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