Melodrama [Part 1 of 2]: 6 Ways to Spot It in Your Writing

Nell poster

Happy first day of May!

In college, I took a course called “Writing Fiction & Poetry.” It was one of the first times I can remember actually exploring writing prompts and crafting short stories and then getting peer and professor feedback. The class was fun and challenging, and I learned a lot. I’ll never forget what my professor told me after reading one of my short stories titled “Broken.”

He called my story melodramatic.

Truthfully, until that point in my writing career, I had never given melodrama much thought–and I never imagined that anyone would say my writing was melodramatic. But every good writer worth his or her salt views constructive criticism as just that: constructive criticismSo I took a good look at my story and saw that yes, it was a bit melodramatic. After all, I had a character punching a mirror and then sliding to the floor in a puddle of tears. I guess I should have seen it coming.

Since then, I have tried to be more aware of when I am slipping from realistic action into melodrama, and as an editor I watch out for this in other’s writing as well.

Following are a few short tips for how to spot melodrama. Next week’s post will offer some tips for cutting melodrama. These tips are adapted from Jordan Rosenfeld’s book Make a Scene, which I mentioned in my post on good writing books to check out.

Feel free to leave any melodramatic tips or thoughts in the comments! (And yes, that sentence is phrased so it’s unclear whether I want you to leave tips on melodrama or tips that are themselves melodramatic.)

First, a definition of melodrama from my friend, Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Melodrama [noun]:
drama in which many exciting events happen
and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions

The Traits of Melodrama

  • Sentimentality: Think of the kinds of sentiments written in romantic greeting cards. Think of cliché, trite, or corny dialogue. “‘You are my everything,’ he said passionately to her.” “My heart would stop beating if you weren’t by my side,” she said to him.
  • Hysterics: Think crying, screaming, arguing that gets too loud, too emotional, or too angry. Allowing hysterics to go on for too long is a good way to lose your readers.
  • Grand or unrealistic gestures: These are often found at the end of sappy romance movies, in which the changed man arranges for something utterly implausible, like hiring a famous football team to serenade his love. Big gestures may work for Hollywood, but they rarely fly in writing because they aren’t believable.
  • Affected speech: Be careful that your characters don’t sound like divas and English barons (unless they are), dropping phrases that real people wouldn’t likely utter. Often what seems melodramatic in a character is just a bad affectation or poorly crafted dialogue.
  • Kneejerk reactions: When a character changes his mind or behavior too suddenly, flip-flopping from meek to brave, from kind to villainous, the scene can read as melodrama.
  • Descriptor overload: On the technical level, remember that an overuse of adverbs or adjectives can often lead to a feeling of melodrama. Often just cutting them away will solve the problem.

Can you think of any other traits of melodrama that I missed?
Have you ever been told that your writing is too melodramatic?

5 thoughts on “Melodrama [Part 1 of 2]: 6 Ways to Spot It in Your Writing

  1. “Yikes!,” I said as I slapped the palm of my hand against the fleshy portion of my forehead…I have a feeling I better start re-writing my first manuscript :/

  2. She drops her head to the keyboard, the letter ‘n’ appearing unceasingly on the screen. “I’m undone. All my work is in ruin.” Tears begin dropping from her eyes onto the computer. She rises from the desk chair tearing her clothes in anguish, crying out her grief over her wasted time and effort. 😉

  3. Pingback: Melodrama [Part 2 of 2]: 5 Tips for Cutting | Amanda Bumgarner

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