Writing Excuses 5.7: Avoiding Melodrama

Melodrama. What is it? What do people mean when they say something is too melodramatic?

Usually they do NOT mean “it’s too much like a classical melodrama,” but it helps if we start with that definition: a melodrama is a story in which each character only expresses one emotion, and/or only has one trait. When we refer to melodrama, we’re usually complaining about over-acting.

So… how do we avoid it? How do we create characters in conflict without overdoing the conflict or the characterization. In many ways it comes back to something we say over and over (and over and over) again: make your characters into real people.

But we’re not going to leave it at that. We’re not just going to repeat what we’ve been telling you for three years now. No, we’ve got good tools you can use for writing powerful, emotional moments without your readers whining about melodrama.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Tomb: Repairman Jack #1, by F. Paul Wilson

Writing Prompt: Write a story in which you take a cliched, angsty hero in a completely new direction, so that it doesn’t feel cliched.

Dramatic Reading: Stick around after the ‘cast for Howard’s reading of Mike O’s response to our “magical ink” writing prompt.

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26 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.7: Avoiding Melodrama”

  1. That was an awesome podcast, as usual. Mockingjay is a great example of where there’s too many emotional add-ins at the end for the reader. By the way, it’s Puddleglum, not puddleglop.

  2. Another interesting tidbit…Puddleglum was actually based on a real person, Lewis’ gardener, whose outlook was apparently as pessimistic as the poor Marshwiggle. Perhaps, other than the reasons you already mentioned, this helped his character to be enjoyable rather than melodramatic–as you suggested, he was a real, fully fleshed out person, at least in the mind of the author.

  3. This is actually one of my fears when I write fiction. Much of my earlier work is fraught with characters either being at a ’10’ all of the time or being – in comparison – nearly emotionless. And Dan it’s alright, you aren’t stupid.

  4. Puddleglum’s also benefits from a spectacular scene where he is essentially the hero for one perfect moment. As fun as Puddleglum is up until that climax, that’s all he was for me until that moment. After that he became so beloved that I reread the book just for him and to build to that moment. Giving characters triumphs can go a long way to rounding them out, even if the triumphs are infrequent.

  5. Great podcast as always guys!

    Thanks for reading my little snippet at the end! It was hilarious to have it read by Howard at the end of the ‘melodrama’ podcast! Well, hopefully it will show everyone that you don’t need to be a good writer to sit down and write something. So go write something!

  6. And as I recall (though it’s been a bit), Puddleglum did have happier/sadder moments, just always filtered through his pessimistic view.

    As far as Narnia and melodrama go, I also think of Reepicheep. He’s very melodramatic and noble and gets his pride offended…but he works as a character because he’s also two feet tall and the contrast is interesting, and he’s genuinely noble like that. I guess that’s the thing: it needs to feel genuine.

    My favorite (paraphrased) line from tWoK was “So you’re self-righteous, but you come by it honest.”

  7. I love what you’re all doing. These posts are both useful and interesting. The 15 minute format is genius.

    In many of the podcasts, one of you will refer listeners to an earlier podcast. How could a listener access those? They’re not on Itunes or in the podcast RSS feed. Is the best option to go back through the blog archives and download each MP3 file individually, or do you have them compiled somewhere else?

  8. I found it interesting that Brandon brought up Javert from Les Miserable in the podcast, because I was researching Les Miserable on the internet this past weekend, looking at how the plot of the book differed from the plot of the musical, etc. And while I was researching, I thought, “I wonder if any of the WE crew has ever read Les Miserable.” Many people who have read it say that it’s their favorite novel, but at 1400 pages, I wonder if anyone can really stomach it.

    But this is Brandon we’re talking about. I’m sure he could write a 1400 page book without extraordinary effort (at least, it wouldn’t be extraordinary for him).

  9. Not only have I read Les Miserables, I’ve read it unabridged. Twice. It’s an incredible book, and Hugo is one of my favorite authors.

  10. TVtropes.org has a pretty good colloquial definition of the Melodrama trope. Also see Wangst.

    I put down a book when one of two things happen:

    1) The author dishes out a super-size, extra chunky helping of terrible suffering onto the character(s) for no other reason than to turn up the emotions like a sad country song. This destroys my suspension of disbelief.

    2) The character(s) react to every tiny obstacle and setback with weepy emotion and an idiotic inability to help themselves. This just makes me despise them.

    how to do it right: Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. The Tarbean story arc featured very traumatic circumstances and massive personal crises, but was one of the best parts of the story, rather than the worst.

  11. Another fun ‘cast. Lots of random thoughts – I agree with Conyngham above on Puddleglum’s marvelous scene at the end, when we see his deeper self and he proves to be both heroic and very insightful. But yes, Narnia is MG, so we’re not going to get really deep complexities, though the books hold up to adult reading. (I can’t believe Brandon hasn’t read them! Though he has at least read Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, so I forgive him.)

    And yes, I always associate melodrama with overwrought and over-the-top, but also simplistic and taking itself too seriously (Overwrought and over-the-top, but funny can be delightful. Funny trumps just about everything, IMO.) “Simplistic” may be the key problem for me, which is kind of what you were saying – you can have the extreme emotion as long as you set it up right and give good reasons for it, so the audience is feeling it, too.

    I heard another definition of “soap opera” – making the characters do stuff that they would never do in order to serve the plot (especially annoying when it’s something stupid). Not quite the same as melodrama, but they overlap a lot.

    And, finally, Bravo for the dramatic reading. :-)

  12. So… Does that mean the one on omniscient POV is coming up? 15 minutes long… because you know everything and can see and know everything?

  13. Wow. I’ve never thought of melodrama that way. I love what you do; it helps so much! You guys really are that smart. Thanks for what you guys do! You guys are awesome!

  14. @ Ian S- The Magician’s Nephew was added later, which might be the cause of the mild confusion. I’m not at a point where I can access my copies of the books (I have three different sets. Why do I have three different sets?), so I can’t check, but that seems to be the likeliest cause.

    I’m not left handed either. /obligatory Princess Bride reference.

  15. If the point of a character is that he acts rather one-sided and only expresses one emotion, then the way to keep him from seeming melodramatic would be to have a section told from his perspective and show a different emotion that he doesn’t express often?

  16. I recently read a book that had that exact same problem Sanderson was talking about. It was a really good book, but the climax went on for so long. Plans kept goign wrong, people kept failing, and it just generally went wrong. That’s pretty good, but after a while I just wanted it to end. Although you could use it as suspense vs action. There was a scene where a character said not to trust anybody they could be possesed. Then, not even a page later, we found out which character was taken over. As I said it’s a good book, but it had its flaws. I also liked how the author’s style changed.

    I could be wrong but is Hamlet a good example of contrasting emotions? All through the play he goes from happy, to sad, to mad, and everything inbetween.

    I think the best way to avoid characters being Emo is to have them do something. Even if the character is being really angsty if there’s something happening in the plot then the reader won’t care as much. If the character’s sitting down moaning for a chapter then they’d care.

  17. The confusion over the Narnia book is understandable. There are two different orders they have been published in: the order is which Lewis wrote them, and the internal chronology. In the published order, the Silver Chair is the fourth book; in publishing order, the first four books have roughly the same outline (humans from England go to Narnia, fulfill quest, return home without meaningful break in their real lives), although the details differ enough to make them interesting. The next two books were very different, with The Magicians Nephew being a prequel and The Horse and His Boy being a “midquel”, chronologically being entirely contained in The Lion, The Witch and The Warddrobe, and perhaps uniquely all the action occured only in the World of Narnia.

    The Last Battle is always last, for reasons obvious to those who have read it.

    In later published versions, they have moved The Magicians Nephew and The Horse and His Boy into their chronological place in the series, resulting in The Silver Chair being the sixth Narnia book, chronologically. I’m ambivalent about this change, because Lewis expanded Narnia immensely in his first four published Narnia books, and so there is a notable world-building gap if you take chronological order. However, each book tries to stand on its own, so it’s not a terrible ordering.

  18. I’m extremely disappointed to hear that Brandon is consciously doing away with the Sanderson Avalanche. I consider it one of the most appealing parts of his writing style. The characters and story carry the rest of the book because he’s good at writing them, and then the avalanche makes for a wonderful thrill ride.

    The Way of Kings is excellent because of the world, story, and characters, but disappointing because there is no avalanche. I’m actually less excited about the Stormlight Chronicles, now that I know I have less to look forward to.

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