Wednesday, December 9

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, December 09, 2015 3 comments
Melodrama. It might make for addictive daytime TV, but it tends to drive readers crazy.

It's a long, slow ride to the top (Photo by kconnors from
Consider the following melodramatic scenarios:

  • Eyes lock across a crowded room and the hero will now spend 300 pages risking his life for a woman he has never spoken to.
  • The heroine's boyfriend sees her touch another man's shoulder in a conversation, A page later, he strangles the rival and disembowels him, then sends the organs to the heroine.
  • A knee-replacement patient wobbles during physical therapy and has a crying, screaming, furniture-tossing tantrum.
  • A destitute single mother receives a million-dollar check from a philanthropist she never met.

What do you notice is a common thread among these scenarios?

Suddenness. Instantaneous action. Emotionally going from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in two seconds flat.

In other words, what tends to convert a dramatic moment into a melodramatic one is lack of preparation.

Consider how each of the above scenarios could be converted from melodrama to drama with some preparation.

Scenario 1

Eyes lock across a crowded room and the hero will now spend 300 pages risking his life for a woman he has never spoken to.

~Eyes lock across a crowded room. That woman looks so much like his dead wife, the one he couldn't save. He'll do anything to atone for his failure on that mountainside.

~Eyes lock across a crowded room. That woman looks so much like his missing sister. Could it really be her? He'll do anything to find out, and to keep her safe.

~Eyes lock across a crowded room. He knows she's had nine drinks so far, and he won't let her out of his sight. Not like he did with his college roommate who didn't live to see graduation.

Backstory, parsed out at key moments, can give some preparation for a character's radical actions.

Alternately, you can use nonlinear narration to give us this moment that seems out of the blue, then gradually reveal how this character's reaction is inevitable, based on previous experiences. 

Finally, you can ratchet down the emotion, so it's not no connection to "die for you" in seconds. More on that with the next scenario....

Scenario 2

The heroine's boyfriend sees her touch another man's shoulder in a conversation. A page later, he strangles the rival  and disembowels him, then sends the organs to the heroine.

The heroine's boyfriend sees her touch another man's shoulder in a conversation. That's her brother, right? he thinks. No wait, who is that guy?

He ponders whether she tends to touch shoulders of anyone she converses with. He gathers data, watching her talk to women, children, men old and young. He notes that she rarely touches anyone but him.

He casually brings up the shoulder-touching incident in conversation with her, not mentioning the touch. "Who were you talking to the other day?"

When she gives an innocent spin on the story, he fears she is lying, and presses back. "You seemed awfully friendly."

Her protestation confirms his fear. The lady doth protest too much, as Hamlet's mom says. My girl is definitely lying.

He becomes fixated on learning more about his rival. Is he married or in a relationship? How long has he known my girlfriend? In what capacity? He asks friends' opinions of the rival.  Googles the rival. Stalks his Facebook page. Any data that confirms his suspicions will be worried over, repeatedly rehearsed.

When the heroine will next be put into contact with the rival, her boyfriend  tries to convince her to change plans. When she refuses to do so, his anxiety increases more. He will try to control her appearance, suggesting she wear more modest clothes, less makeup.

He asks a friend to keep tabs on her while she is in contact with the rival, and to call him if anything seems out of line.

While his friend is spying, the boyfriend torments himself. He imagines the heroine in passionate embraces, hotel trysts, a Vegas wedding chapel. He wonders what he did wrong in their relationship that would drive her to cheat. He re-imagines every happy memory they ever had together and looks for signs that she was somehow unhappy or deceptive.

When the friend reports back that he saw the heroine and rival whispering together in a corner, the boyfriend ups his game once again and begins stalking the heroine, the rival, or both.

I can probably pause here, as you likely see where this is going. Jealous rages do not come out of nowhere. They start from a small suspicious action that is misinterpreted and gradually magnified. The jealous one will work every possible angle to either disprove or prove his suspicions, depending on how trusting vs. insecure he is, or how healthy vs. narcissistic.

Likewise, jealous rages do not become homicidal in nature until the one cheated on slowly but inevitably comes to the end of his rope. He will try all kinds of other methods to part the lovers or protect his own feelings before he will resort to murder.

Skipping the long arc of emotional escalation will always feel unrealistic and melodramatic.

Your MUST slow it down. Think escalator, not bullet train. The increase in "height" (intensity) should be gradual. 

Dissect the emotion. Think through how suspicion becomes worry becomes paranoia becomes jealous heat becomes anger becomes rage. 

Too fast emotional escalation is one of the key problems I see in beginning writers. If you want to improve your craft, make it your mission to understand HOW emotions escalate. 

  • Study books and films that do it well and analyze how they did it. 
  • Read psychology books and self-help books that analyze emotion.
  • Observe emotional escalation in those around you and make notes about what you see and hear. 
  • Listen to your inner voice when your emotions are stirred. How does it feel to become gradually more angry, for example, or more hopeful?


Take one of the remaining melodramatic scenarios above and consider how to rewrite it either by properly preparing or by slowing down the emotional escalation.

Do you struggle with melodramatic scenes cropping up in your story? How might you better prepare for dramatic actions?


  1. So good, Laurel. There's such a thin line between drama and melodrama--and it's all about what your reader knows. It's like that in real life, too--I totally lost it in the dentist office last year when I found out my daughter had a cavity, and everyone looked at me like I was crazy...but they had no way of knowing what a bad week I'd already had. (Still, as someone who avoids melodrama at all cost, I now hide my head in shame whenever I run into my dentist at the grocery store!)

    1. By "lost it," I meant "broke down in hiccuping sobs." I thought I should maybe clarify that there wasn't any of the disembowelment type of melodrama going on. :)

    2. Unrelated stresses can pile up such that one overreacts. That's a great principle to keep in mind when thinking through how to prepare for a dramatic or even somewhat overblown moment.

      I'm pretty sure the perceptive people who saw your meltdown were wondering what else was going on in your life. Readers of a character would have the advantage of watching the slow build of stressors and worry, "when is she gonna blow?"

      Hee hee about the disembowelment. I though an over-the top example would stick with readers more. :-)