©Jessica P. Morrell
I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries. ~ Frank Capra
A few months ago I was part of a discussion about a writer’s novel-in-progress. The writer had been struggling for years to craft a compelling a novel—a sort of heartbreaking record, but one that is not uncommon. The group was at a loss at how to help this person create viable scenes and take his writing up a notch. And someone remarked that it seemed that the writer didn’t seem to know the difference between drama and melodrama. That remark was an epiphany for me and since then I’ve been wondering how this concept can be explained.
Because sometimes it seems that melodrama is sort of like pornography. As Justice Potter Stewart once famously remarked, he couldn’t define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. But one person’s porn is another person’s erotica. And how can you separate drama from melodrama or rate a drama for its emotional content? Is Marley and Me melodrama? The Perfect Storm? Gaslight? 3:10 to Yuma? It’s A Wonderful Life? All of the above? Where are we going to draw the line?
Melodrama is known for heart tugging, hanky-wetting, tear-jerker sensationalized plots that push (usually traumatized) characters over the edge. While the term is associated with over the top and silliness, the form originated from a theatrical genre popularized in Europe, particularly France in the 1800s. Influenced by opera, it meant that literally music was added to the drama to heighten the effects of the unfolding actions and the most vivid moments were linked to the greatest suffering. The genre influenced the novel and in both plays and novels, melodrama has characters, plot, although plot can be minimal, simplistic dialogue, and a central crisis; sometimes an interpersonal conflict, sometimes physical jeopardy. However, these elements are taken to the limit and often exaggerated emotions are, well, emoted until they can become silly or farcical typically leading to a conventional happy ending.
Now melodramas can exist in any format and don’t require a musical score since they have run the gamut from 18th and 19th century fiction, silent era films, dime store novels, radio and television soap operas, films, particularly those in the first decades of Hollywood. After this legacy, less exaggerated dramas started being published, and were featured in films and television series. But the form has never died and often adventure stories and films are melodramatic as in the Indiana Jones film series. Jurassic Park is melodrama, I mean kids being chased by man-eating beasts― definitely has melodramatic elements, but most people think these are engrossing stories.
The situations central to melodrama are too many to mention, but many are associated with emotional or physical hardship and tests. In traditional theatrical melodrama the protagonist was buffeted by forces outside his control and is thus a victim of fate or the antagonist. Characters are sharply contrasted, although there is often an ally in the plot. Here is a partial list of situations: doomed love affairs, death-defying escapes, terminal illness, sick or dying children, hidden family insanity, mothers or heroes who sacrifice all for children or cast members, fallen women, parents losing their children, children losing dogs, orphans, suicide, amnesia victims, rags to riches, riches to rags, illegitimate heirs, disasters, torture. Goodness is rewarded or good always triumphs over evil. Bad guys are always, always caught. Strong jawed heroes don’t waver and are capable of extraordinary bravery and feats of derring-do. It’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
So for my money melodrama equals exaggeration, simplistic devices, stereotypes, and predictability. The writer doesn’t trust his audience or reader and nothing is left to inference or suggestion—everything is spelled out in broad, sweeping strokes. As soon as the villain strides into the scene we know immediately that his soul is as bleak as a coal mine. And the villain must be destroyed and must remain villainous and unsympathetic throughout, just as the hero must remain stalwart and just.
I spot melodrama in manuscripts when writers simply don’t know when to end a scene. In opera typically the players sing their longest, saddest songs when they are heartbroken or dying (some prolonged numbers happen during the falling-in-love scenes too). Similarly writers try too hard to milk sad or emotional scenes. The characters lack subtlety or nuance and proclaim their love, anguish, and longing in grand and lingering gestures. But often the more painful or emotional the moment, the more you need to use the ol’ ‘less is more’ rule. Back away from endless tears, protestations, conflagrations, and deathbed conversions. Real drama is more like life: bittersweet, complicated, sweaty. Which is maybe why I like anti-heroes so much. Give me a screw up because I can relate to him or her and the storyline will keep me engrossed because I’m never sure if his better angels will hold sway.
In melodramas the moral message rings shrilly and punishment for defying society can be harsh. Literary critic Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism described a central theme in melodrama as “the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience.” In fact, often in melodramas cruel justice is meted out especially to women who stray from morals of the times, men who aren’t traditional breadwinners, and people who buck the system.
But here is where things get tricky, because melodrama doesn’t have to suck. Good guys can win and justice can prevail, but the story line and character development must hit just the right note. You know it sucks when readers laugh at a scene that you meant to be serious. Now fiction and drama is a world of hurt—in fact the basic tenet of storytelling is that someone must suffer. Doom and threat always hang over the character and he or she barely squeaks through the story events. But melodrama takes suffering to a fevered pitch, and offers little relief until the emotional catharsis at the climax. Myself, I want a roller-coaster ride of emotions, to feel highs and lows and even ambivalence toward the protagonist.
So how does this all apply to you, dear writer? Start with good intentions to tell a clean story about realistic people experiencing realistic emotions caught in a knotty situation that might not be realistic, but is somehow believable. Try not to be predictable. Allow your characters to change and grow, even the antagonists and villains. Blur distinctions between good and evil. Use foreshadowing, especially for revelations, and insert logical reversals. Use themes to underline the action with resonance. Know when to back away, when to hush the violins. Make the central conflict complicated and etched with hard choices. Be careful with character gestures and reactions—sprinkle them here and there, not after every comment. Melodrama entertains but it doesn’t make us think; drama helps us know our fellow humans.