We want our scenes to be dramatic. We want our readers to live through events with our characters and experience our characters’ emotions. However, if we slide into melodrama, we rob our readers of emotional involvement.
Melodrama is: “a dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.” (Dictionary.com)
Drama is: “any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.” (Dictionary.com)
Melodrama can take the reader out of the story, when characters’ reactions are too exaggerated and separate the reader too far from real-life emotions.
Why Writers Use Melodrama
- Writers don’t want to do the work to lead a reader through the character’s emotions. It’s easier to use many adverbs, screaming, and exclamation points.
- Writers think melodrama will wow the reader.
Suggestions to Avoid Melodrama and Evoke Emotions
- For reactions, think understated, flattened, and subtle.
When a woman discovers her husband stabbed to death in bed, which says more about her emotions?
- She runs through the neighborhood, waving her arms and screaming.
- She huddles in a corner of the room. Her body trembles, her breaths come in pants, and the phone receiver in her hand lying in her lap emits muted words from the 911 operator.
- Make a list of reactions from extreme to mild. Choose the most appropriate, believable reaction to the event.
Alice has had her last chance to show she’s capable of handling her dream job. Her boss fires her. Her possible reactions:
- kneels, sobbing and begging for another chance
- wails that the boss is unreasonable and unfair
- marches from the office in a huff
- remains seated in the chair with her head bowed and one tear escaping her eye
- turns lifeless eyes to her boss, rises, walks to the door, rests her hand on the knob for a moment, straightens her back, and leaves.
These are only a few possibilities. Whether she’s fearful, angry, or stunned, the first two distract me from what is going on inside Alice.
Reaction 3 is less melodramatic, but could be expanded to better show her emotions. The last two allow me without all the noise and action to look at Alice more closely.
In number 4, I feel her sadness and a hint of shame. In number 5, I feel a realistic progression from:
All is lost → no need to stay → does she want to say something to the boss? → no → leaves with her dignity intact.
- Just as you tighten dialogue from wordy realism, avoid allowing reasonable, intense reactions to drag on, even if they would in real life.
- Avoid clichéd actions.
- Get inside your character and find behavior signs she’d display, even if she tries to hide her feelings.
- Listen to your character telling you she wouldn’t act like that.
For the reader’s greater empathy, flatten the melodrama. Click to tweet.
What do you find melodramatic in novels?