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?

10 Awesome Quotes from Writing Experts to Stick on Your Computer

The skill of a skilled writer tricks you into thinking that there is no skill.
—Dwight V. Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer)

Image by Kaz
Image by Kaz

I recommend the following books on the craft of writing. Here are quotes from each to inspire you to get a copy or reread the one on your shelf.

image by skeeze
image by skeeze

On Writing by Stephen King. “Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine, if you like, Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. … You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes.”

 

 

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass “What about your premise? Is it truly a fresh look at your subject, a perspective that no one else but you can bring to it? Is it the opposite of what we expect or a mix of elements such as we’ve never seen before? If not, you have some work to do.”

image by freefaithgraphics
image by freefaithgraphics

Hooked by Les Edgerton. “A tremendous number of possibly good and even brilliant novels and short stories never get read beyond the first few paragraphs or pages by agents and editors. Why? Simple: The stories don’t begin in the right place.”

 

 

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein “We are driven through life by our needs and wants. … If your character doesn’t want anything badly enough, readers will have a hard time rooting for him to attain his goal, which is what compels readers to continue reading. The more urgent the want, the greater the reader’s interest.”

image by geralt
image by geralt

Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon. “Motivation is possibly the most important of the three elements of GMC because you can do anything in fiction. … Everything truly is possible as long as you help your reader understand why your characters do what they do. Why they land themselves in impossible situations. Why they make the choices they make.”

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. “So when you come across an explanation of the character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, then rewrite the passage so that it is.”

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. “Dialogue helps to create original characters and move the plot along. If it isn’t doing either of those things, it probably should be cut.”

image by geralt
image by geralt

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. “In Deep [Point of View], we don’t want thoughts or actions told or explained by a third-party; we want to live the events inside the [Point of View Character’s] head.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. “And the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.”

What writing experts say to push us to write better. Click to tweet.

As a writer, what craft book has spoken to you?

Raise the Quality of Your Scenes with This Checklist Item

“My 16 years in radio drama has influenced me. You only have 45 minutes, and 7000 words, to tell a story, so every scene has to have a point.” —Rachel Joyce

checklist-154274_1280

Most novelists who have a scene checklist look for at least:Where,_When,_Who,_What,_Why,_How^_-_NARA_-_534144

  • A goal
  • A conflict
  • Increased motivation/stakes.
  • The Who, What, Where, When, and Why
  • The 5 senses
  • Engaging dialog
  • Tight, clear sentences
  • No clichés
  • Active voice

 

Debra Dixon pushes us to go further. She instructs in GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict that we justify the existence of each scene. She holds that the scene should have at least three reasons to remain in the book.

by mitchlee83 Cut or keep the scene.
by mitchlee83
Cut or keep the scene.

Three Reasons for a Scene to Exist

First for Reason 1, Ms. Dixon says the scene should do at least one of the GMC jobs below:

1,  “Dramatically illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal or provide an experience which changes the character’s goal.”

2.  “Bring a character into conflict with opposing forces.”

3.  “Provide a character with an experience that strengthens his motivation or changes his motivation.”

Then Ms. Dixon challenges us to choose at least two other reasons of our own design to include the scene in our novel. She gives several popular reasons, such as:

  • “introduce a new character”
  • “reveal secrets”
  • “speed the pacing”
Painting by Vladimir Loukitch
Painting by Vladimir Loukitch

So, I randomly chose a scene from the Regency, Accidental Fiancée, by Mary Moore. Here’s what I found:

  1. Progress toward the goal: The hero and heroine discuss possible solutions and obstacles to saving their reputations and avoiding destroying the heroine’s sister’s presentation this season.
  1. Conflict: The heroine isn’t cooperating fully with the hero, a rake, because he took a liberty in the last scene to prove a point.
  1. Other Reason 1: The scene gives us a glimpse that the hero is less rakish than he puts on.
  1. Other Reason 2: After much conflict in this and the prior scene, this one ends with the hero providing us some comic relief.

Now I know why the scene engaged me.

Hopefully I include at least three reasons for my scenes. But to make sure I do, I’m adding Ms. Dixon’s suggestion to my checklist.

Make sure you have three reasons for your scene to exist. Click to tweet.

What are other reasons you might include a scene in your books?