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Bob Nailor

Is It Drama ... Or Melodrama?

Scenes are an important aspect of the writing world. Too often, a writer will over-indulge in expressing the moment. Or, as I call it, go into "movie melodrama" in an attempt to engage the reader.

Katey's tiny fingers slipped from Eileen's hand as her daughter dashed between parked cars to retrieve the balloon. The speeding motorist never saw Katey. Eileen rushed to her fallen five-year old daughter, sprawling over her, crying, weeping and pounding the pavement in anger. Little Katey was dead. Too many hands pulled Eileen away from Katy in an attempt to help. Eileen sobbed, sitting back, staring in disbelief, beating her breast and wailing to the sky, searching for her so-called benevolent God to give her an answer but found no solace.

Rather intense, filled with a lot of emotion. But, is it?

Katey's tiny fingers slipped from Eileen's hand as her daughter dashed between parked cars to retrieve the balloon. The speeding motorist never saw Katey. Eileen froze momentarily then crumbled to the ground where she stood. Little Katey, her daughter, was dead. Hand to heart, she numbly watched others gather to assist.

Sometimes a writer will go too far to make sure the reader feels the emotion. Pushing that limit can actually diminish the moment. In the above two examples, we can feel the mother's anguish but in the first one, so much is explained and detailed, the reader is overwhelmed and basically says: She was upset.

In the second example, the reader is sucked into the story and the empathy for the grieving mother fills the reader who possibly will feel a tear well in the eye.

Take a moment to think this over; I'm talking about drama versus melodrama. Consider the evil character. Hollywood has cast its magic wand over new writers who attempt to describe the moment, the scene, the character to the nth degree, hoping the reader reels from the full impact.

Drakor lurked in the shadows of the black corner, hiding in the darkness, hoping his foul stench would not give away his location. He waited, knowing his dastardly deed would be quickly rewarded. His evil thoughts filled him with how he would slit Alicia's neck. Drakor narrowed his eyes to slits of burning red and he grinned evilly, baring yellowed fangs dripping with poisonous drool.

IF this is your opening scene, it's over the top. IF this is a scene later in the story, why repeat what should have been revealed earlier about the character. But wait! Why would Drakor think of himself as evil? Or even bad? Sure, he's about to slit Alicia's throat, but in his mind, that would be a good thing, not an evil thing. He's going to be rewarded!

Drakor lurked in the shadows. He waited, knowing Alicia would come this way. She must die and with her death, he would be rewarded. Drakor smiled in the delight of death, his yellow fangs barely noticeable in the darkness.

Same scene but this time Drakor is put in the light of being evil without all the details to "make" him appear evil.

That's right one is melodrama, the other is drama. By using drama, instead of melodrama, you have allowed the reader to fill in the blanks. If you'd done your job as a writer, the character description should already be in the reader's mind and they will mentally visualize the slitted red eyes and (yes, I wrote about them) the yellow fangs. Some may even go so far as to imagine the poisonous drool.

Don't under-estimate your reader! They are intelligent. They get it! You don't need to take them by the hand and lead them down the path, describing every flower you pass. Just take their hand, and tell them they're in a garden. They'll figure it out and realize it is a path.

Consider Blix from "Legend" with Tom Cruise (circa 1985) - a great fantasy movie, by the way. In a few simple words, one can realize he is evil: May be tender, may be sweet ain't half as nice as rotting meat. I have loved that line since the first time I heard it. Even if I'd not seen the movie, knowing Blix was a demon working for "Darkness" if I'd been reading a book, my mental image of him gently wiping the drool from one side of his mouth would have been vivid. Blix, in my mind's eye, was not something you'd want to see during the day.

Melodrama is not a "bad" thing, but it has its place. A writer must learn the craft to know when to go over the top (if needed and is seldom used!) or just write a nice, tight drama scene which involves the reader.

Think of it this way Melodrama is telling, Drama is showing.

Writers show which allows the reader to be involved to fill in the blanks.

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Onisha Ellis
When I find that sort of writing, my eyes begin rolling. If the writer continues, I close the book. I wonder if there is a correlation between being a drama queen and overwriting drama.
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Diane Rapp
Fantastic blob! Comparing the two types of scenes really gives us understanding of the problem. Thanks. I love to describe scenes and characters but now I'll make sure I'm not sliding into melodrama.
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Scott Bury
Too much detail that the reader doesn't need is a common problem for many writers, particularly new ones. You're absolutely right - readers are smart, and they get it that someone would be upset to see their child die. The challenge is to bring that reaction to the reader's mind and heart in an interesting way. To tell the reader that the mother pounds on the pavement is useless. But it would be much more interesting to read something like "Only when she felt warm splatters on her face did she realize that she had torn the skin of her hand with repeated pounding on the asphalt."
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Charles Dougherty
Your examples illustrate your point well. Too many writers fail to grasp the distinction. Maybe they confuse melodrama with relevant detail, but no matter what their reason, it's a fatal error in my opinion.

I'll close a book and move on after a sentence or two of overdone description, and I think most readers do the same.
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Rebekah Lyn
Oh this is so true! The excess is the first thing I try to weed out of my first drafts. Slowing down the story isn't good for anyone.
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Elyse Salpeter
I love when you give examples. It really brings them to life for me. I definitely see the difference between drama and melodrama - great post.
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