenovela. As long as the telenovela maintains this dialogue with the viewer, it will remain viable, whether on television or sliding to other media and screens, as will be discussed later in this book.

In the next chapter, we will analyze how a telenovela is developed, from the first idea to the structuring and production of the chapters. The process of script construction and production are the basis of the power chain of this product.

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