– “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)
I 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.”