Melodrama makes people think of bad soap operas. In fact, melodrama is about emphasising the emotional aspect of a story, but when you do that you can very easily tip over into hysterical characters who overreact to every little thing.
It’s a bit like overacting in a movie; a big performance can be enthralling if done right, and ridiculous if pushed too far. Melodramatic stories suffer a similar problem, although, like bad acting, they can still be entertaining when preposterous.
However, emotions are important in all stories. You want the reader to feel connected to the character and to empathise with their plight. And there are a number of techniques used in melodrama that can be applied (in moderation) to your story and help those feels reach your readers.
In melodrama the intent is to get characters to an extreme. While a sad character might be mildly upsetting, a character bawling their eyes out can make the audience feel distressed.
There are two basic ways to bring a character to this kind of emotional place. Either an event occurs that causes them to react, or you make them very sensitive so that they go off the deep end at the drop of a hat.
Making them overly sensitive is the easier of the two, and also one of the tropes of bad melodrama. You don’t have to come up with an involving narrative if your character is ready to die for the man she just met in the supermarket five seconds ago. Love can just strike you down sometimes, right? Cheap as this method might seem, that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Once you get the reader past the initial suddenness of the emotion it’s pretty much accepted as part of the story. Quick and big can pull the reader in, and from there they’re yours to lose.
The other approach, to have a dramatic, even sensational, event occur that causes the character to react emotionally may seem the more respectable route, but it also has its drawbacks.
If a nurse discovers she has cancer, that her husband is cheating on her and then the hospital catches fire, you can see that all of those events would be very emotional for her, but having them all happen at the same time would start seeming a little contrived.
If you have too many disasters occur in too short a time to the same set of characters it becomes ridiculous. The nature of fiction, though, is to have events escalate in a story, so if you start off in a heightened state you’re going to end up somewhere insane.
You can avoid some of this by making events connected and also by putting characters in an active role rather than just reacting to things happening to them. So, for example, if the nurse’s husband is cheating because her cancer makes her feel terrible and not in the mood for physical intimacy, and she’s the one that causes the fire in the hospital because she starts smoking (she already has cancer so who cares?) then the focus is more on her and not so much on the unlikely set of events.
It also makes a big difference how well you know someone. If a close friend breaks down in tears you want to comfort them and help them. If a stranger breaks down you feel uncomfortable and unsure what to say or do. It’s much the same for fiction.
The advantage of soap operas is that the audience spends a lot of time with the characters so they feel like they know them, and consequently respond like they would to a friend. With books, you don’t have the same kind of relationship unless you’re writing a long-running series (which is why Book 6 of a series can get away with far more outrageous stuff then Book 1). If you’re going to put a character through the wringer, it usually helps to give readers a chance to get to know them. You can do this by having them do interesting but not too emotionally draining stuff early on.
The desire of a character can also make a big difference in how they are perceived. A woman who loses a child to a miscarriage is a terrible thing, but if she was really desperate to be a mother than the loss is felt that much more keenly. This principle applies in most cases. If you can establish the depth of feeling within a character before something happens to trigger those feelings, it will be more likely to trigger similar sympathetic feelings in the reader.
The other aspect of melodrama that gives it a bad reputation is the voyeuristic. It’s important to show a character’s emotional reaction, after all this is what we have been building up to, but lingering on it too long can start to feel unseemly.
Knowing how much to show and for how long is a matter of personal preference, but once you realise the longer you milk it the more successful a connection you can make with the audience, it becomes very tempting to keep going for as long as possible.
Melodrama has a tendency to wallow in it to the point of drowning, but despite those people who look down on this sort of thing as exploitative and cheesy you should bear in mind that there is a huge audience for it, so it clearly works (for some).
That’s not to say I think writers should make all their characters run around in hysterics all the time, but at the same time being too restrained and controlled can make things a little bland and sterile.
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