Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ah, Melodrama

When I was in high school, I was in a melodrama for my church congregation. I played Goldie, with yellow-painted ringlets (seriously: we used poster paint on them). The dastardly villain wanted our home, my aging "father" couldn't pay the mortgage, and the villain insisted I marry him to pay the debt. When all was lost and the ceremony was progressing, we did a freeze frame in which we all held our tragic positions while my "grandma" broke 4th wall to call for a hero,who was fortuitously available (and, quite coincidentally, the cutest guy in the area *sigh*). The day was saved, I married the hero instead, and a hilarious time was had by all. Until I had to wash my hair.

Anyway, I bring this up because melodrama is a very valid form of art. The point of it it to poke fun at extremes, both of emotion and of circumstance, and to convince us all that even the most terrible, horrible, no good very bad situation can be laughed at, ridiculed, and overcome by clever tropes.

It is ridiculously easy to spot melodrama. The point of melodrama is to take something normal-sized and inflate it out of all normal proportions. If a girl is sad because her boyfriend left her (normal), she becomes devastated and suicidal (melodrama). An antagonist doesn't just oppose the hero, he seeks to obliterate him--just because that's the evil thing to do.

Melodrama also tells us exactly how we should react to the scene. There is no need to bring along your thinking cap when watching a melodrama. Thinking is highly overrated and, really, discouraged. Sure, there may be some melodramas with a deeper meaning, but most of them are predictable: the damsel in distress, the dastardly villain, and the heroic hero going round and round the same old story. Suspend your disbelief, check your brain at the door, and do as you're told, and you'll have a good time.

So how does this apply to writing? Well, most of the melodrama in writing . . . isn't supposed to be there.

Don't get me wrong--some melodrama can be effective in fiction. Take, for example, this excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
"We swore when we took him in we'd put a stop to that rubbish," said Uncle Vernon, "swore we'd stamp it out of him! Wizard indeed!"
"You knew?" said Harry. "You knew I'm a - a wizard?"
"Knew!" shrieked Aunt Petunia suddenly. "Knew! Of course we knew! How could you not be, my dratted sister being what she was? Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared off to that - that school - and came home every vacation with her pockets full of frog spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what she was - a  freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!"
She stopped to draw a deep breath and then went ranting on. It seemed she had been wanting to say all this for years. 
"Then she met that Potter at school and they left and got married and had you, and of course I knew you'd be just he same, just as strange, just as - as - abnormal - and then, if you please, she went and got herself blown up and we got landed with you!" 
Can you picture real-life people saying this, even if forced to harbor an unwanted magical nephew? If someone in your real life ever gave anything close to this speech, you'd stare at them with an open mouth.

Real life people generally try to be more PC. To justify themselves with more than "She was a freak--how can you blame me for abusing her son for 11 years?" At the very least, a real person would try to explain why magic is so bad they felt a moral imperative to eradicate it from the boy they loved as their own. Or they wouldn't explain at all and be all "Who are you to judge me?" or something like that. Real people try to avoid saying crazy, illogical things out loud.

(Okay, so that doesn't always work in real life, since real people say things that make no sense all the time, but since the main difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense, hopefully you can catch my meaning anyway.)

The Durseleys can be melodramatic because they aren't designed to be real people. Through the rest of the series, the Dursleys never rise above the stereotypical villains of Harry's childhood. They don't get more rounded. They don't feel shame. They can be cowed and manipulated, but they don't ever accept Harry. They don't grow as characters.

And that's okay. The Dursleys are the comic relief in a world that goes slowly mad. Their stagnant stereotype is rather soothing in contrast to everyone else's desperate dynamics.

If you don't want comic relief, though, cut the melodrama.

The insidious danger of melodrama is that it can creep into our writing when we don't want it to. When we're just trying to tell a normal (or even paranormal) tale with pretty average (even if supernatural) characters who are supposed to speak and act much like we like ourselves do (or would do, if we had superpowers).

So here's a quick checklist to make sure your characters aren't auditioning for the part of Damsel in Distress or Dastardly Villain:
  • Does a character who is supposed to be well-rounded say anything that would get him labeled as crazy he he said it in real life? (And no one calls him on it?)
    • “When I left you, I was but the learner, now I am the master.” 
    • “Only a master of evil, Darth.”
  • Does a character say anything that would go well with a swoon or a limp-wrist-to-the-head?
    • "You've used me until I'm all used up!"
    • "How could you do such a horrible thing to me?"
    • "I can't go on alone."
    • "Search your feelings, Luke, you know it to be true!"
    • "Noooooooo!"
  • Does a character use an adjective to modify a word that doesn't need to be modified?
    • "I was a victim of a terrible rape." (Implying that some rapes aren't terrible.)
    • "My brother was cruelly murdered." (Some murders aren't cruel?)
    • "I just finished 24 grueling hours at the crash site." (As opposed to the 24 easy hours all the other EMT's did.)
  • Do your characters issue trite comments over and over about the emotional hardships they are facing and how hard it is for them to overcome them?
    • "I can no longer feel the love I used to have inside for him, so I'll never be able to forgive him."
    • "Love will conquer all. You just have to have faith."
    • "Search your feelings, Father, you can't do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate."
  • Do your characters make any speeches that sound like there should be a heroic swell of music behind them?
    • "I want to come with you to Alderaan. There's nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father."
    • "I must face him, alone."
    • "You're wrong, Leia. You have that power too. In time you'll learn to use it as I have. The Force runs strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. And... my sister has it. Yes. It's you, Leia."
    • "I know. Somehow, I've always known."
  • Do you or your characters EVER spell out the moral of the story, thereby making sure the audience knows how to feel about it?
    • "And now I know that love will always overcome fear."
    • Jane sensed that the trials she had lived through had changed her forever, and that she'd now be a better person because of them.
    • "I'll not leave you here, I've got to save you." 
    • "You already... have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister... you were right."
Yes, I think Star Wars is one of the most melodramatic franchises I've ever watched. You know it's true.

A quick note and I'm done.

Humans are messy, emotional creatures. Especially while growing up. I don't think we ever completely lose the tendency to freak out over nothing, to wallow for no good reason, or to get all passive-aggressive and woe-is-me when the little things aren't going as we want them to. We philosophize, curse the heavens, and talk ourselves down off ledges using trite words of self-affirmation. It happens.

The difference is that, as we get older, we learn to adapt our behavior to conform with what society expects of us.

Which, let's face it, is LESS MELODRAMA. No one wants your sticky emotions washing all over them. So behavior that is normal in a 12-year-old would be strange in a 16-year-old and bizarre in an adult.

So if you're thinking that it's natural for your characters to feel melodramatic, you're probably right. But it is not--repeat: NOT--normal for someone over 12 to act melodramatic. To say melodramatic things.

Cut it out.

Have you ever stumbled over melodrama in a published book that totally kicked you out of the story? (No titles, please. We don't need to tear other authors down in public to learn how to do it better ourselves.) How do you avoid melodrama in your own writing?


  1. That picture of the Dursleys cracked me up (the napkin bib in particular).

    This might relate: one of my pet peeves in books and movies is the Big Speech where someone tells all in front of a crowd to shame another character and the whole plot dumps out. It CAN be done well, but often it's annoying to me. Everyone in the story gathers 'round to see the spectacle, and no one questions the speech giver, which is usually full of melodrama.

    I like how you pointed out characters might feel melodramatic, but wouldn't necessarily act that way. Or if they do, they would get labeled as a brat. I like using melodrama for comic relief but hopefully it's obvious to the reader the character is acting ridiculous.

    1. Yes! Melodrama is great for comic relief. Not so great for scenes where we want our readers to feel something serious.

  2. Robin,

    Let me add a little counter point here. Yes the Dursley's were very melodramatic. But if I remember correctly, in the last book (I hope it wasn't just in the movie) one of my favorite parts is where Dudley rises above the Melodrama and actually thanks Harry for saving his life, despite all the bullying he had done to him. It is a touching moment because it shows that at least one of the Dursley's learned something and was better because of Harry.

    So, in summary, because the Dursley's were so Melodramatic, the fact that one rose above it over time made it much stronger in the book then it would have been otherwise.

    1. I stand corrected. Dudley does, in fact, declare that he doesn't think Harry is a waste of space as he and his parents are fleeing from Privet drive ahead of Harry's 17th birthday. He ALMOST says thank you to Harry for saving his life. That is better. His parents remain flat and changeless, but there is hope for Dudley. I like that.

  3. Oh yes
    I am always surprised that an editor wouldn't cut it
    I'm left thinking "how'd they get away with that?"

    1. Seriously. Or beta readers? Where were the beta readers?

  4. I think Nicolas Cage's character in National Treasure put it right when Dr. Chase said to him, "You know, people don't really talk that way."

    He responds, "No, but they think that way."