Drama vs. Melodrama: Can You Tell the Difference?

This week’s video cautions against stepping over the boundary between realistic conflict and tension into the dreaded realm of drama vs. melodrama.

Video Transcription:

To be interesting—to be a story—our novels have to possess an important component. This element is so inherent to the fictional arc that it’s actually the official title of performance plays: Drama. Drama indicates a quality in an event, or series of events, that offers excitement, tension, and emotional involvement. When your main character punches out his best friend over a girl, that’s drama. When your heroine rear-ends the cop car in front of her, drama again. When the world’s about to end in 9.87 seconds and the protagonist has to come up with a brilliant plan to save everyone, what is that but drama?

But as marvelous a friend to writers as drama may be, it also possesses a dark side, and that dark side is… melodrama. The last thing an author wants is for his work to be labeled melodramatic—because it means his story has stepped over the bounds of realistic conflict and tension into the realm of the sensationalized and overwrought. The problem is that, in our desire to keep readers hooked with an appropriate amount of drama, we can sometimes push the envelope into melodrama without even realizing it.

Even the best of authors occasionally did this. The opening chapter of Daphne du Maurier’s romantic pirate tale Frenchman’s Creek is rife with purple prose, told in a distant narrative, and pumped up with highfalutin language that makes it read like an 18th-century lawyer’s writ. Du Maurier, at the height of her authorial power, might have been able to get away with this, but we most definitely can’t. Subtlety is surprisingly effective at conveying tension and emotions such as anger and grief. Take a look at some of your most dramatic passages. If any of them sound like they came straight from your drama queen side, do yourself a favor and tone them back a bit.

Tell me your opinion: Do you ever struggle with recognizing the difference between drama and melodrama in your own work?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.


  1. This has been a slow learning process for me. I think in my first book I struggled with this a lot, trying to write my first real villain. I felt like I was going over the top with her, and it probably had something to do with the fact that I didn’t really understand her motives enough. I think understanding a person’s motives is key. For example, in my current WIP (where I really tried working on making the antag. believable) I made the ‘bad guy’ have a sort of sensitive side. He TRULY believes that what he is doing is right, his bad deeds are almost politician-like. People hate him, and he has a political agenda that overrides what is right because he takes it to the extreme. Along the way he sort of falls for the MC, and I’m hoping these weaknesses, or character flaws take him from being melodramatic to realistic.

    Now, onto the climax of the story…hope this turns out =)

  2. Bad guys are especially susceptible to the melodrama pit. We tend to think the best way to make readers hate our antagonists is to make them as bad as possible. But, inevitably, the more real the character, the more intense reader reaction will be – whether they love him or hate him.

  3. My female protangist tends to be melodramatic. Although, to be fair, her situation–losing her whole family in one moment–is more on that side anyway.

  4. Melodrama is another of those techniques that’s only a problem when it’s an unintended effect. Purposeful melodrama – especially for comedic or characterization reasons – can be very effective in its place.

  5. *gah* Oh yes, do I ever struggle to find this line. In one of my stories, a beta reader told me a claim by the antagonist sounded like melodrama. It didn’t matter that his claim was legit, as it still sounded like melodrama to the reader because *they* didn’t know yet that the antagonist could, indeed, make such a thing happen. I think I fixed it, but not by changing the line. Instead, I changed the MC’s reaction to it – with *her* scoffing at his claim. I hope that will keep the reader in the story, and they’ll discover, along with the MC, the truth later.

  6. But I LOVE melodrama, and there must be a market for it, because I don’t have any trouble finding it.

  7. @Jami: Good plan of attack. Often, if the protag can mimic the reader’s reaction, the problem is solved as simply as that.

    @Maria: Whatever you’re love and reading, keep writing it!

  8. When I hear melodrama, I always picture a damsel tied to the train tracks and a mustache twirling top-hatted villain. I never believe the train is really going to squish her because the situation is so over the top. I try to take my dramatic beats right up to the tracks, but never actually tie them down. It’s tricky sometimes.

  9. You’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem with melodrama is that it strains the readers’s suspension of disbelief to the popping point. Once that bubble’s popped, they’ve no reason to remained invested in the story.

  10. I can sometimes struggle, as I have more than a small bias problem when it comes to my WiP. Spent way too much time on it.


  11. That’s where the objective eyes of critique partners come in so handy! We’re all blind to our own works.

  12. This is a very interesting thread. Solving the problem of drama v melodrama defines my evolution as a writer. Kathryn’s problem of humanizing her antagonist is universal, wouldn’t you agree? So many movies have antagonists that are so purely caricature that the movies they are in become tedious. If you expect great back story in Freddie Krueger or Michael Meyers you are missing the point (as I do) – the target audience wants to see the gore and the cinematic surprises. Give Freddie or Michael sympathetic motives and you get in the way of the purpose of the movies.

    On the other hand, as I write this I am watching The Matrix marathon on AMCTV. Character motivation is all-important to these movies and understanding the story was a daunting task before I began watching them. The writers kept me interested by spreading clues to their character’s motivations across scenes and even across the trilogy so I had to watch the entire series several times before I found out the motivations of, say, Link (the military commander of Zion) or the Merovingian, much less the yin/yang relationships of Neo v Agent Smith or The Oracle v The Architect.

    Adding more to the depth of the stories are the names of the characters and place names (Trinity, Morpheus, Zion, the Nebuchadnezzar) and the seemingly gratuitous taking of the Lord’s name in vain and I slowly realized the writers are not-so-subtly telling the viewer that they are exploring (not questioning) their faith! Isn’t free will v predestination a major sub plot of The Matrix?

    Now that I have seen the trilogy several times I am not in such rapt attention anymore but I am still filling in blanks like the little girl, Satee, and what purpose she serves to drive the story.

    Analyzing The Matrix might seem like a trivial pursuit but the respect they show the viewer to discover all the ingredients piecemeal and assemble them by ourselves at story’s end is very Faulkner-esque. The first time I tried to read The Sound and the Fury I gave up. Understanding what the book was all about took years and I sill cannot claim a complete comprehension. I came to appreciate the respect Faulkner gave to his readers, though, in our ability to assemble the story from different narrators, across different writing styles (switching from straight narration to stream-of-consciousness) and then throw in a dash of flashback for a complete mind-melt. Comprehending The Sound and the Fury was extremely confusing to this high-school student who only much later recognized the mastery of the storyteller.

    Analyzing The Matrix was much easier – it has the same approach with considerably less mastery. Now when I write I try to avoid long passages of exposition in favor of dropping clues throughout the story (preferably in between the quotes) and trusting to the reader to have a complete picture at the conclusion. If a reader needs to read the story again because they missed the complete picture the first time then so much the better. Now if I could only write good outlines . . .

    CP Brooke

  13. Interestingly enough, most of my favorite books are ones I hated at first glance, gave up on, and had to return to in order to finally “get” and appreciate them. The best and deepest of themes aren’t always instantly accessible (and, therefore, probably won’t be appreciated by as many people as they would if the author made them more obvious).

    I haven’t seen The Matrix sequels, but now you’ve got me curious. I’m going to have to hunt them down.

    • Terry B says:

      I cannot help but worry about my grammar, I am critically trying to get better at explaining myself. It is never easy, when I see so many mistakes, because they are written by lazy writers or the best fail often.

      Our hostess, KMW, whom I believe is much more read than I, even though I am 60, should be more certain I think than me. She wrote – he got her curious. Should that have been ‘made’ her curious. Small details like this always slow me down. I am in film/cinema school at SFSU and have lots of writing required. I am often concerned over what sense I am making or what tense I am taking. I am often we. I worry too much. We should not be judged as antagonistic because we wish to have clarity.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        “Got me curious” isn’t technically incorrect, but it is, most definitely, slang. 🙂

  14. Couldn’t agree with you more. By melodrama we understand: over-revved drama that takes itself too seriously. “Melodrama” that is used in comedy, or in the musical, for example, is either protected by the conventions of these genres, or is read as poking fun at itself.

  15. Spot on. As authors, we’re often guilty of taking ourselves and our stories so seriously that no one else does. Sometime what seems riveting and dramatic when we we’re writing the first draft actually comes across as overwritten and melodramatic upon rereading.

  16. I am primarily a musician so reading Stavros’ post mentioning “the melodrama . . . in musicals” reminded me that most of my friends don’t like musicals, one even going so far as to call musicals “melodrama elevated to campy art” (is ‘campy art’ an oxymoron?). When you consider that every dramatic turn is an excuse for the main characters to break into song it is hard to disagree with that description. For example West Side Story has a knife fight that ends in murder and a sexual assault and both are set to music and choreography – a virtual definition of melodrama.

    But consider the roots of the modern musical: Sophocles and Shakespeare were both masters of the dramatic arts yet they flooded their stages with the same melodramatic devices that are used by the modern musicals. Greek choruses, choreographed sword fights, mythological creatures, conversations with ghosts – all of these trademarks of melodramatic excess were the stock in trade of the masters.

    All of which leaves me confused: is melodrama something to be avoided at all costs or can a clever writer use melodrama to achieve a desirable result?

    CP Brooke

  17. Art is *full* of melodrama, and, without question, the popular masses often embrace it. The problem isn’t so much melodrama (which, indeed, could be argued to apply to drama of any sort) as it is drawing undue attention to it. When the author piles on the drama so thick that it becomes overwhelming or unbelievable, that’s when it steps over the bounds into undesirable melodrama.

  18. As usual great advice, which I will be sharing on my blog tomorrow.
    Thank you.

  19. Thanks for the shout out! I appreciate it.

  20. Darcy Lockhart says:

    I had a college professor, circa 1975, who explained the difference between drama and melodrama as this:

    In drama, the plot is moved forward by the decisions that characters make in reaction to conflict, and subsequently, these characters’ lives are changed by their decisions and readers realize the character has changed.

    In melodrama, the plot moves forward by outside conflicts propelling the characters, and not by introspection of the characters. After characters go through a conflict, they remain static and unchanged.

    Look at so many TV soap operas where characters undergo all sorts of emotionally-painful experiences, but their essential personalities remain the same.

    Drama would show the inner turmoil of a character when faced with a conflict: there may be three or four paths he could follow. However, it is the path he takes that moves his life, and therefore, the plot, forward.

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