Melodrama and I

– “Too clever! No, my boy, you’re too clever.  That beats everything!”
– “But, why, why?”
– “Why, because everything fits too well…it’s too melodramatic.”

(Zossimov rejecting Razhumikin’s theory regarding the escape in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment)

melodrama_7456I do love a little melodrama. It must stem from my misspent youth reading the Russians – Dostoevsky in particular – or perhaps from having been immersed in a culture that tends to translate that particular aspect of fiction into reality. It is one predisposition that I’ve been working hard to eliminate from my own writing, and particularly from writing dialogue.

It may appear counter-intuitive. Dialogue is inherently dramatic, isn’t it? Or at least, it ought never be commonplace. However, unless you are Russian and/or your characters span from the neurotic to the hysterical, it is best to steer clear of overly-dramatised dialogue.

Melodrama – however well intentioned – will always come with a big whiff of fake.

The distinction between drama and melodrama is a subtle one. Dialogue that is filled to the brim with drama will inevitably fall into the melodramatic camp, while dialogue that has no drama whatsoever will be commonplace. Both extremes are undesirable and striking the right balance is not always easy.

Here are some of the things I look for in my dialogue to ensure that both are avoided:

  • Abundance of exclamation marks usually tends to indicate that I’ve fallen into the melodrama trap. Building up to a moment and then tailing them off, as well as adding contrast between lines full of drama and quieter moments is a good way to rectify this.
  • If the plot itself is coming to a dramatic point then it can sustain a much higher degree of drama in dialogue. If that is not the case, then the drama in the dialogue will read forced and unnatural.
  • Sometimes, even when I reach a dramatic moment, using dialogue that is “quiet” can in fact amplify the drama while avoiding sounding melodramatic. For example, a wife who just heard her husband’s confession that he had been cheating on her could start shouting something along the lines of “You bastard! I gave you the best years of my life! I hate you!” or… she could simply stare him down in silence and then take her wedding ring off, put it on the table, and leave.

“We seem to be unable to resist overstating every aspect of ourselves: how long we are on the planet for, how much it matters what we achieve, how rare and unfair are our professional failures, how rife with misunderstandings are our relationships, how deep are our sorrows. Melodrama is individually always the order of the day.” 

― Alain de Botton

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11 thoughts on “Melodrama and I

  1. I like this post immensely…you make several excellent points, although I beg to differ on one.
    Dialogue can and is bland and pedestrian, in poor fiction (and in life). But of course, no one wants to read it and to avoid it, I feel dialogue should be secondary to whatever is going on in the narrative. Unless of course, it is a crucial love scene or as your example indicates, a husband confessing to his wife. The symbolism in her removal of her wedding ring conveys more drama than words and exclamation marks ever could. But then I’m a huge believer in ‘less is more’…

    I too spent a youth reading Russian and French classics but think that I should revisit them (now that I’m much older and hopefully, wiser:) )

    • Thank you, Lee-Ann. I have to say that I do agree with you both regarding there being bland, commonplace dialogue both in fiction and life as well as on “less is more” 🙂

  2. I don’t think there’s any universal rule about the use of dialogue — and there shouldn’t be. Narrating the aftermath and gist of a dialogue can be unfair to a reader who might like to eavesdrop rather than “listen” to gossip. Many great stories are carried in the conversations; we meet the characters as we would meet people in our lives. Sometimes in life dialogue is an exception to the events — and nothing communicates isolation, solitude, alienation or loneliness (depending) better than a lively but accurate description of surroundings and mood, where no one speaks, a scene filled with a solitary observer. A conversation that intrudes can enhance the sense of solitude. Banal and boring conversations — even between people in real life — are very often much more than meets the ear. “Here, let me hold your coat,” might be gentle kindness offered by a stranger before a young girl is sent out into the cold world. I think in the case of the wronged wife above what she does with this information would depend completely on who she is. Maybe he is cheating on her because she’s a loud-mouthed harridan. After all, our characters have relationships with each other.

    • Thank you for a great comment, Martha. Ultimately of course it is each writer’s choice of what to include and what to keep out whether it comes to dialogue, plot, description or any other part of the narrative.
      Certainly it is difficult to give examples in isolation in order to illustrate a point. Yet even without knowing anything else about the characters, the second, silent reaction, appears to me a more powerful and intense reaction that the first.
      Of course, as you rightly indicated, the characters and their relationships would dictate the choice.

  3. Good post Vic you’re right, melodrama is best tamed down a little if you want believable characters and conversations! I liked “Show me don’t tell me” as a useful/memorable little tip for credible creative writing… must put it into practice more!

  4. I remember getting slaughtered for my over use of melodrama. It was a false attempt to create a powerful image in few words and a way of making up for to much telling and not enough showing.
    Great post.

    • Thank you, Nina. A friend was kind enough to tell me this on reading my first draft and I’ve been looking for ways to avoid it in the future. The good thing about melodrama is that – usually at least – it indicates a writer who is working hard at adding conflict to the narrative. It’s always easier to rectify than the “bland” 🙂

  5. Pingback: Can you follow this? | vic briggs

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