Drumroll please. Queue the orchestral music. It’s time to discuss melodrama.
What is it?
In the victorian age, it became popular to add music scores to certain emotional parts of plays. ‘Melos’ is greek for music. Melodrama is literally a music drama. The practice has carried over to the television age, and now almost all movies have a musical score.
The early plays accompanied by music were meant to be sensational, but over time the term has become pejorative. Melodrama now means stories where the emotional impact of scenes is more important than characterization or plot.
Choosing emotional impact over characterization and plot may sound nice in theory, but since emotional impact stems from characterization and plot, it doesn’t usually work. It’s like choosing the taste of a dish over its ingredients and recipe. You might get lucky, but in general, you end up with something that tastes like crap.
I’ve recently watched the Mortal Instruments: City of Bones – my wife was commissioned to do some art for something related to the books. The main characters have a tendency to overreact. In one scene two of them might be professing their love, while in the next a wrong word sets them into a raging fight.
In the video game Star Ocean: the Last Hope, the main character Edge’s arc is about him starting to doubt himself and finally overcoming his fear of failure. Unfortunately, the execution of this arc is terrible. Have a look at one of the more melodramatic sections. Swelling music and terrible dialogue make this a prime example of how to go over-the-top in search of emotional punch.
And finally, an ‘in medias res’ introduction of a character.
“Nooo,” Bob shouted. Too late.
Alice tried to duck into cover beside him, but a rain of bullets tore into her.
She crawled on, regardless, blood streaming from her side. Her fingers reached out and managed to reach Bob’s outstretched hand.
“Be… strong” she coughed even as Bob’s fingers closed around hers. “Live.”
“AAALIICE!” he screamed, tears running down his cheeks. He felt as if his heart had been ripped out. All those years of marriage and then she was suddenly torn from his side.
Her eyes rolled back in her head and her head lolled forward, fingers going slack.
Did the above scene bring you to tears? Probably not, at least not in the right way.
How to fix it?
Emotion comes from empathy, subtlety and foreshadowing.
Beginning writers often make the mistake of introducing characters in a very emotional scene in an attempt to have an ‘in medias res’ opening, like I did above. They forget that we readers don’t care for a character until after we get to know them and their relationships to others. We have no clue who Bob and Alice are, or even what exactly is going on.
In the case of the scene above, it either needs to be the climax of the story, with well worked out characters and a good arc, or the emotion needs to be toned down, because we readers won’t feel it even if we understand how it affects Bob. Just as importantly, the scene needs to focus less on emotion-cliches and more on characterization. You need to empathize with Bob first, before you can feel his emotions.
The ground work is always in foreshadowing. If you are going to kill a character like Alice off, you need to build toward it if you want an emotional punch.
The same goes for just about every scene in Star Ocean. They should have been toned down, or woven through the story better. And of course, the main character should have been less of complete idiot.
To turn your melodrama into drama, ensure empathy, subtlety and foreshadowing. That’s it. Good luck.