Thursday, June 11, 2009

When Does Drama Become Melodrama?

Justus asked a good question in our Just Ask section: When does drama become melodrama?

First of all, I don't believe there is any fine line between dramatic and melodramatic (although straight melodrama plays are clear). Many different elements in a story, depending on the amount and how they are presented, can determine whether or not a work is more melodramatic than dramatic.

These days melodrama on the stage is rare, but more common in film and novels, that I have seen.

What is Melodrama? Melodrama means "song drama" or "music drama". It usually refers to a theatrical form made popular by the French at the end of the eighteenth century. Melodrama focuses on serious dramatic elements, storylines, and characters. It is similar to drama, but these dramatic elements are pushed over the edge - often becoming comic, and may even seem facetious in intent.

Is melodrama bad? No, it does not have to be. But it often is when an author doesn't realize that their work has been nudged from the dramatic realm to the melodramatic. I have noticed that when this happens, readers will laugh at scenes that are meant to be serious. They might wonder if this was the author's intention.

What is an example of melodrama? Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a modern example of something close to a full-fledged melodrama. Is the movie laughable? To some, yes it is. But does that mean it is bad? I don't think so, because the melodrama works for the story. Many audiences may not think the movie is any good, but it grossed over $126 million in box office sales its opening weekend - a big success. Obviously the general American public, at least, likes melodrama.

Now that I've given you some introduction to melodrama, you may wonder what an author can do in order to either avoid or create melodrama in their work. Defining what gives a work melodramatic tendencies should answer this question.

The characters in a melodrama or a work with melodramatic tendencies will typically be stereotypes that embody the forces of good and evil according to their role. You won't see them sitting down to ponder over their actions. Instead, they are good or bad through and through. Black and white is how I like to think of it, hence the picture above. These characters rarely change or grow, and their actions are predictable.

Oftentimes secondary characters in these stories and simple minded and flat, and provide comic relief.

Predictable. Always predictable. Good wins. Evil loses. The hero saves the day. This is often the appeal of a melodramatic piece. It is basic and stable. These stories build and build, creating a sense of entertainment more than anything else. Drama tends to pull the reader in by reflection and identification with the characters. Melodrama merely gets the reader from point A to point B in an entertaining fashion.

The conflict of a melodramatic work often lies in the Hero vs. Villain, and is therefore predictable in nature. The hero always wins.

In the end, what will make melodramatic elements work in a story is the intention of the author. Perhaps making a story more melodramatic can strengthen a weakened plot and flat characters if the author doesn't want all the fuss of fleshing things out. Perhaps adding a melodramatic flair to a piece will add some needed comedic elements. Perhaps it would simply ruin the story. Who knows. What matters is the author's intention. A friend of mine once commented that my novel was cheesy. I think that maybe she could have meant more melodramatic than cheesy. In any case, it isn't working, and I'm scrubbing out those elements as fast as I can because "cheesy" and "melodramatic" was never my intention.

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. "I think that maybe she could have meant more melodramatic than cheesy."

    Yeah, she probably didn't mean that your novel had a close relationship with cheese. Just a guess. No way of knowing, really.

    Well, you made melodrama sound sucky (a scholarly term). Ha ha. So, I guess I'll avoid it when possible. The problem is trying to decide how many tears are acceptable, how many times the love interest can scream before no one cares, etc. But, is melodrama the equivalent of exaggerated (i.e., unrealistic) drama? Hmm.

  2. Justus: That's a good question. I think that the term melodrama has, unfortunately, come to mean "exaggerated" to a lot of people. But I do not think that the two are equivalent by any means. I think that melodramatic elements can make a piece feel exaggerated, but I don't think that when the author uses melodramatic elements on purpose, that they were trying to just exaggerate things.

    Melodrama may feel exaggerated because it embodies such basic ideas, such as good and evil, and when it does this, those ideas may feel overdone because that is pretty much all that is there. To me, melodrama often feels "stripped down" to the basics, if that makes sense.

  3. provides this definition of melodrama:

    "a dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization."

    I'm going to stick with the movie analogies for a moment. I think they work because they are so accessible in today's society; it's more likely that we have all seen or heard of the same movies then all of us reading the same books. The most avid fans of literature may wish to file this under the "sad but true" category.

    CRASH was a melodrama. Many critics panned it for just that reason. I really liked it. It knew it was a melodrama and in that sense it was true to itself throughout. The melodrama was successful in presenting the themes of bigotry, tolerance, and redemption.

    Many TV series start off as drama, but then turn to excessive melodrama several seasons in. In most cases this ruins the characterization and spoils the show. It introduces absurd plot lines and characters are reduced to caricatures. This is widely known as "jumping the shark," named after an infamous Happy Days episode where the Fonze is water-skiing and - you guessed it - jumps a shark.

    Sex and the City was a great show for about three or four seasons, then it jumped the shark. A new season of Weeds just started on Showtime, and I think it has jumped the shark.

    Melodrama does have its place in our toolbox, but it is not an all purpose tool, like a hammer. It's more like a sledgehammer, to be used when you really, really mean to drive home a point.

  4. Rick: Oh, great thoughts, thank you! I'm not sure I really like that definition that gives. I disagree with it on several points.

    You have an good example here with talking about television series. I agree wholeheartedly that many of them are ruined because they slip into melodrama. I never thought of it that way, but it's true. You seem to understand this concept very well. Thank you for adding your thoughts!

  5. "Cheesy?" Ouch. Very interesting post. I watched a segment of an old movie yesterday. Let's just say it could have written the book on melodrama!!

    And I have to comment on Indiana Jones. I went, expecting it to be in the same vein as the first three, and paid big bucks to see it in the theatre. It was so over the top, my husband and I were laughing at it.

    It made tons of money the opening weekend not because it was good, but because people expected it to be good. I get frustrated with opening weekend numbers. They don't tell the real story!

    Thanks for making me think this morning!

  6. Jill: Unfortunatley, I think people in general wanted it to be over the top. The name has built itself up as that, I think. Kind of like what Rick suggests when he talks about television shows slipping into melodrama after a few seasons. Sadly, audiences keep loving it. I think sometimes it's good for entertainment but blech for the brain. Hey, if turning off your brain is what you want (which many do when they watch tv, it's great!)

  7. Cheesy? Wow. yeah, I'd be trying to get rid of that, too.
    I love how you use examples in your post (like Indiana Jones). This does help show the cases nicely!

  8. I think your characters play into this quite a bit. Some just lend themselves to the melodramatic moment. My favorite is when you have one of those mixed in with a normal thinking character....that sometimes makes a fun read.

  9. I hate when real people get melodramatic, let alone characters!

  10. Peck's view of television: "Even if you have no plans to write for TV, watch it anyhow. Television is actually a form of fiction, and there is much for you to learn if you approach it as a scholar instead of just another bored viewer."

    Keep those brains a workin'!

  11. Jill,

    Yeah, the latest Indiana Jones film didn't deliver.

  12. Awwwwe. She called it cheesy?? Ouch. Great post! I've always wondered what the difference was between the two.

  13. I think the speed with which a character jumps from one action to the next makes a scene feel more or less melodramatic. If it is a big jump it feels more melodramatic.

    I felt that the season finale of Lost this year was becoming melodramatic, in that sense. I just had to laugh, and not take the show so seriously, when character choices, and motivations, flew from one extreme to another.

    I think that I would like people to describe my novel as "bigger than life" but if someone called it melodramitic I would hang my head in shame, because--like you--that's not what I am going for. I want people to take the story seriously, and not laugh it off.

  14. I allow myself to use melodrama in my first draft and then try to weed out the excess emotion during subsequent rewrites.

    For me, MELODRAMA allows me to steer the story especially as I am desperately groping around in the dark for direction (woe- oh woe is me). :D

  15. I had my own vague interpretation of melodrama, and it was more intuitive than anything. This post and the comments are defining it much more clearly for me. I actually think that the definition Rick mentioned coincides with what you're saying quite well, Michelle. The lack of cause and effect, at least for me, is often what makes a character flat. When they try to show emotion, but we haven't followed them on that emotional journey, we don't trust the emotion, we can't become engaged in it. That's when I feel like I'm experiencing melodrama. And, like you said, sometimes that works. In my writing, I'm willing to lean a little towards melodramatic. I'd rather overshoot a little than undershoot. That's just a preference, and I'm not sure if I'll use it in future projects.

    This is digressing a little bit, but I also wanted to say that a writer doesn't need to necessarily explain the emotion to make it believable. As long as the reader can place the logical emotional journey on their own, it can work. I only say that because Shakespeare's characters are so incredibly deep, and yet the nature of his form must leave some of that depth for other people to figure out on their own.

  16. Yeah, I think it is good to point out like you did that melodrama is not always bad. I used to think it was, but it has it's purposes and can be just the thing in a lot of scenes.

  17. Great post. I'm personally not a fan of melodrama, probably because I think very few people are so basic (i.e. see everything as white or black). The visual I am thinking of is that of a paladin. The epitome of goodness, never to be sullied by even slightly questionable intentions or actions. People like this may exist, but it's rare and hard to believe. Melodrama is something I would rather avoid, but obviously someone likes it, as your stats on movies show.

  18. I like the OED's definition: "a play, film, or other dramatic piece characterized by exaggerated characters and a sensational plot intended to appeal to the emotions."

  19. Sorry, I got interrupted mid-post. Darn work, anyway. As I was going to say, this is a useful post (thanks, Michelle!).

    I don't have an opinion on the melodrama=good or bad question, but I do think it's very important that writers only use melodrama when they mean to use it. If you're trying to write a serious dramatic scene, it's got to be realistic and compelling, not just highly emotional. Perhaps someday Davin will talk about earned versus unearned emotions.

  20. PJ: Yes, examples are essential. I'm always lost without them.

    Tess: I never thought of that, unless you mean like a straight bad guy? I usually always have one of those. None in my first book, several in my second. Maybe that's why it feels melodramatic...

    Mariah: That would be my daughter... the most melodramatic being on the planet.

    Justus: I believe there is some excellent stuff on TV. The problem is the time factor for me.

    BJ: Glad I could help, thanks!

    Dave: Hmmm, interesting take there! I like that idea, that the more dramatic the action jumps, the more melodramatic it will feel. That does make sense.

    I don't watch Lost. I think this is probably why. :)

    Marty: That sounds exactly like what I've done with Monarch! Now I'm in the weeding out mode. Well, the starting over mode, actually. At least I know what's happening now.

    Davin: Okay, I see where you're going with that. I agree. Lack of emotional journy definitely lends itself to melodrama. I think this was yet another problem with my book, since I wasn't sure of some of my characters journeys. I just stuck them into specific spots and called it good. *sigh* So much more work to create drama that isn't melodrama!

    I agree with Scott down below. I think you should do a post about earned and unearned emotion.

    Lois: I agree with you. I think there are some scenes in my book that would lend themselves well to just a tinge of melodrama. But I'd better make sure I'm aware of it!

    Eric: That is the problem I have with melodrama as well - it is so far-fetched. However, I did enjoy the Indiana Jones movie, but I think that may have mostly been because it had Harrison Ford in it...

    Scott: All right. I'll combine Rick's definition with your definition, and call it good. After Davin pointed out what works in Rick's definition, I see it differently. I think Davin needs to do a post on unearned and earned emotions.

  21. Am I the only one here who found and loved the deep political subtext of the Indiana Jones movie? Hiding from the fear of nuclear winter in a refridgerator (symbol of consumerism)? Fighting a totalitarian foe interested in controlling all thought and emotion?

    Okay, maybe it's just me. :)

    I do believe, howevr, that meladrama is a close neighbor of allegory, and this, in part, explains the simplified characters.

  22. Tara: That's a good point about Melodrama living next door to Allegory; their kids play together on the street after school. My next book is renting a house just up the street from Allegory, as it happens.

    There's nothing inherantly wrong with simple, or over-the-top, or exaggerated. As long as that's what one intends, that is. Laugh with me, not at me.

  23. Does any genre with a predicatble ending necessarily mean the story is meladrama?

    Certain genres have happy endings in which good/true love/justice prevail over evil (fantasy/romance/mystery) as a matter of course. But must these necessesarily be meladrama?

    Not that I personally object to melodrama. Several of my stories I want to be over-the-top melodrama fast pasted action and absurd, mythic relationships.

  24. Tara: Nice take there about melodrama and allegory sharing similarities. As for your last question, no. I don't believe that just because a story has a predictable ending means it's melodrama. In fact, I find melodrama difficult to find these days in literature - true straight melodrama anyway.

    Predictable may mean poorly written, poorly executed, poorly planned... but it doesn't mean that the story is melodramatic, in my opinion.

    Unless it contains all of the elements I outlined in the post, I don't think it falls into the category. Now, flipped the other way around, straight melodrama is always predictable. That is one of the points of it, I believe.

  25. I'd like to second the value of tv watching for fiction writeres.

    One game my husband and I play while watching TV is, "Guess the next line." We try to literally say the next line. It's amazing how often it's obvious. And the shows where it's not obvious, are usually the best-written.

  26. Ha ha Scott, that was funny!

    (You are chuckling too, right?)

  27. Tara: Haha. I've played that game before. I think we can learn a lot from television. Good and bad.

    Scott: I'm always laughing with you. :)

  28. Like Davin, I had a vague notion of what melodrama is. My vague notion consisted mostly of soap operas, and wasn't favorable. Now my horizons have been broadened!

    I started reading Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe yesterday. I'm only a few chapters in, but after reading this post I've decided it's classic melodrama, keeping such good company as The Scarlet Pimpernel and (dare I say it) Star Wars.

    I have a new notion of what melodrama is, and it's not all bad!

    But I still hate soap operas.

    And I have to go look up Allegory, because I only have a vague notion of what that is, and it's probably wrong. :P

  29. Hm. I wouldn't really classify Ivanhoe or Star Wars as melodrama. Maybe only in the sense that some genres are more intrinsically melodramatic than others, but I would say that Soap Operas are probably pure melodrama, whereas Ivanhoe is historical meladrama and Star Wars is space opera (sf mixed with melodrama).

  30. I was just saying that I now recognize those stories as containing melodrama. I didn't mean to imply they were pure melodrama. Although, "Luke. I am your FATHER!" does leap to the forefront of my mind.


    *giggles madly*

  31. How about Potter's guardians? The first time we meet them they are locking Harry in a closet, turning purple while raging about insignificant matters, Et cetera.

  32. Becca: Many classics have melodramatic elements. I can definitely see some melodrama in Star Wars. But I don't think it's melodrama all the way. Far, far from it. Remember all the internal struggles of Luke? That knocks it off the melodrama charts pretty easily. I've never read Ivanhoe, so I can't say much there.

    I see your answer to Tara, and see that you understand what counts as possible melodramatic elements. But once again, be careful not to mistake all exageration with melodrama.

    Justus: I think there are points in Harry Potter where Harry's gauardians are melodramatic characters, yes. I think Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a good example of a story with definite melodramatic tendencies.

    Tara: What do you mean by "historical melodrama?" I'm not sure I wholly agree with soap operas falling into the pure melodrama state. I rarely see pure melodrama these days. However, I have to admit that I can't argue with you much on the point because I've never sat down and watched a soap opera. Shame on me. Haha.


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