‘To Be Or Not To Be… Melodramatic’

By Karen Payton Holt.

What on earth is melodrama? I’ve watched ‘Gone With The Wind’ and seen Scarlett O’Hara having the ‘vapors’ as she plays ‘Ashley’ off against ‘Rhett’… those were the days.

We all recognise melodrama on the silver screen, I think. But it can be akin to watching a ‘car crash’ — terrible to watch but you can’t look away. We’ve all seen that horror movie where you laugh in the wrong places — and not nervous laughter, just laughter because the acting is so overdone.melodrama

But how do we recognise in OUR OWN writing the difference between the ‘good’ kind and the ‘bad’? It’s said to be characterized by ‘exaggerated characters and a sensational plot intended to appeal to the emotions’.

It’s easy to latch on to the word ‘exaggerated’ and assume that defines melodrama. Think of it like this, ‘Marvel Comic’s heros and villains are usually melodramatic, but deliberately so.

If you are writing a novel set in the ‘real world’, it’s okay to go to town on the melodrama in the first draft — or to use it intentionally as a tool : humor, satire, sarcasm, a particular character trait, for example — but stripping it out, or refining it, is essential to the tone final draft.

My take would be precisely that, intention is key. If your story arc aims to invoke an emotional response — sadness, fear, empathy — you want it to be a genuine reaction.

When reading other writers, I find overdone sentences pull me out of the story. I believe there lies the line between melodrama and generating an emotion. If your attention leaves the camera eye view of watching a scene, and your mind hits the ‘really?’ or ‘what!’ switch, then the story is crossing the line into melodrama and your belief in the unfolding scene crumbles.

Characters whose emotions appear to swing from one extreme to the other, assuming they are not demonstrating manic/depressive symptoms, are going to generate melodrama. Being aware of where the line sits is a starting point, at least.

I think it is easier to identify ‘melodrama’ in the writing of others rather than our own… what say you?


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