One of the most common writing problems for new writers is melodrama. Here are some strategies for how to spot melodrama and how to avoid it. What exactly is melodrama? Basically melodrama is when the emotions being presented are not supported or earned by the storytelling. The story is too emotional and because of this it actually loses its emotional complexity. If the story becomes over the top, instead of becoming impactful it just kind of becomes cringy or sureal.
It can be really very hard to find the balance between too subtle and to over the top when it comes to expressing emotions. Writers generally overcompensate in this area so then they withhold too much and it’s boring and detached. If you are scared of the writing being bland, boring and not emotional and can begin expressing emotions way too much. Watch if you start thinking “this isn’t coming across”.
Melodrama generally is the result of the writer thinking there is no emotion and not trusting their ability to convey emotion. Trust yourself, trust your skill and your ability to convey an emotion with a sentence rather than five paragraphs. Just write your first draft and come back later to adjust the emotions. Get out your thoughts and then come back to it later to get the balance between emotion and melodrama.
Ways to avoid melodrama:
1) Melodrama comes from using language that is more intense than is warranted. It can just be word choice. Some word choice is just very very loaded and very emotional.
2) Mentioning souls in regards to emotion. EX: anger bubbled in my soul or I felt sadness in my soul. The concept of a soul can be in essence very melodramatic and emotional. At first it might be best to avoid mentioning souls in relation to an emotional context. As you get better at writing you can see where this might work itself in to your story.
3) Pathetic fallacy often refers to when the natural world mirrors the characters emotions. So for example, it’s raining because I’m sad. It’s not actually raining right now it’s sunny and I’m happy.
Another form of pathetic fallacy is just personifying the natural world. Now personification isn’t a bad literary device but personifying the natural world especially in excess can become quite melodramatic it’s kind of similar to the soul thing where it gives the natural world this lofty spirituality.
4) No subtext. Subtext is basically everything the characters aren’t saying. When characters just say what they mean without subtext it often means the thing they’re withholding is that really dark deep emotional feeling that they don’t want to express. If they just say it out loud, if there’s no subtext whether in dialogue or in the characters narrative, then it becomes quite melodramatic. It also removes the subtlety and possibility for interpretation in your story. It can also about drama. It’s best to have subtext. An exception to this might be very young characters or if your character is drunk. They’re exceptions to this. An interpersonal conflict involving an adult who has control of themselves will probably be speaking with some degree of subtext.
5) Cliches. Cliches especially even on the line level can be really melodramatic because they’re just familiar. I don’t really know why they feel what they do. If there are a lot of cliches or familiar phrases it just makes it seem melodramatic even though there’s nothing really inherently emotional about a familiar phrase.
6) Forced suspense. Suspense would be another example of a writer not trusting themselves. They don’t trust their ability to create suspense so they tell you that their suspense is. When you end a chapter with no idea what was about to happen. Ending every chapter on this really forced line, forced cliffhanger, where you’re really hitting the point way too hard. It sounds like you are saying it’s suspenseful keep reading. It’s actually super melodramatic and also cringy. It kills the suspense because it’s telling instead of showing the suspense. It often happens at the end of scenes where the writer wants to wrap things up but keeps you reading. When the writer throws this one-liner at you where it’s like keep reading because this is suspenseful it’s also melodramatic you know it is being forced.
7) Talking too much about abstract concepts. This is going to relate to what we often say about show don’t tell in terms of emotions. Talking about abstract concepts like sadness, anger, love, peace, are quite melodramatic. Similar to the soul concept. Even if it’s not the main character saying I am sad. It’s not even a telling thing, it’s just having a discussion of abstract concepts in the narrative rather than showing them through the character’s world, how the character experiences the world, even showing them through symbolism would probably be a stronger way than just having the character going on a little side tangent about the nature of sadness. Occasionally you can learn these things especially in a novel where you are going to have more leeway with melodrama.
8) Being off balance between telling and showing. Both too much showing and too much telling can cause melodrama. If you tell too much it’s too over the top. Things like she was angry is not interesting, there is no emotional texture. I think it’s common for writers to be very aware of this show don’t tell rule and so they go overboard with I need to show. They show way too hard. If you show with too heavy a hand and you hit those points too hard then, it’s just overblown and so it’s again about trusting. Trust that you can convey emotion with a line, with a subtle character gesture, rather than going on this long tangent about emotion and having the character cry. You can convey things in subtle ways.
9) Dreams. There are cases where you can use a dream and it makes sense. In most cases dreams are forced symbolism or very bad ways of conveying information. In fiction it’s used to show us something the characters feeling deep down, through their subconscious, through their dreams. It can end up being an extreme situation that is not subtle at all.
It is often thought of as a subtle technique where it’s like oh I’m just going to use dream symbolism and not actually show what the character is feeling. Then it’s quite evident through the dream that the main character has seen her brother standing on a cliff, then he disintegrates and she’s standing among the ashes or something. It’s not actually that subtle at all. It’s pretty obvious, but it’s meant to be subtle and so then it’s really melodramatic. When the main character is too aware of the symbolism you don’t really need it. If the main character have some object like a locket and represents her mommy issues because it holds the secrets of her family. If the main character is aware that it’s a symbol, it’s not really a symbol. A symbol is one half of a metaphor. You just kill it being a metaphor by going oh yes this is the metaphor. You have to let symbolism speak for itself and be somewhat subtle or else it’s very heavy-handed and melodramatic.
11) Murphy’s Law. Murphy’s Law is basically everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. Now obviously in fiction and in writing things are going to go wrong. That’s the nature of conflict. Things might go wrong more often than they go wrong in real life however, abusing Murphy’s Law is like every single thing is bad. There’s literally no light, there’s no hope, every possible thing that could go wrong goes wrong. Or when you throw in random hardships that don’t really play into the main plot, that becomes quite an abuse of Murphy’s Law.
12) Overly intense character reactions. It’s not just the reaction itself, but how it’s described. Giving your characters appropriate reactions to things and then also describing them with the appropriate level of intensity is so important to your story.
Have genre awareness. Some genres are going to be inherently way more melodramatic. Some will be less melodramatic. Know your genre and what is allowed, what the standard is, and what people would be expecting.