Melodrama is often used as an insult but, used properly, has its place in good storytelling. Here are some tips for writing melodrama.
What Is Melodrama?
Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle: the remarkable rather than the ordinary.
Melodrama is about extremes of any kind. Melodrama is designed to:
- rouse strong emotions
- invoke implicit shared attitudes
Pejoratively, melodrama refers to stories in which the writer tries to make the reader feel something but overdoes it and thus fails. This isn’t entirely fair use, because sometimes the writer WANTS the audience to enjoy the spectacle of characters getting all emotional without involving the audience in the drama. Melodrama can be harnessed deliberately in order to let an audience enjoy a story in a different way (from straight drama).
Why Use Melodrama In Your Writing?
Because of its heightened, exaggerated reality, melodrama lends itself easily to symbolism, allegory, and surrealism.
Surrealism is a different but related kind of exaggeration whereby the meanings implicit in objects, people, or events become more luminous and accessible than meanings normally are in the chaotic muddle of our everyday world.
Sometimes visionary, heightened reality is the most real of all, because all the transitory, trivial details have been stripped away to reveal the fundamental essence of things.
There’s a reason soap operas are shown in the middle of the day — no one needs genuine emotion at that time of day. Soap operas are melodramatic because they are designed to be a diversion, not a catharsis.
The Setting Of Melodramas
Melodramas make their heroes pawns in cities which symbolise the originating problem for the hero rather than the end of the hero’s activity. The hero is a conscious agent and a conflict between morality and the violation of established laws is developed.
A feature of melodramatic settings is often darkness contrasted with light. A lot of the scenes will probably take place at night.
Use of colour palette in the melodramatic TV series Riverdale promotional material makes the most of this contrast:
The dark/light thing is continued into the character building:
The Problem With Melodrama: Believability
Because melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely, it often creates a credibility problem for readers who expect mimesis in storytelling.
Tips For Writing Melodrama
Tip 1: SHOW THAT THE MELODRAMATIC THING WORKS RIGHT AWAY
Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire starts out with a vampire talking into a tape recorder. Either way, you know pretty clearly what you’re in for from the beginning.
Each story demonstrates its central premise: modern vampires, or shoot-’em-up spaceflight. If you’re going to write melodrama, start with melodrama.
If your story will be playing by rules other writers have used before—that vampires exist, that faster-than-light travel is possible—melodrama may be the best way to go. work with the accepted convention. Introduce your premise with as little fuss as possible and get on with your story. Stephenie Mayer built her Twilight series on the accepted convention of vampires already established to modern readers by writers such as Anne Rice.
Tip 2: SHOW THAT THIS THING HAS WORKED IN THE RECENT PAST
Especially use this trick if you’re introducing an entirely new concept.
There’s no arguing with the past — it’s over. Use this obvious bit of wisdom to have a character talk about the thing before it actually appears. Or you can write about a past event for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been found. The story then demonstrates the cause in the present, which also explains the past, retroactively.
Tip 3: USE A TRUSTWORTHY NARRATOR OR CHARACTER
Establish a reasonable character, and have them take the curse/magic/fantasy world seriously. Don’t have anybody doubting it, at least not for long.
This particular storytelling trick doesn’t always work well with the most savvy of young readers. Here’s a young adult who recently shared with the Internet why she doesn’t like YA fiction — one of her main points is that in real life nobody listens to teenagers. The fact that fictional adults listen to fictional young characters can either be a refreshing change or it can trigger annoyance, but now at least you see why writers do it.
Most readers are used to fictional conventions and are also appreciative of new and original fantasy worlds. They will accept anything if it is introduced correctly.
Tip 4: JUXTAPOSE THE EXTRAORDINARY WITH THE MUNDANE
Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail. I think this explains the popularity of magical realism.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe opens within the (historical) reality of war, in a house that could easily exist in the real world.
Sometimes this advice runs to “Writers are allowed one big lie per story”. But there are diversity issues that you can run into if you follow this advice.
Tip 5: ONE IMPROBABILITY PER STORY
If there are a whole lot of odd goings-on they should all have, finally, a single cause. That one cause accepted, all the rest follows: the other oddities fall into place.
I feel writers underestimate readers sometimes, though. I fear this particular writing tip might be responsible for all those medieval fantasy worlds which are, when it all boils down, a retrograde white patriarchy. Perhaps writers think that they can only get away with the fantasy world itself, and that every other aspect of politics and 21st century social life must be laid upon this fantastical world otherwise we’re asking too much of readers.
Tip 6: NO UNDERCUTTING YOUR PREMISE
No waking up and it was all a dream. Don’t explain it away or make fun of it in any other way, either.
Tip 7: NO TALKING ABOUT THE IMPROBABILITY IN NARRATIVE SUMMARY
Especially at first, as you’re establishing its existence. These parts must be shown in scenes. Dialogue is more believable than summary.
Lampshading has its uses, but be careful how and when you use it.
Tip 8: DON’T LET THE IMPROBABILITY TAKE OVER THE STORY
Write of the improbability sparingly. Don’t let it become commonplace. The amount of reality versus magic has to be balanced. A story in which literally anything can happen is a story in which nothing makes sense.
Make the magician or elf (or whatever) very normal and ordinary 99% of the time, but with the potential of being extraordinary once in a while. That builds credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the specialness to come out.
If you’ve got a monster, don’t trot it out in every chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monster you imagine, as a reader, is much more frightening than the monster you see.
Notes above are largely from Anson Dibell’s book on writing: Plot