Avoiding Melodrama in Your Writing.
by C. A. Farran
Has your writing ever been called dramatic or melodramatic? Have you ever received feedback that your characters are too emotional or too reactive? Let’s examine a few things that might be happening in your story.
Let me preface this by saying this is feedback I’ve received and mistakes I still make. I’m pulling from my own experience as well as common pitfalls, so please don’t internalize this as something you’re doing “wrong.” We’re all learning and evolving as we write, and isn’t that kind of amazing?
Dramatic or melodramatic writing is when the drama is coming across as unrealistic or over the top. The reader isn’t buying it, and the reaction doesn’t feel earned. When the reader isn’t connecting with the emotion on the page, it can make a highly emotional scene fall flat.
There are so many tips and techniques for crafting the emotion of your narrative in a way that feels genuine and natural, (verb specificity, word choice, and sentence structure, etc.) But today I want to talk about two specific mistakes that come into play when we’re trying hard to convey emotion.
One is an overreliance on showing emotion through bodily reactions.
“He clenched his fists.”
“They gritted their teeth.”
“Her chest seized painfully, and she gasped.”
“I lost Ed Truck, and it feels like someone took my heart and dropped it into a bucket of boiling tears. And at the same time, somebody else is hitting my soul in the crotch, with a frozen sledgehammer. And then a third guy walks in and starts punching me in the grief bone, and I’m crying, and nobody can hear me, because I’m terribly, terribly alone.”
Okay, that was an over-the-top example, but you get it. The visceral descriptions didn’t enhance the emotion of the moment, and it ended up being silly. Big, external depictions of emotions don’t happen frequently in real life. People tend to be a bit like icebergs, just the tip of their emotions peek out and the rest is internal. We need to work beneath the surface to translate these emotions onto the page. When characters are too forthcoming, and you’re relying too much on showing these emotions through visceral reactions, you’re going to find these emotions coming up repeatedly throughout your novel. In trying to avoid that repetition, we tweak our physical descriptions of the bodily reaction.
“Her throat tightened,” becomes, “Her throat clamped shut.” Or “Her heart raced,” becomes, “Her heart slammed against her ribcage.”
As you work to rephrase these same emotions in differing ways, it’s common for the descriptions to escalate in severity.
The inverse is relying on telling the emotions. Again, the same issue of avoiding that repetition comes into play. “She was scared,” becomes, “She was terrified,” which evolves into “She was more petrified than she’d ever been in her life.”
It’s incredibly difficult to communicate degrees of emotion through telling.
It’s important to remember you can’t make the reader feel anything. You’re telling a story, and when something resonates with the reader, they’ll feel it. Readers get to know your characters through their introspection, the way they think and perceive the world. When readers connect with the character, they connect with the character’s experience.
Let’s practice with an exercise.
Everyone has lost someone in one way or another: this is a universal hurt we all know in different ways. Perhaps a loved one has passed away, or a close friend moved to another city, or you suffered a painful breakup. The circumstances might not line up, but the pain of loss is something we’ve all felt.
When you think about that person, what do you imagine? Do you think of yourself crying? Your chest tightening like someone reached down and squeezed your heart? Maybe, but that’s not where your thoughts linger.
Do you remember good times with them? Do you mourn the loss of what could have been? Plans that vanished, what you might have done differently if you knew your time was finite? Is there an image, a specific image, that means more to you than envisioning yourself crying on your bed? I’ll bet there is. I’ll bet there’s a specific person, a precise memory or vision you’ve conjured. That specificity is where the magic happens. It’s where we feel.
In summation, it isn’t that you need to get “better” at showing emotion. It’s that you need to forge that connection between the reader and your character with introspection and specificity. Now go, break all your readers' hearts, and make them suffer!
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