288 – Melodrama
Behold, a podcast with emotions so deep you can feel them in your bones! No, not deep enough, your marrow! Or maybe your T-cells? That’s right, today we’re talking about melodrama, the thing that happens when authors try to make more emotional scenes by writing their emotions in all caps. We talk about why melodrama exists, the problems it causes, and how to avoid it. Plus, a little bonus info on why melodrama and grimdark are actually the same.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris. And with me is…
Chris: She began the podcast and her heart drums so hard [that] it shook the very foundation of her rib cage. Holding back a fervid howl, she rushed to introduce the podcast topic before her soul burst in anticipation. This was their one chance. They had to cover melodrama or die?
Oren: Oh no.
Wes: Oh yes.
Oren: Oh no.
Chris: So yeah, that’s what we’re covering. And it’s pretty surprising that we have not covered this on the podcast before. It’s really common, actually in a lot of published works and a lot of best-selling works. I will find melodrama in them.
Oren: Have you considered seeing a chiropractor if your ribs are having trouble? I feel like if you’re having bone problems, maybe, maybe there’s something deeper going on here.
Chris: What do you think that actually is like to feel something in your bones? I don’t know if I’ve ever localized it. I’ve been like I’m hungry and that’s my belly. And I’m tired and that’s everything. And that’s also pain too. So I don’t really know what’s going on bone wise.
Oren: I always imagined it’s like growing pains if you remember what growing pains felt like.
Chris: Were those in your bones?
Oren: I don’t, I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I just know that that’s what I associate when someone says bone pain. That’s what I imagined. I also don’t even know if growing pains are real or if they were just a thing I was told when I was a kid to explain why I had random aches and pains. So, you know, my advice on bone treatments is worthless.
Chris: I think maybe it’s just the idea that the bone is the core and throughout your body in some way. Usually when we talk about the core, we associate emotions with being in the chest or the gut area, but I think the whole, “I feel it in my bones,” is supposed to represent throughout your body or something. It’s a pretty odd, odd expression.
Oren: I think it’s supposed to be an intensifier, right. It’s supposed to be the deepest your feelings can get because at least in most parts of our body, the bones are the center. Once you get to the bones, that’s as deep as you can go. Not always. In your chest, your bones are a shell around your squishier bits. But in other parts of your body, if you cut into an arm, once you get to the bone, that’s it. That’s as far into the arm, as you can go. You’ve reached the center.
So I feel like that’s what it is. It’s supposed to be a feeling of intenseness. It’s like, “I feel it in my booones.”
Wes: I just think all these melodramatic writers are a bunch of quitters because why aren’t they talking about their marrow being aquiver with anticipation?
Oren: I’m sure they would do that too.
Chris: I’m pretty sure marrow is sometimes used. Maybe the idea is that you can’t usually feel your bone so it must be very strong if you were feeling it in your bones.
Oren: Look real melodramatic writers, feel it in their T cells.
Chris: In any case, let’s maybe talk about what melodrama is before we get too intense. Wes, I know there is an alternate definition of melodrama, an old timey one.
Wes: So just for anybody out there who was misled, we are not talking about 18th and 19th century French romantic dramas and the sentimental novels that were popular at the time. These things focused on moral codes in regards to family life, love, marriage, and were characterized by extravagant theatricality and the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization.
So you can kind of maybe get where we got expressions like “stop being so melodramatic” from. Which brings us to what we’re talking about.
Chris: Maybe it is derived from that style, but is now its own thing.
Oren: Wait, are you saying that melodrama was a genre, and it is now pejorative, so it’s basically grim dark.
Wes: Yes, I like that. Alright…
Oren: Amazing. I love it. Melodrama and grim dark are the same just so I’m clear. Okay. Okay.
Chris: You heard it from Oren Ashkenazi on the Mythcreants podcast.
But when we’re talking about it now, we mean that the narration is expressing emotions that are over the top and, usually in my experience, negative. I don’t think they have to be negative emotions, but almost always when I see it, they are heartbreak, grief, stuff like that. And it’s to the point where instead of coming off as compelling or serious, it starts to become funny because it’s just too much.
Oren: In my experience, I’ve found it most common in stories where the author has not been able to create events that inspire the emotions they want, and so they will try to force it with increasingly extreme description and narration. And the two examples that come to my mind immediately are the breakup scene in Fifty Shades of Grey and the scene in Day Gone by HP Lovecraft when the fish person goes over at kneels at the altar.
Because in Fifty Shades, it’s like, “whatever, this romance doesn’t really matter.” It’s actually kind of abusive. So having Ana get out of it is a good thing, but it’s supposed to be very sad. So Ana is going to howl about it for a bit.
And in Day Gone, nothing actually dangerous is happening or even particularly scary. It’s like, “there’s a fishman,” and fishmen are a thing apparently, and he’s going to go have a small religious service at his altar, but Lovecraft really wants it to be scary, so he puts in lots of adverbs and adjectives about how loathsome this creature is. And it’s like, “HP, come on.”
Wes: Let that poor fish guy do his prayers.
Oren: Yeah. Hot take, HP Lovecraft, not a great guy.
Chris: So I have some quotes that I can read a bunch of them from various works. I have to say, in the Fifty Shades example, I would almost say that’s argument for melodrama is not always inflating a situation that is not inherently emotional. I think that there is inherently something wrong with the technique the writer is using to express the emotion. Because in Fifty Shades, yeah, I don’t care about the relationship between Anastasia and Grey and a lot of other people don’t, but the readers that actually liked the story and get to the end, I’m guessing do. And this is the central romance that is holding up the book, and they just broke up, so it is a moment that justifies strong emotion and should be felt by the readers who are actually invested in this story strongly. But the way that it is expressed is comical because the technical implementation is off.
So I’ve got some kind of a list of “this is how you can tell it’s melodrama.” Just again, getting into what is actually written down.
One is if you name an emotion a bunch of times in a paragraph. And there’s definitely times to name emotions, sometimes that’s necessary. But as a general rule, you should not have to name the emotion your character’s feeling to express that motion, and if you were continuing really relying on doing that, that suggests that you need to show more and tell less. And melodrama usually tells and not shows otherwise I think they just wouldn’t be able to exaggerate. Cause if you’re showing, you’re just showing what’s happening. And so they tend to tell that emotion a lot.
Here’s an example from The Witcher: Blood of Elves. People got mad at me for critiquing The Witcher. You have a lot of Witcher fans on the blog, but here’s an example.
And she is frozen in fear: a terrible fear which turns her entrails inside out, which deafens Ciri to the screams of the wounded horse, the roar of the blaze, the cries of dying people and the pounding drums. The only thing which exists, which counts, which still has any meaning, is fear. Fear embodied in the figure of a black knight wearing a helmet decorated with feathers frozen against the wall of the raging, red flames.
So the word fear is used over and over again because the writer wants you to feel fear, right? That’s not how it works.
Wes: It’s stripped of all meaning now. [Laughter] It was repeated so many times that now I don’t actually know if that’s a real word or not. I’m staring at it on the page. I just like, forget that even I can read that. I’m like fffff far. It means nothing now. Great.
Chris: And that’s pretty typical, where you see, again, emotions named over and over again as though if we just say it one more time, it will be more meaningful.
Something we have already covered is really intense internal sensations: heart pounding and guts twisting. And those things already come off really strong, even when you don’t exaggerate them.
So melodrama has a tendency to tell them in a very exaggerated manner.
So this is from Maze Runner:
He felt a worrying shutter in his chest as if his heart wanted to escape, to flee his body.
And here’s another one from Sword of Shannara:
Something seemed to be reaching downward into his chest, slowly squeezing the air from his lungs, and he found himself gasping for breath.
And that’s happening when he’s just watching a monster. [Laughter] If we put some context in there, you’d think that maybe if he was under a magical spell or something like that, having evil magic done on him, maybe that would be okay.
Wes: I really liked that last example because so much of melodramatic writing is just over the top description for this kind of illusion of story, and I really fixated on that part about how he found himself feeling a way or experiencing something. How often do you really think that? “Oh, I found myself scared by that.”
Chris: Right? Yeah. That’s very distant.
Wes: It’s really distant. It doesn’t convey any sense of immediacy, but it’s trying to bring action into it somehow. It’s fake. It’s phony. It’s not real action. And it’s boring.
Chris: Right? Which does kind of reiterate the fact that you can bring emotions across stronger in close narration, generally, because, again, we’re in the character’s head. We’re not watching them from like above. We’re not hovering somewhere over the character, watching them, which is what distant narration just gives you the feel of. And saying he found himself, that’s one step removed from what’s actually happening.
Oren: And I really appreciate the various examples that you used because I think it’s important for people to understand that melodrama isn’t a thing that only happens in romance. Because I think that there’s, shall we say, a prejudice. People have perhaps prejudged the idea of melodrama as being a thing that happens in romances, which I noticed in your melodrama posts, there were some people who were upset that you were critiquing Sword of Shannara, but thought that your critique of Fifty Shades was absolutely perfect even though they’re basically the same situation in that a character is feeling emotions that are just way too overly described for the situation.
Chris: The Fifty Shades of Grey, I do have that one as pretty over the top, but so is this like, “fear fear fear.” And nobody wanted to acknowledge that The Witcher might be melodramatic.
Wes: It is probably worth pointing out though that for any writer, genre awareness is obviously important, and some genres and subgenres might tolerate certain types of melodrama more than you would in other types of genres.
That’s just why, read and know your craft and have discussions and talk about these kinds of things because somebody might really enjoy something that is melodramatic on purpose and want to consume that media. Okay. Go have fun, but I feel like we should have maybe a tiny disclaimer there because cross genre things, there are conventions.
Chris: I think that a bigger factor, honestly, than genre is context. And we talked a little bit about inflating what is actually happening in the scene, but these quotes except for the Fifty Shades ones… the Fifty Shades one, again, it actually does happen at what should be a very pivotable, very emotional moment.
But the Swords of Shannara one, the Maze Runner one, the Witcher one, those are all from the first chapter of a story. Give yourself room to build, right. If you’re pulling out those kinds of things in the first chapter, how are you going to grow from there? And it definitely does make more sense.
I have a post on avoiding melodrama, which has an excerpt from the Calculating Stars at what is one of the most pivotal moments, and that one has a lot of expression of the characters’ anxiety. It’s also an example of how to portray a character that has an anxiety issue. But it’s also a pivotal moment, and we’re not doing it all the time.
One of the issues that we ran into when we were reading City in the Middle of the Night, which we recently covered that because it is a Hugo nominee, is that is a very melodramatic book, and the longer it goes on, the more it grates on you that it has melodrama. Because you can imagine why Sophie, the main character, would have a traumatic experience happen to her and get really upset. But as you realize that every single moment in the story is being narrated as though it’s ridiculously intense once in a lifetime experience, it starts to feel cheaper and cheaper. When we can’t even summarize time passing without being like, “and she felt like she had been doing this forever, she couldn’t even remember what her life was like before they went on this walk.”
Wes: That doesn’t actually convey information because to this day, I’m confused how long it took for them to get to the Sea of Murder. [Laughter] It could have been a day. We don’t know.
Oren: I just finished a book recently that had a similar problem. Melodrama wasn’t normally one of its issues, but it did really want to press on you this idea that the main character who is a queen had forgotten what it was like to be a queen and in story, it had only been a few weeks since she had been separated from her guards and retainers and stuff. And I felt like the story was definitely leaning on melodrama a little bit to try to convince me that she had left all that behind and was basically a peasant now. I think it would take a little longer than that.
Wes: That right there too is another good example of things that are melodrama, where it doesn’t necessarily have to happen in effusive wild vocabularies. Just forcing cheap tension is melodrama. The time stuff is important or just the examples, Chris, that you gave from the ones that are from early in those books. Like okay, we’re going to create some cheap tension to try to hook people. I’m like, “Oh no, no, it needs to be earned.” And it’s okay to take a little time to get there because otherwise it can just be off putting.
Oren: So that’s what I was trying to do with my earlier thing of “melodrama happens when you’re trying to force emotions that your story hasn’t earned properly or hasn’t it actually shown.” I would be interested to know more of, “how do you notice that as a writer yourself? How do you spot if you’re doing that.” I feel like most writers who write melodrama in their own minds felt like these feelings were justified, right? Because they were like, “this is really intense, I need to describe it intensely.”
Chris: Well, I do think that experience plays some part in that. But let me go back to the technique part of this because I do think people talk about melodrama being the writer is feeling insecure about their story and just trying to make it as emotional as possible. And that’s probably true to some extent. I don’t know, I’m not in the head of every writer who does this, but I really think to a large extent, it’s just a lack of technical skill. And so it can happen in scenes that are justified in being emotional. And it is a very telling and not showing type of a thing where the writer’s looking at the page saying, “okay, emotion has to happen here,” and doesn’t know how to put the right words for it down. And as a result, they’re telling the emotion when they should be showing the emotion. So mainly all of these things are various ways of explaining how the main character feels. And so we can say the main character feels fear, fear over again. Or here’s our Fifty Shades of Grey excerpt:
I fall onto my bed shoes and all and howl. The pain is indescribable, physical, mental, metaphysical. It is everywhere, seeping to the marrow of my bones.
Wes: Oh, marrow? Yes!
Oren: Oh, the marrow.
Chris: [Continuing Fifty Shades of Grey excerpt]
Grief, this is grief, and I’ve brought it on myself.
So we’ve named grief several times. All of this in the elaborate, you know…talking about how the bones and the guts of what they’re doing, having this elaborate metaphor for the sudden feeling of terror racing through Flick’s mind, trapping it in iron web. All of these are ways of describing how the main character feels. And I think that what happens when writers want to express emotion, they think that the way to get their reader to feel something is to show how hard the main character feels it with the assumption that somehow the reader will just also feel it. And that just doesn’t work. That’s just not how reader emotions work.
The trick is with showing, basically, you have to focus on what is making the protagonist feel that way. And describing how the protagonist feels inside and what’s happening to their guts or other things like that, that’s for communicating what the protagonist is feeling so the reader knows. It’s not for making the reader feel something. And basically, the way to make readers feel something is a lot harder and more complicated and requires laying groundwork. So it’s not as easy as just putting fear five times on the page. You have to build that attachment, get them invested in your main character, and then when they see something happen to your main character, then they’ll feel it’s ramifications.
For instance, if they love your main character and they watch your main character lose their dream job, it’s likely the reader will feel sad about that. But they’re responding emotionally to what is happening and you have to show them, and that requires set up of them liking the protagonist. That would require a setup of them understanding how important this dream job is to the protagonist, and that involves a lot of detailed showing. Like specifically, what is it about this dream job that is so important, right? You can’t just say it’s important. Once again, you have to show. Maybe talk about how it makes the protagonist feel complete. It’s hard for me to show without a context of a story, but maybe it gives the protagonist a sense of purpose for X, Y reasons, et cetera, and get them to understand, get them to emotionally invest, and then they care in response to the things that happen in the story. And what you’re doing is trying to show those things in detail, so that the ramifications of what happens…like what does it mean when the protagonist loses their dream job? Does it mean that now they’ve lost their purpose. Can they not pay their rent anymore?
Oren: Were they part of something important and now they aren’t anymore? That sort of thing.
I will say specifically that in general, you don’t want to describe something as indescribable. [Laughter] There are very legitimate points at which you don’t want to fully describe something. Horror is typically the one where this comes up the most. There are plenty of stories that benefit from not fully describing a monster or some other kind of horrific thing, but you don’t do that by having the protagonist say it’s indescribable. You just don’t describe all of it. Because, you could focus on things like the smallest details that the protagonist can make out as opposed to describing the entire creature because the protagonists can’t see the entire creature. Right? And that gives us a sense that the part that the creature is vast and also mysterious, lets the audience fill things in for themselves. And that’s why describing Cthulhu with the mention of a tentacle and a wall of gray flesh is way more interesting than describing the entirety of this tall squid man with wings, even if you don’t subscribe him in silly terms like that.
Wes: You probably haven’t and I would not recommend it, but Lovecraft has a story called, I think it’s The Unnameable where literally it’s one guy runs to talk to another guy about this horrifying thing he saw, but he can’t describe it. And it’s mostly just meant to be kind of a little bit of philosophy where Lovecraft must’ve thought he was just so clever because if we can comprehend of something, then there’s no reason to be afraid of it. But if we can’t even so much as name it, that’s true fear. [Laughter] This is a ridiculous story. Nothing is happening because you’re just failing at describing something. And then just ending on saying it’s unnameable. Dun dun dun.
Chris: I do think that, again, if you can get away with doing a more elaborate description of how your protagonist feels if it’s a pivotal moment in the story, if you have justification for it, that kind of thing. Again, a sudden feeling of terror racing through Flick’s mind, trapping in an iron web…I could see that if there was dark magic being performed on Flick. I have trouble seeing that in a first chapter where he’s glimpsing a monster for the first time. So yeah, there is room for elaborate metaphors.
Again, with the naming of emotions, I feel like that’s more when you need the character to be thinking about their own emotions or there’s some places where you just need it for clarification, it’s hard to do what you need to do without it. But I wouldn’t say that those are usually called for in this kind of narration. It’s going to be more effective if you don’t name the emotion.
Oren: I have another question. How can we be sure of either drawing a line or avoiding melodrama when we are trying to do evocative telling or other evocative description?
Wes: Just coming from, I guess, an editing standpoint here is let words do their job. A lot of melodrama comes from people just not letting a word land, but basically piling on clichés or extras on top of these things, when the word itself does what it needs to do. But, and this is really getting from a craft level of you can just end a sentence sometimes. That Sword of Shannara one could just end before the next part shows up, and it’s fine. [Laughter] It’s just fine. We can move on. Nouns and words have meanings, and you don’t need to add adjectives or adverbs, even though I love that stuff. It’s much more satisfying as a reader, and I think probably as a writer, to just express something. Full stop period. And then let’s transition because it’s different than when you’re sharing a story not in writing, but face to face with somebody else. Where I’m telling a story, it’s a little off the cuff, I’m trying to convey the emotion of my experience to Chris and Oren, and I’m just kind of piling on modifiers because maybe I’m a little rattled or I’m still just trying to feel it out and I need them to feel with me. And so I’m bombarding them with words and they have no choice but to get hit by them. But if you’re writing it down, you have the luxury of time to choose your words more carefully.
Chris: I will say, one of these excerpts, the one from Maze Runner:
He groaned in frustration. His echo amplified through the air, like the haunted boat of death.
The scene that this comes from is this very short chapter where I think that Dashner wrote this, just didn’t know how to fill the space. The main character is just in a box, a metal box in the dark with amnesia. Nothing’s happening. And a lot of time is spent like he gets up, he sits down again, and it’s like, “Okay, what do I put here? Let’s just add stuff.” And I do think that sometimes because we talk about metaphors. Metaphors do get a lot of glory. We always appreciate the well done metaphor that writers may think that they need to put that stuff in without thinking about what its purpose is and what it does.
Oren: Yeah. So what you should ask yourself is what is a “meta” “for”?
Oren: And if you can’t figure out a good answer, don’t put it in it.
Wes: Especially if you’re looking at trying to include similes in particular. Metaphors when done right… And I think probably 80% of metaphors are not done very well, but similes are even more direct. Metaphors are giving you a little bit more wiggle room in their actual construction on the page for interpretation. A simile is literally saying this thing is like this other thing that is like that first thing. And so cut it. They almost serve no purpose. They’re just filler. And again, we do this a lot in speech because we’re unplanned speaking from the top of our mind. But if you’re saying something like…I don’t know if Chris has posted on this one or not, but “someone’s eyelashes being frozen…
Chris: …like needles.”
Wes: Like needles. That does nothing at all. “Our eyelashes were frozen.” Let that word do its job. Perfect.
Chris: Yeah. And that one’s from The City in the Middle of the Night, which has lots of metaphors. Not all of them are similes. A lot of them are similes, and they’re all over the place. That book has very colorful language, but not all of it makes perfect sense.
Oren: I still think that a useful tool to determine if melodrama is about to happen or maybe is already happening would be, if you are getting feedback from your beta readers, that some part of the story isn’t working, like they aren’t connecting with the main character or the scene doesn’t feel scary or whatever, and your instinct is to try to fix it by adding more description, there’s a good chance you’re getting into melodrama there. Not always, sometimes those situations are literally there because you didn’t describe something properly, but usually it’s because the scene just isn’t evoking the emotion you want and describing how it is that emotion is not going to help. It’s just going to be extra stuff.
Chris: Yeah. I think a good thing to keep in mind is, it’s generally what you’re saying that creates emotion more than the way that you’re saying it. And word choice does make a big difference, and it can make things better for sure. But just putting in more intense words doesn’t make your scene a lot more emotional. And I do think for instance, you were talking about evocative telling and when it’s the right time to use metaphorical imagery, I don’t really think that metaphorical imagery and that kind of evocative telling actually create stronger emotions. I think it’s more novelty based. I think it creates atmosphere. Its purpose is not to make the scene emotional. I think what’s happening in the scene is what creates that emotion and just understanding what the purpose of these things are and what they can do, what they can’t do, knowing that you can’t insert the word grief five times in your paragraph and make your reader feel grief or using words like evil or death, which is also very common in melodramatic, where we’re trying to like, “what is the most powerful word I can find,” but it’s just kind of cliché and isn’t actually having an impact for that reason. Again, we can’t just tell emotion. We have to create a story that has things in it that matter.
Oren: [Sarcastically] Yeah, it sounds hard.
Chris: Yeah, that is the problem, right? It would be much easier if we could just write strong words and then emotion happens. Profit.
One last thing I’d like to cover before we go, because we do have people ask this as a question when we talk about melodrama is, “what if my character has depression or anxiety and then just has really, really strong feelings?” So the thing that I would say about this is normally the goal when we’re writing is to try to make our reader feel what our protagonist is feeling. But if your character has some kind of emotional condition, that may not be possible because depression, anxiety are not things that appear in people without those conditions, so you can’t really get a reader without depression to feel what a character with depression feels because they don’t have depression.
So I think in those situations instead of trying to amp up the wording and to be really intense, I think it’s better to just focus on building an intellectual understanding to communicate that that character has that condition and make sure that the readers understand why their emotions are as strong as they are. And you can make it clear that their emotions are strong. I don’t know that I would get into super elaborate metaphorical territory, except for, again, at pivotal moments. And again, I have an excerpt from The Calculating Stars in my article on this. So I know it’s sad. We want the reader to feel what a character is feeling, but in this case, I think just helping them understand the character and why they are having those responses is the most important thing. Not trying to make the reader fell that.
Oren: All right. Well, I think that will be a good note to end the podcast on. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Second is Ayman Jaber. He is a fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you all next week.
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