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?

Devious Clichés Masquerading as Fine Writing in Your Stories

One of the standard Words of Advice that writers—new and old—get, is to avoid clichés. The advice itself is rather a cliché but, like all clichés, it is based on truth, and it would be wrong to reflexively ignore it.— Madeleine Robbins

bykst
bykst

I like today’s quote. So, what do writing professionals say about clichés?

Clichés:

  • Are overused words or phrases
  • Lack originality and freshness
  • Express truths in phrases now too commonplace
  • Become meaningless
  • by skeeze
    by tpsdave
    Are too general or vague, e.g. “His idea knocked it out of the park.” What did his idea affect? What were the actual benefits?
  • Used as padding for word count
  • Can be something other than trite words and phrases:
    • Ordinary, unimaginative, predictable, overused
      • characters
      • situations
      • plots
    • Overdone devices, such as:
      • Mirrors for describing characters
      • Car chases for action
      • Dreams to relay information or emotions
      • Too familiar melodrama for melodrama’s sake, e.g. Hero fails to compliment her dress. So she throws herself across her bed, beats her fists against the mattress, and drenches the pillow with her tears.
      • Countdown clocks to increase tension
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

The harm clichés do to your story:

 

Clichés:

  • Remove the specificity that draws the reader to
    • picture an authentic action
    • understand what the author genuinely wants to say.
  • Add only what anyone, including the reader, could’ve written.
  • Lessen credibility of the author, especially with each subsequent cliché.

Examples of Clichés:

 

  • by Joergelman
    by Joergelman
    Obvious:
    • All’s fair in love and war.
    • His bark is worse than his bite.
    • She can’t cut the mustard.
    • He’s like a kid in a candy store.
    • She was on cloud nine.
    • Opportunity doesn’t knock twice.
    • A stitch in time saves nine.
    • Don’t flog a dead horse
  • “Less Obvious”
    • She was a kind soul
    • Bide your time
    • Blow off steam
    • Case of mistaken identity
    • Burning question
    • Cold shoulder
    • Crystal clear
    • Caught in the crossfire
    • Keep an eye on
    • Know the ropes
    • Look down your nose on
    • Make the best of it
    • Lose your temper
    • Off the top of my head
    • On a roll
    • Every fiber of my being
    • Sigh of relief
    • In his element

What we should do about clichés:

 

  • Allow, sparingly, in dialogue or characters’ thoughts. Characters will say and think clichés. When writing in deep point of view, the writer is always in the point-of-view characters head, so readers may expect the “less obvious” clichés. Sparingly still applies.
  • Watch for clichés sprouting when making comparisons, e.g. he was stronger than Samson; his words were Greek to me.
  • Give specific details instead of a cliché.
  • Develop characters so readers can’t identify them using a cliché, e.g. bleeding heart.
  • Become familiar with this extensive list of 681 clichés.
  • Avoid laziness and write genuine, authentic, fresh phrases, plots, situations, and characters.
  • Rewrite clichés to make them fresh.
  • Remove common melodrama, e.g. a woman throwing plates at her insensitive, dodging husband.

Why would readers spend money on what they could write themselves, i.e. clichés? Click to tweet.

What cliché turns you off in your reading experiences?