Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mundane: The Cure for Melodrama

Melodrama -noun : A dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.

Time for a dose of reality: It's easy to write melodrama.

No matter what genre you're writing (with the possible exception of those books my grandmother used to devour), melodrama is a curse. It's the mark of an amateur.

The good news is, there are some very straightforward antidotes to melodrama. A couple years ago, when I'd just finished my first draft of my first book and submitted it my writers group, a generous published author offered to read for me. I told her I knew my prologue was melodramatic, but wasn't sure how to fix it.

Her wise words:

"...To handle melodrama, surround it with the familiar--the totally solid and completely real."

Now, years down the line, I understand what that really means: Frame the potentially melodramatic with the utterly mundane.

- When a romantic character is steeped in the emotion of a possible betrayal, use stark language to describe their state of mind and place them in the kitchen. While they analyze the heart-wrenching relationship they're in, step the reader through their process of preparing a cup of coffee.

- When the characters in your fantasy novel are preparing for war, place the General in the bedroom. Let him Gird His Loins literally as he does it figuratively. Let the reader see King Whasisname putting his pants on one leg at a time.

- When Psychopathic-Serial-Killer targets Cool-But-Damaged-Cop, let the confrontation occur at a time and place any reader could feasibly experience. (Patricia Cornwell's protagonist was once attacked by a killer posing as a delivery man for the airport. He returned the 'lost' suitcase that rated barely a mention in the earlier chapter).

I'm simplifying here, to make the point. But you see what I'm aiming at: When events, emotions or dialogue are dramatic, surround them with the mundane and boring. Anchor them in reality.

Use the mundane to your advantage and the melodramatic can become the compelling.

Your Turn: What techniques do you use to identify and minimize melodrama?


  1. I love your suggestions.

    Mainly, I try to cut melodrama by watching how my characters react. If they have a huge reaction to a big thing. Great.

    If they have a big reaction over a tiny thing... not so much.


  2. I'm not a writer but I love this article. Makes so much sense. Will be watching out for examples from now on :)

    BookishTrish @ Between the Lines

  3. Misha - Excellent litmus test! I'll pass that on if you don't mind.

    Trish - I hope I haven't created an internal editor for you. They are the curse of being a writer, ha!

    Thanks for stopping by ladies.

  4. Love the post! The simple is always the scariest in horror movies to me. Imagine children and dolls (yikes!)