Oh no! Melodrama! -- Avoiding the Reader Eye Roll


Photo by Joe Green

There are a lot of fine lines in writing: creating a sense of place v. bogging down reader with description, creating a new spin on an old idea v. being derivative, creating characters with depth v. backstory overload, etc. Another one that I've had trouble defining the line between is drama and melodrama.
Our stories are supposed to have conflict and drama. What's the point otherwise? However, when that story inches into melodrama we risk losing our reader. Instead of connecting with the characters and feeling part of the story, our readers start rolling their eyes. So how can we tell the difference?

This is especially difficult to determine if we're writing a teen story. I'm not going to stereotype, but looking back at myself as a teen, I was quite melodramatic. My high school was my whole world and every event and emotion was amplified. When my crush didn't like me, it was cause for tears and incessant listening of depressing and sappy music. When a good friend gave me the silent treatment for a week, I thought we would never be able to overcome such a terrible turn of events. So how do we make sure our characters and plot are authentic and believable and interesting without sending it into the realm the soap opera?

First my quick definition...
Melodrama is when emotions, plot, or actions are too over the top. My litmus test is if a scene that is intended to be emotional/heartfelt/painful would tempt readers to groan, roll their eyes, or laugh, then I've crossed over the line.
I'll use Twilight as an example since most of you have probably read it or seen the movie. In the scene at the hospital in the first movie, Edward tells Bella she needs to stay away from him for her own safety. Bella sits up, panicked, stuttering "No, you can't leave me! We can't be apart." The line in and of itself is fine, but this scene made me giggle in the theatre. Also, in the book New Moon, Bella's reaction to Edward leaving is um, intense, to say the least. Months of depression and becoming an adrenaline junkie seem a tad melodramatic to me. (Disclaimer: I have admitted to enjoying Twilight, so please no hate comments from devoted fans.)
So what can we do to avoid crossing this line?
  • Beware the exclamation point! It's rarely needed and is usually a beacon of melodrama!
  • Watch words like screamed, shouted, sobbed, cried, etc. Use them sparingly.
  • Put yourself inside your characters. If A, B, or C happened to you, how would you react? Of course, your character hasn't a different backstory than you, but this will give you a start to find an authentic reaction. I mean, really, how many of us are actually swooning or drooling when we see a hot guy?
  • Don't have your characters act contrived just to fit a plot need. They're actions must be based on realistic/logical motivations that you've developed in the story. i.e. If a character is mild-mannered throughout, but you need an emotional scene so all of a sudden she flies off the handle with no logical motivation to do so or previous behavior to back it up.
  • No TSTL (too stupid to live) characters. i.e. running up that stairs when a serial killer breaks into the house, heroine believing something the bad guy tells her when she KNOWS he's the bad guy. Your readers won't buy it.
  • Avoid stereotyped characters--the wise old man/woman, the evil ex-wife/other woman, the naive virgin, the bitchy popular girl, the hooker with the heart of gold, the perfect/infallible male love interest. If you use any of these, you need to make sure there is a twist on it. For example, in PC Cast's Marked series, Aphrodite starts as the stereotypical blonde mean girl, but develops into something much different as the series goes on.
  • Watch out for huge coincidences. Yes, when writing, we're playing God, but that doesn't mean we can twist fate to create unbelievable coincidences. Your reader will give a big "yeah right" or "my, isn't that convenient?"
  • This is related to the coincidence thing, but be careful of creating conflict after conflict after conflict to where there is no way to believe that all that would happen to one person. The best example I can think of is the first seasons of 24. Jack's daughter's Kim couldn't keep herself out of trouble. How many times can one girl get herself kidnapped or put in mortal danger? It became a joke in our house--how will Kim try to get herself killed this week?
And if in doubt, picture a scene through the eyes of a Saturday Night Live writer. How much rewriting would you have to do on that scene to recreate it for comedy/satire on the show? If the answer is "not much", you may have jumped into the melodrama hot tub.
So am I the only one who struggles with this line? How do you determine if you've gone too far? And what are some of your favorite melodramatic books/movies/tv shows?

*repost from 2009

**Today's Theme Song**
"Selling the Drama" - Live
(player below--go ahead, take a listen)