What Melodrama Is
Melodrama is best characterized as narration that screams about how emotionally extreme a situation is without having the substance to back that up. In more technical terms, that means the prose is telling rather than showing emotion and telling it in an exaggerated manner.
Most often, this is done using the viewpoint character‘s emotional reactions. Let’s look at some examples.
Here’s an obvious one from my critique of Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. This happens after Anastasia and Christian go their separate ways at the end.
I fall onto my bed, shoes and all, and howl. The pain is indescribable…physical, mental…metaphysical…it is everywhere, seeping into the marrow of my bones. Grief. This is grief—and I’ve brought it on myself. Deep down, a nasty, unbidden thought comes from my inner goddess, her lips contorted in a snarl…the physical pain from the bite of a belt is nothing, nothing compared to this devastation. I curl up, desperately clutching the flat foil balloon and Taylor’s handkerchief, and surrender myself to my grief.
In the excerpt above, we don’t hear anything about the source of Anastasia’s despair. Instead it states Anastasia’s feelings over and over. The word “grief” is used three times in this one paragraph.
Here’s an excerpt from The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.
The sky was suddenly blotted out by something huge and black that floated overhead and then passed from sight. A moment later it passed again, circling slowly without seeming to move, its shadow hanging ominously above the two hidden travelers as if preparing to fall upon them. A sudden feeling of terror raced through Flick’s mind, trapping it in an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness penetrating inward. Something seemed to be reaching downward into his chest, slowly squeezing the air from his lungs, and he found himself gasping for breath. A vision passed sharply before him of a black image laced with red, of clawed hands and giant wings, of a thing so evil that its very existence threatened his frail life.
In this Sword of Shannara excerpt, there’s a monster flying overhead, but the description of it is vague. Most of the passage is spent using evocative language to communicate how Flick feels about the monster. While the monster would naturally be intimidating, this reaction is way over the top. Internal sensations like squeezed lungs and gasping for breath come off very strong without adding something reaching into his chest. And because metaphors like “an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness penetrating inward” aren’t bound by what’s actually happening in the scene, they allow Brooks to exaggerate more than he could otherwise. All of this makes the passage very melodramatic.
Let’s look at a slightly subtler example from The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind.
Grief and depression overwhelmed him, and even though he still had his brother, he felt abandoned. That he was grown into manhood offered him no sanctuary from the forlorn feeling of being orphaned and alone in the world, a feeling he had known before, when his mother died while he was still young.
There’s a reference to the protagonist’s mother dying, but it’s just a passing reference. His brother is still around. Like the previous examples, the description of his feelings gets repetitive. He has both grief and depression, and he feels both abandoned and orphaned. It takes only a few words to say a character is scared or grieving, so these writers are struggling to draw it out for as long as they are.
Most writers know that the protagonist exists to connect with readers, bringing the audience along for the ride. Since the protagonist is the source of readers’ emotional investment, it’s natural to think we can make readers feel something if the protagonist feels it. If it still falls flat, we’ll just make the protagonist feel it harder!
But that’s not how this works.
Why Melodrama Fails
To avoid creating melodramatic prose, you need to understand how stories create emotions in readers. Mainly, that they don’t. Readers are not passive recipients of psychic manipulation; you cannot make them feel something.
What you’ll do is narrate things happening. Readers will hear about those events and feel emotions when it means something to them, just like they do in the real world. To understand the difference, imagine your friend got upset while reading the news. Would you say, “Wow, that news article must have been evocatively written”? Probably not. You’re more likely to say, “What happened?” When news affects us, we know it’s because of the actual events featured in the news. The reporter helped us feel that impact by conveying those events well, but they didn’t manufacture what we’re feeling with their choice of words. It’s no different for fiction.
Let’s look at it another way. Someone you care deeply about has just decided to end your relationship. While you’re reeling from the emotional blow, you’re likely to spend your time thinking about:
- The happy times that might not have been happy for them
- All the things you might have done wrong
- Whether or not anyone else will ever love you
- How the vacation you were planning with this person will never happen
- That you’ll never share another meal with them
You’ll probably spend less time dwelling on how:
- You’re crying right now
- This is grief you’re feeling
- Your heart is trapped in the crushing iron grip of unrequited love (you’ll think about that once you start writing bad poetry about the experience)
The first list focuses on the real-world ramifications of what happened – that’s what’s making you sad. The second list is just stating your reaction to what happened. Crying is not making you sad; you’re crying because you’re already sad. Melodramatic writing focuses on emotional reactions instead of their cause, and that’s why it doesn’t work. Just like you in this hypothetical situation, readers won’t be sad because your character is crying. But if you describe the reasons your character is crying, they might cry too.
What to Do Instead
If overwrought description of character feelings don’t work, what does? How do we create an impactful work in general, and more specifically, narrate our characters going through tough times?
Writing a powerful work starts with good storytelling fundamentals. First, you have to get your readers to care about your protagonist, and to a lesser extent, side characters, the relationships between characters, and their communities or the places they inhabit. Just as if we saw someone suffering in real life, it’ll affect us more if we love that person. It can take time for readers to become attached to characters, so don’t expect them to cry over your opening scene.
The next task is to include events in your story that are worth getting emotional over. Let’s go back to the example of Flick in the Sword of Shannara excerpt. It’s certainly possible for a dark flying monster to be scary, but in that scene, it doesn’t do anything other than hover and circle a bit. Instead, maybe Flick could hide in a crevice between some rocks, and the monster could reach a clawed leg in and tear at his clothes, not quite managing to get him. Or perhaps Flick is herding some sheep, and the monster swoops in and carries off several of the flock, almost taking Flick along with them. Be realistic about how much excitement your events can produce, and avoid overselling them.
Your readers should understand how your character is feeling, but you want to show those feelings rather than tell them, much less stretching that telling out for an entire paragraph. Generally, most words should focus on what’s happening, but from the character’s biased perspective. Just pretend you’re a Fox News anchor. Okay, maybe not that biased.
Borrowing from my critique of Sword of Truth, here’s how you might demonstrate a feeling of abandonment while simply discussing events.
ExampleRichard’s mother had died when he was young. At the time he hadn’t understood; he thought she was still out there somewhere. He asked his father over and over why she wouldn’t come home. He supposed he couldn’t blame his father for spending so much time away after that; adventures abroad were more alluring than the sad boys in the hut. So Richard clung to Michael instead, but now even Michael preferred his fancy parties and important meetings over visiting his little brother.
Above, events are reframed to support the idea that Richard’s family is abandoning him specifically. His mother didn’t choose to leave, and Michael might dispute the idea that he prefers parties to his brother, but this is Richard’s interpretation of reality.
You can still use body language, internal sensations, and elaborate metaphors. However, keep in mind that while they may show the state of the character, they only tell readers about an emotion rather than showing that emotion in action. That means they’re the garnish, not the meal. On top of a plateful of food, they look fantastic. If you serve them alone, your readers are going to ask where the hell their dinner is.
Let’s look at that same paragraph in Fifty Shades of Grey, reworked with most of the same body language and a metaphor added for effect.
ExampleI fall onto my bed, shoes and all. I can still see Christian’s ashen face, eyes wide and mouth slightly open. I did that. I hurt him, and I’ll never bring a smile to his face again. I’ll never go on the secret adventure he’d been planning for weeks. I won’t uncover what injured him so long ago and help him heal. From now on I’ll just get out of bed, go to my lackluster job, have an ordinary evening, and pretend that the most important thing in my life never happened. I curl up, clutching the flat foil balloon and Taylor’s handkerchief, and surrender myself to a tempest of banished dreams.
Above, I’ve scooped out the meaningless center and filled it with some substance. I’ve also taken out the statements mentioning pain, grief, and devastation – that’s just telling. Last, I took out things that are just over the top. There are very few situations in which you’ll want your protagonist to howl. Moaning is better, but it’s still best used as a response to physical sensation rather than emotional anguish.
If you will be using metaphors and other evocative language like the “trapping [his mind] in an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness penetrating inward” in the Sword of Shannara excerpt, avoid words that are extreme and cliche. “Evil” and “death” are too exaggerated, and “darkness” is overused. “Madness” is both ableist and too extreme in this case. The more extreme the story situation is, and the more it actually has things like death and darkness, the more you can get away with words like that. Even in those cases, they’re more likely to enhance the atmosphere than to make the scene sadder or scarier.
Besides focusing on the content of the story, you can also encourage story events to hit home by writing immersive prose. Flesh them out into real-time scenes, include vivid sensory details, and stay in close perspective. Of course, all that’s more difficult than making your character let out a haunted moan of death. That’s writing for you.
Depicting Panic Attacks and Other Emotional Conditions
Now we’re getting into tougher territory. Let’s say your viewpoint character has chronic anxiety, depression, or something similar. You know a lot about the condition you’re writing about because you’ve either experienced it yourself or you’ve done research. You want this character to be a positive representation for people with similar experiences, but you’re also writing for a broad audience, many of whom won’t have that specific condition or understand it very well. That means your readers won’t emotionally respond to events in the same way that your protagonist does.
As I explained earlier, your prose can’t make readers feel things. Stories just try to make fictional events feel like real ones; the normal emotional responses of readers do the rest. But the experiences of those with depression or anxiety are different than those who don’t have those conditions. Depression is not just sadness dialed up. Anxiety isn’t worry. Instead, they are experiences unique to people with those conditions. If your readers don’t already have depression or anxiety, there’s nothing you can put in your story that will make them feel what a character with the condition feels.
Worse, it’s possible that readers who do have that condition might be strongly affected by the depression or panic of your character. That would make your story incredibly unpleasant for them. If you don’t have the condition yourself, avoid this at all costs. Including a marginalized character in your story should always make real people in that group feel good. If it doesn’t, it’s exploitation.
So what can you do? You can give readers a better understanding of how these conditions work and the challenges people face with them. You can build empathy, help readers understand how to be respectful, and reinforce how important effective treatment and accommodations are in improving people’s lives. Last but not least, you can create much needed positive representation.
All of that starts with making sure readers know your character has a condition like depression or anxiety. Let’s compare two stories that approached this in different ways.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
In the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, Harry struggles with something that might be depression. He experiences mood swings, alternately snapping at his friends or feeling terrified that something is wrong with him. Rowling uses good prose technique, showing instead of telling his feelings. The triggers that make him feel angry or make him feel better are clear.
However, while his feelings always have a justification that readers might relate to, his reactions are stronger than readers would expect. After Hermione and Ron withhold information from him for a couple months because Dumbledore made them promise to, Rowling narrates a whole page of dialogue where Harry yells at them in all caps. When he worries that he might be possessed by Voldemort, he shuts himself away from all of his friends and allies, refusing to speak to anyone.
Rowling never specifically states that Harry has depression or another condition. Since Harry probably wouldn’t know it if he did, having another character suggest it would have been helpful. Instead, the other characters comment on how angry he is without any awareness that he’s struggling with more than a bad temper. His feelings are treated like a character flaw to overcome. He doesn’t go to therapy, take medication, or do whatever the wizarding world equivalent of that might be.
Because his condition isn’t stated, many readers of Order of the Phoenix didn’t understand or sympathize with Harry. Instead they thought he was angsty and annoying. In contrast, people with depression had to watch Harry struggle without treatment while he is being blamed for the symptoms he experiences. That’s the very last thing you want when you are depicting a protagonist suffering from something like depression.
The Calculating Stars
The main character of The Calculating Stars, Elma, has severe anxiety about being the center of attention. However, she also needs to convince NASA, and therefore the public, that she and other women are qualified to be astronauts. Because of this, she is thrust into the spotlight. Instead of trying to make readers feel Elma’s fear, author Mary Robinette Kowal focuses on helping readers understand the challenges that Elma is facing.
Kowal slowly introduces Elma’s anxiety, first showing her nervousness at being at the center of attention at parties, and then her relief when other women are the biggest names at an airshow she’s flying in. Then a bird damages her plane during the show, forcing her to make an emergency landing that gets the attention of the press. She hides in a bathroom for the rest of the airshow, and the first-person narrator says, “It would make more sense to be afraid of the crash, but I was afraid of the reporters.”
That self-aware line, and the comparison to a life-threatening situation, clarifies that Elma has anxiety. During the story, Elma also sees a doctor and gets a prescription for Miltown. The medication helps her get through a tough period and allows her to appear before a congressional committee to defend the space program. By depicting how medication helps Elma, Kowal works to reduce the stigma on treatment.
To illustrate Elma’s fear during scenes, Kowal focuses on involuntary physical reactions, including internal sensations. Elma usually throws up, often several times, before appearing in front of cameras. She becomes short of breath, her hands shake, her palms sweat, and occasionally she has to brace herself. Rather than thinking about her fear or justifying her fear, Elma’s thoughts are focused on her efforts to deal with her fear. She often recites pi in her head as a coping mechanism.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the most anxiety-focused moments in the book. The antagonist, Parker, has just led Elma into a large room where she’s ambushed by reporters. There, the director of the space program tells everyone for the first time (including her) that she’s been accepted as an astronaut.
The room went hot. Cold. Hot. I must have misheard. Surely they would tell me that in private first.
Flashbulbs went off. Blinding me. I couldn’t breathe.
The room spun around me like I was strapped in a centrifuge chair. Breath pressed out. My vision darkened at the edges.
3.14159265359… Someone said my name. If I fainted, what would people think? Parker would like that.
Why the hell wouldn’t they tell me that in private first? You didn’t blindside someone with a thing like that, unless you wanted to watch them flounder…
Parker. Parker must have suggested this.
Someone said my name again, and I turned to the voice. The room was a blur of sound and light. There wasn’t enough air. Keep your eyes open. Keep talking. This was just another test.
“Gentlemen…” I fought gravity to raise my hands. “Gentlemen, if you all talk at once, I can’t hear you.”
A lot of the language here would be too extreme for the beginning of a work. And if this were not about anxiety, I would recommend cutting much of the internal sensation here to focus on concrete details that could evoke the same feelings in the reader. However, it works here because:
- Kowal can’t or shouldn’t evoke anxiety in her readers anyway.
- Readers understand why Elma’s reaction is so intense. Though all these internal sensations would normally come off too strong, here there’s an explanation for it.
- Elma’s reaction is interspersed with other things, so it’s not just one big block of hot, cold, blinding, can’t breathe.
- This is one of the most pivotal scenes in the book.
- Even here, the imagery isn’t as elaborate as saying “terror raced through Flick’s mind, trapping it in an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness penetrating inward.” It’s understated by comparison.
- Kowal doesn’t state any of the feelings that Elma is experiencing. No “terror” or “fear.”
I don’t think this is the only way to narrate a character with anxiety, but it works. It shows detailed knowledge of both the physical and mental effects of anxiety, the kind that is found in either personal experience, research, or both. It gets readers to cheer for Elma as they watch her struggle with anxiety, without trying to recreate that anxiety in readers. The Calculating Stars won a Nebula, and it’s currently a finalist in the Hugos.
The way we talk about writing, you’d think our stories are laced with subliminal magic spells. While I wish that were true, people have minds of their own. That’s why the most effective prose doesn’t try to tell anyone how they should feel. It gives them a clear glimpse into another world and lets that world speak for itself.
Need an editor? We’re at your service.