Melodrama: Story Drama That’s Gone Too Far

image by KlausHausmann
image by KlausHausmann

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.

Definition:

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.

image by WenPhotos
image by WenPhotos

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

  1. 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.
  1. 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:

  1. kneels, sobbing and begging for another chance
  2. wails that the boss is unreasonable and unfair
  3. marches from the office in a huff
  4. remains seated in the chair with her head bowed and one tear escaping her eye
  5. 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.

image by nrebocho0
image by nrebocho0
  1. Just as you tighten dialogue from wordy realism, avoid allowing reasonable, intense reactions to drag on, even if they would in real life.
  1. Avoid clichéd actions.
  1. Get inside your character and find behavior signs she’d display, even if she tries to hide her feelings.
  1. 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?

The Inciting Incident Plunges Your Character Into His Journey

image by kboyd
image by kboyd

Definition

Inciting Incident. Incite: “to urged to action; instigate; stir up.” (Webster Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary)

The inciting incident is an event in which something happens to the protagonist that changes his everyday life. It creates an opportunity for him to begin a journey that drives the story and exposes his true underlying problem.

Purpose of the Inciting Incident

The solution to the protagonist’s underlying problem starts with the inciting incident. This event hints at what the story is about. The heroine may have only an inkling of her underlying problem, but the event begins her transformation. The incident impels the heroine to make choices and drives her future actions. If this particular event hadn’t occurred, the story would relate a different journey.

image by werner22brigitte
image by werner22brigitte

The inciting incident:

• bumps the protagonist out of her everyday life and introduces imbalance.
• urges the protagonist to take action and eventually change.
• triggers the story’s plot, setting off the story’s main conflict that drives the novel.

Note: The character doesn’t suddenly decide to set out on this physical, emotional, or psychological journey. The decision needs an inciting incident.

And, the incident has more impact on the reader if it’s not summarized as backstory. It works best if the reader goes through the event with the character.

Where the Inciting Incident Belongs

The inciting incident can occur before the story starts (rare), in the opening scene after showing what the protagonist’s normal life looks like (most common), or later during act one.

The Protagonist’s Reaction to the Inciting Incident

Often the protagonist is reluctant to answer the call of the inciting incident and resists it. But, he must eventually accept the call or no story exists. His acceptance may be his own choice or the result of outside forces.

Example:

 

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

In the movie The Cutting Edge, Doug is a star hockey player. Opposing-team players crush him against the ice rink wall, and he no longer has peripheral vision in one eye. This causes professional teams to reject Doug. The macho guy’s dream of playing professional hockey is over.

The injury is the inciting incident that sets Doug on a new journey.

A figure-skating coach offers Doug a tryout with figure skater, Kate, who’s hard to get along with and forces all her partners to quit.

The hockey jock resists the sissy sport, until the figure-skating coach says he’s Doug’s last chance to stay on the ice. So, Doug goes to the tryout and, after Kate tries to get rid of him, convinces Kate’s father he’s the “go-to” guy to get Kate and him to the Olympics.

Doug fears losing the esteem of his brother and his fans back home, so he tells them he’s joined the merchant marines. We watch Doug go from feeling humiliated to being proud of his figure-skating abilities. Besides falling for Kate, he realizes what he does isn’t as important as striving for excellence in whatever he does. This is the underlying problem.

Understand what the inciting incident does for your story. Click to tweet.

What’s the inciting incident in your manuscript or the novel you’re reading?

Your Story’s Opening Line: Look for the Mystery

image by qimono
image by qimono

I stopped reading “The Chain of Awesomeness” by Jeff Somers (Writer’s Digest July/August 2016). I brought up my first chapter to see if my opening line held the mystery Somers said was more important than shock or coolness (even though they’re good too).

My opening line contained some mystery. The reader might ask why my character was doing what she did. But I continued to read my chapter. Bong! There lay the sentence that had the mystery and the coolness.

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

And, I received a bonus. The second line of my new opening paragraph accomplished what Somers said the rest of the first paragraph should do:

“Offer a small amount of satisfaction for the reader who’s just been hooked by your awesome first line, then build on that intrigue.”

 

 

 

First Lines – No Mystery

  • The sun was out full force.
  • I live in California.
  • My name is Dawn.

These first lines don’t prompt the reader to ask a question.

image by Pezibear
image by Pezibear

Better Rewrites:

  • For the first time in a year, Hector saw the sun, and it was out in full force. (Why hadn’t Hector seen the sun in a year?)
  • Due to an accident, I live in California. (What accident caused the protagonist to live in California?)
  • Because of what happened at the first appearance of light on the day I was born, my name is Dawn. (What happened at the first appearance of light? Did the event have something to do with Dawn, the mother, or the town?)

First Lines With Mystery

For fun, I grabbed books from my shelves written before or at the turn of the twentieth century. It seems, even though the writing is different, the authors realized they needed to hook the reader with a mystery. You can see if they provoke a question for you.

  • “‘Mamma, what was that I heard papa saying to you this morning about his lawsuit?’” (Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell)
    • What lawsuit was brought against the child’s father?
  • “‘Shall I ever be strong in mind or body again?’ said Walter Gregory with irritation as he left the sidewalk and crowded into a Broadway omnibus.” (Opening a Chestnut Burr by Rev. E. P. Roe)
    • What happened that Walter became weak in mind and body?
  • “It was a beautiful morning in the late July when I set forth on foot for the last time for Aros.” (The Merry Men by Robert Louis Stevenson)
    • Why was he going to Aros, and why was it the last time?)
  • “‘And so, dear old thing, I really can’t come.’” (The Marriage of Barry Wicklow by Ruby M. Ayres)
    • Why couldn’t the speaker come?
  • “In an upper chamber, through the closed blinds of which the sun is vainly striving to enter, Reginald Branscombe, fifth Earl of Sartoris, lies dead.” (Faith and Unfaith by The Duchess)
    • How did the Earl die and why is his death important?

Make sure your opening line raises a question for your readers. Click to tweet.

What’s the question you asked in the opening line of the book you’re currently reading?