Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Avoiding Melodrama in Your Story

Background image: BettyCrocker.com

There’s a reason chocolate chip is the king of cookies. Buttery batter with a touch of salt, dotted with rich chocolate in every bite. Amen.

Just like with writing, the secret is in the right balance. For me, the perfect chocolate chip cookie is made with Kerrygold Irish butter, a pinch of sea salt, and mini semisweet chocolate chips: A perfect amalgamation of richness and sweetness. And the best novel has just the right recipe of tension, characterization, romance, conflict, etc.

Today we’re going to talk about that fine line between drama and melodrama. Don't get me wrong -- there's a time and a place for a sprinkle of melodrama (CW primetime television, I'm looking at you). But in most genres of fiction, it’s a delicate tightrope to tiptoe.

If you’ve been following my posts here, you know I’m a big fan of a craft book called Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld. She identifies melodrama as excessive, over-the-top emotional intensity that can make a reader feel bullied. While most can take tragedy and emotional turmoil in stride, there’s a certain unspoken trust in the limits of drama within a given story.

And when that line is crossed, trust is broken and the reader can feel violated.

For example, Nicholas Sparks is perhaps the king of drama in today’s romance market, and I was the girl who devoured A Walk to Remember and The Notebook. But his latest releases have felt incredibly unrealistic with long strings of events that seem to exist for shock value more than anything else. And I get what Jordan Rosenfeld is saying exactly because I've felt a little violated when I leave his movies (or throw his books across the room). 

See what I did there with the whole throwing books across the room? Melodrama. I recognize it. But how can you tell if your own work is melodramatic? Rosenfeld says the typical markers include:

  • cliche or cheesy “greeting card” sentimentality
  • character hysterics that last a few beats too long
  • larger-than-life romantic gestures or uncharacteristic overreactions
  • unrealistic dialogue
  • overdone descriptions

Critique partner and beta reader reactions can be a good indicator if any of this is going on in your work. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize in your own words. But here’s how you can check yourself:

Make sure pacing is executed correctly. Is drama portioned strategically so it has the most impact? Do your plot and scene intros build to the drama instead of dropping it into a reader’s lap like scalding coffee? This is where Nicholas Sparks has gone a little wayward, in my opinion. Too much and too strong to take it all at once.

Does the amount of emotion last an appropriate amount of time? Readers might be less sympathetic to a character who seems immature or unwilling to move past heightened emotions toward healing/resolution.

Would a “less-is-more” approach work better in your scene? Sometimes stunned silence, numbness, and a softer approach can communicate much more powerfully than bold emotions. You'll know when it's right, and you might not even have to do that much work because characters tend to show you for themselves in these situations. You don't even have to be tempted to tell what's going on.  

Do your dialogue and emotional reactions fit the characters you’ve built thus far? You’ve spent your story laying the groundwork for this moment, but if readers don’t have a hint of the impending eruption, it might end up leaving their tastebuds burned so they can't enjoy the smooth, velvety hot chocolate you intended to create for them.

Is your writing grounded in reality? On the same note, character dialogue and behavior should be realistic (assuming you’re not writing fantasy) to human nature to avoid being over-the-top. Reactions should be the result of a plausible cause-and-effect scenario, warranted by the actions and decisions that set them off. So resist the urge to skimp on reality or create unrealistic coincidences just because it's convenient.

Hopefully asking yourself these questions will give your story a good balance. Because just like something sweeter or spicier than expected can send people scrambling for relief in a cold glass of milk, melodrama that crosses the line can quickly get a story abandoned.

Do you have the tendency to lay it on thick sometimes? You can admit it here! No judgment :) Have you ever put down a book because the melodrama was off-putting?


Laurie Tomlinson is a wife and mom from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who is passionate about intentional living, all things color-coded, and stories of grace in the beautiful mess. Previously a full-time book publicist, she owns a freelance copywriting, editing, and PR consulting business. 

She's a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and two-time Genesis Award winner in 2013 (Contemporary) and 2014 (Romance). 

Her work is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such Literary.

You can connect with Laurie here:

Twitter - @LaurieTomlinson

Web - www.LaurieTomlinson.com
Facebook - AuthorLaurieTomlinson


Jeanne Takenaka said...

Laurie, I knew this post was you before I scrolled down. Those descriptions for the perfect chocolate chip cookie gave you away. :)

I loved your questions. They are spot on. I tend to need to add a little more emotion to some of my scenes. My characters tend to react too calmly, at least in my first drafts. :)

Maybe I'll tweak your questions to help me work on that. :)

Jaime Wright said...

Oh my gosh! I am so unbelievably in agreement! *Tears streak down Jaime's face in rivulets of ecstatic emotion that someone shone light on the darkness of melodrama* If the world won't stop SPINNING long enough to see how melodrama COMPLETELY takes the cake of horrific emotion I'll DIE!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...


Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Jeanne - I believe we had this discussion in person :) That's interesting to think about -- if the questions could be reversed to make sure there's enough drama. I typically err on the side of too much. But I like to call it "just enough" hah!

@Jaime - Thanks, critique partner, for not outing me for the plank in my own eye :)

@Amy - Thanks, girl!

Carla Laureano said...

I never write melodrama in my first drafts. *shifty eyes* Great post, Laurie! And I too think Kerrygold butter is the key to perfect chocolate chip cookies and pretty much everything else.

Susan Anne Mason said...

Great post! Thanks!

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Carla - But the secret is editing it out :) Glad to know you're a fellow Kerrygold butter snob. I mean, if you're going to have butter, why not have natural, grass-fed goodness?? #foodsnob

@Susan - Thanks for reading!

Brett W. Tubbs said...

What a delicious morsel...eh...maybe you could go over weeding out corniness in your next post? ;)

Pepper Basham said...

Okay, I love Jaime!

With that said, I love you too, Laurie and this post was fantastic.
Though I feel I should duck my head and run because I'm drawn toward writing melodrama like a toddler's body toward dirt.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

I bought some Kerrygold butter today. I think it was your subliminal suggestion, Laurie. ;)

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Brett - I'm, uh, still mastering that one LOL!

@Pepper - Most of my post ideas come from topics in which I'm preaching to the choir. :)

@Jeanne - It's the BEST!