The Author’s Guide To Melodrama (And What It Can Do For You)

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Melodrama tends to get a bad rep these days, and not without good reason. Certainly, melodrama – that is, sensational drama; exaggerated, flat characters; farcically exciting events; and extreme responses and actions – can often come at the expense of those other aspects of fiction that make your book worth reading: deep characters, subtext, complex plotlines, etc. But it doesn’t have to and, even if it does, melodrama can work its own unique magic, making it a style worth paying attention to.

Melodrama can, in addition to its traditional use (to elicit strong emotions from the viewer/reader), be used to develop characters, to mark tonal shifts, and even to subtly manipulate readers into adopting particular attitudes or positions. But how to integrate this divisive and often overpowered style in your own writing? Well, melodrama is incredibly easy to overdo, so it’s going to require a steady hand. Let’s take a look.

Fear not the ridiculous

It’s tempting to tiptoe around melodrama. After all, the term used pejoratively refers to ham-fisted and desperate attempts to make your reader feel something despite their better judgement. Done blindly, this is definitely a bad thing – no-one wants to have an emotional climax forced down their throat, violins and all, especially when the writing hasn’t been good enough for you to truly care about what’s going on.

Bad melodrama relies on bombast without investment, but that’s not the only option...Click To Tweet

However, writers don’t always want the reader to feel what their characters are feeling in-text. Indeed, melodrama can be used with a level of self-awareness that, with nuance, can be used to expose a particular scenario or character as ridiculous. You see this mechanism put to use in books like Pretty Little Liars, where characters skip over every reasonable response to a given threat (for example, calling the police, talking to someone) and go straight to murder schemes and faking their own deaths.

This kind of meta-melodrama manipulates the reader into responding to characters and situations in a certain way. Essentially, the reader is able to enjoy the spectacle of the characters’ over-the-top emotion without having to empathize. This can be used to easily establish allegory or symbolism, create distance from a character, and shift expectations about tone.

Of course, if you want to go full melodrama to hike up the excitement, you’ll want to close the gap between the reader and the amplified emotion on display. In this case, it’s important to establish the melodrama as consistent with your book’s internal logic.

This means that if you intend to use melodrama, you’ve got to open with melodrama. Introduce the melodramatic premise of your story early on and with minimal fuss – if you treat it as if it’s normal, readers will too. Don’t dwell on how ridiculous something sounds or over-explain – just make it clear early on that said ridiculousness is to be expected within the parameters of your book’s internal logic.

You see this in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Now, this isn’t normally a series I sing the praises of, but Meyer does well not to dwell on how weird it is that there are teenage vampires in this small American town and that obviously said teenage vampire starts a relationship with a moody teenager. It’s all just waved through as if it’s all normal, making it easy for the reader to suspend their incredulity and enjoy the story.

With this in mind, it’s often a good idea to avoid too much early exposition. Ridiculous and improbable information is easier to swallow if its transferred through action or dialogue – this way, readers are able to see how such a ridiculous world operates: how the characters who live within it act and respond to one another, how the ridiculous dynamics affect the general lives of the characters, and how a world without nuance bounces between extremes.

Melodrama is rarely a pleasant surprise – make sure the reader knows what they’re getting.Click To Tweet

In his Jeeves and Wooster stories, P.G. Wodehouse relates the dramas of a man so privileged that the reader might have found it hard to care if not for the writer’s skill. Not only are his problems – such as over-eager women looking for marriage and fortunes hinging on minor social favors – the kind many would love to have, but Wooster treats them as the end of the world. This is a comedy though; Wodehouse doesn’t need the reader to truly care if Wooster comes out on top, he just needs his protagonist’s flapping to be enough that, when Jeeves steps in and resolves every issue in one fell swoop, it’s impressive. Wooster’s tendency toward melodrama also provides a comparison for the actual problems that hang around his own experiences – matters of true love and lifelong happiness – focusing and encouraging the reader’s investment in other characters. Crucially, by making Wooster the main character and relegating the real drama to secondary characters, Wodehouse makes melodrama the norm. When real problems arise, they stand out as emergencies against the established silliness.

Melodrama ignores the ordinary and goes straight for the unlikely and the extreme, meaning that it can be jarring for readers expecting mimesis in storytelling. As such, you’ve got to work to make it all seem as normal as possible within the context of the story.

Temper the ridiculousness

All that said, it’s also important not to go too far. As I mentioned, melodrama is rather out of fashion, and too much tends to put off readers. After all, the works associated with melodrama aren’t quite renowned for their artistry: in addition to the Twilight series, there are children’s cartoons, pantomime, soap operas, daytime television, and cloyingly sugary romances. Nothing you’d necessarily want to emulate.

As such, it’s often necessary to temper the ridiculousness with something readers can anchor themselves to. This doesn’t mean easing your readers in – I’ve mentioned already that it’s important to start as you mean to go on – instead, it could be as simple as having your protagonist or narrator be reliable, trustworthy, and sensible. This way, the reader has a sane guide through a ridiculous world.

But what if you want your narrator to engage in some melodrama? Well, there are other methods to make sure you’re keeping at least one of your story’s feet rooted on firm ground; for example, you could surround the extraordinary elements of your story with descriptions of the mundane or everyday – maybe, for example, your lovers are screaming oaths at one another and falling over backwards in their fits of passion. Rather than focusing purely on this over-the-top scene, you could surround the drama with mundane details about the room’s furnishings, about the weather, or about the style of the crockery – anything to root the scene in something familiar.

This ‘something’ can be literal, tonal, or even character-based. In William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, the lovers meet on a farm (surrounded by dung and disobedient animals), reconnect under the severe threat of death (something the reader is meant to perceive as true jeopardy), and their story is told through a framing device that ties them to a realer, more cynical narrator character.

Give your reader a point of realism to anchor the melodrama.Click To Tweet

I mentioned before the importance of establishing an internal logic. This means that there should be a consistent barometer within the confines of your story for what is considered normal/acceptable and what is considered unusual/bizarre. In order to ensure that your melodramatic scenes hit hard, it’s important to not let the improbable or the obscene become too commonplace. You have to balance the magic with the real. After all, the reader needs to be able to understand the rules of your world in order to respond emotionally to it, and a story in which literally anything can occur is a story that doesn’t make sense.

Don’t roll your eyes

If you’re going to do melodrama, do it – don’t hold it at arm’s length. Too many writers seem to want to wink knowingly at their readers as if to say, ‘Don’t worry, I know I’m writing something silly, I don’t actually think this is good.’ You see this pop up in cinema over and over again, and it’s one of the reasons why the John Wick series of films is much better example of how to successfully do melodramatic action than Marvel’s The Avengers series.

If you’ve not seen John Wick, know that it’s the best modern cinematic example of melodrama done well I can think of. It’s a love letter to action films, and knowingly plays with all the genre’s conventions without ever winking knowingly at the audience. The premise is that John Wick, an ex-hitman, goes on a killing spree after Russian mobsters murder his loyal dog. If that’s not an extreme response, I don’t know what is.

In John Wick Chapter 2, there’s an incredible scene where John and a bounty hunter hired to kill him are trying to fast-walk through a subway station, subtly taking pot-shots at each other from across the crowded passage, each hiding his gun in his jacket and trying to look nonchalant as people barge by in typical commuter fashion. It’s a ridiculous and entirely straight-faced scene, and it works brilliantly.

In contrast, in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Hawkeye takes a time-out from fighting the apocalyptic battle at the film’s climax to basically wink at the camera and say “Look, the city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow!” It’s tonally bizarre and serves only to remind the audience that what they’re watching is ridiculous; and not only that, but it’s contrived, false, and formulaic. One writer’s need to rise above his material threatened to derail the movie’s climactic scene. Don’t fall into the same trap!

If you want the reader to invest in melodrama, show them how.Click To Tweet

Go on without me!

Despite its trashy reputation, melodrama can help make an otherwise flat narrative joyful and engaging. Embracing genre conventions and clichés with sincerity can actually make for an earnest and unpretentious read, and even archetypal characters can play off of one another in ways that allow for the foregrounding of simple allegories and symbols.

The trick is to know what you’re playing with. Be confident in your use of melodrama – it needs a firm hand, and it can easily take over a text or run rampant until all you’re left with is a nonsensical mess. Keep it focused, keep it contained, and know what you’re doing. Temper anything too ridiculous and try to ensure that all your crazy happenings have root causes that are comprehensible to your readers. In short, the world should be recognizable; it’s how your characters respond to that world that should be overly dramatic. We should still be able to understand the causal relationships at play.

Melodrama is a lot of fun to play around with, and there are examples of it everywhere, particularly in early cinema, in YA and romance fiction, and in 19th-century English literature. Strange and clever meta-melodramas have become very popular on Netflix in the last few years (such as Pretty Little Liars, a show adapted from the aforementioned book series, and the bizarre Toast of London), and there’s been plenty of non-fiction written on the subject too. In short: there’s plenty to get stuck into. Enjoy!

What are your favorite melodramas? What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of the method? Let us know in the comments. For more great advice on similar topics, check out What Authors Need To Know About Commedia Dell’arte and Here’s Why Your Writing Needs Realism (And How You Can Get It).


4 thoughts on “The Author’s Guide To Melodrama (And What It Can Do For You)”

  1. Judy Gerard Thomson

    One of my favorite authors, Arturo Perez-Reverte, uses melodrama brilliantly in all his novels. The best – The Club Dumas – is a tour de force of incorporating the hyper-dramatic so matter of factly, you really accept the premise from the start.

    No spoilers (the film, The Ninth Gate, though directed by Polanski, skews and changes the story; trust me, you must read the book), but it IS a story about the Devil. And the treatment is quite unique. Someone has called TCD a “beach book for intellectuals,” and that’s a pretty apt description. It is loaded with action, but also filled with information, which P-R makes palatable by creating a “hero” who’s a bit dodgy in his methods, yet is mostly likable.

    One of my fave scenes is a sexual encounter. Barely a mention of sex, the author uses the metaphors of a Napoleonic battle to get the idea across. If that’s not melodramatic enough, there are plenty of other larger-than-life moments.,

      1. Judy Gerard Thomson

        I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

        Just read the piece on using color, incidentally – I just woke up and had my first sip of coffee, so my comment may or may not make perfect sense.

        But all Perez-Reverte’s books also use color with subtlety and care. The nail lacquer on a woman, the handful of flowers in a neglected garden. Each element holds a meaning or sets a mood.

        I actually first noticed his use of color in The Nautical Chart, when he describes a landscape, and you not only visualize it, you get strong, complicated feelings.

        A few days ago, I bought P-R’s book about a chess game, The Flanders Panel, in the Italian translation. I’m trying to learn Italian, and I suspect trying to read a book with which I’m already familiar will be a help – though maybe I ought to start with a children’s book…or at best, The Little Prince, 😉 ?

  2. Mary P Galbraith

    Belated comment: I enjoy the points you make about refraining from apology or excessive explanation if you are going to do melodrama right.

    I’d like to single out Outlander–the books and the television show–as boldly and successfully melodramatic. The premise is fantastic and uncanny (woman travels by means of druidic power from the 20th to the 18th century, the dramatic events are unrelenting (killings, rape, forced marriage, shipwreck) but at the same time the plot is grounded in tragic historical reality and experience and the two lead characters are deeply sympathetic and believable while performing heroic sacrificial acts on behalf of each other and their families.

    The original series of novels (still being written and published) and the TV series (still in production) have an army of passionate fans. I notice, however, that the acting in the TV series is given short shrift by the more prestigious awards –and I’m thinking this is partly because melodramatic acting is, as you say, out of fashion, and this is where its acting has been pigeonholed. But the series complicates its melodrama through an underlying realism–about history, absence, and suffering–that is deeply affecting, and I personally find the result captivating. The actors are challenged to undergo and convey huge life moments without refuge in modern defensive armor. Rather than skewing toward farce and irony, the story goes all-out for sincerity and tenderness, with humorous touches that are not “meta” at all but within the limited perspective of the characters themselves and their predicaments. The resulting joy, sensuality, bodily presence, and vulnerability of the lead characters in the grip of fate moves me far more than comparably epic TV shows such as Game of Thrones.

    So viva melodrama when it stays true to its own power– “to elicit strong emotions from the viewer/reader,” as you say–without embarrassment.

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