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Writing Excuses 5.7: Avoiding Melodrama

Writing Excuses 5.7: Avoiding Melodrama


Key points: Melodrama grows out of one-sidedness. Make your characters real people. Avoid cliche. Set up your emotional scenes. Make characters likable. Variation and contrasts add spice.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Five Episode Seven, Avoiding Melodrama.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we are so stupid!
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] And I'm very sad.
[Brandon] Okay. Avoiding melodrama. We wanted to do an anti-emo podcast where we talked about... one of the big complaints about writing sometimes, or about stories, is this ubiquitous term melodrama. It's too melodramatic. So, let's go ahead and attack that first. When people are saying it's too melodramatic, what are they meaning?
[Howard] Um... you know what, Brandon, as we were talking about this earlier... dare I give away the fact that sometimes we talk about these earlier? You gave us the classical definition of melodrama...
[Dan] Not very often, but we sometimes talk about them earlier.
[Brandon] Are you stealing my line?
[Dan] Well, you pitched the question.
[Howard] He pitched the question, but I think we need to go back to the classical definition of melodrama.

] Brandon] Okay. The classical definition of melodrama is a story in which each character only fills one rule, only has one emotion, one thing that they're doing. That's what a melodrama really... the classical definition is.
[Dan] This is where you get the mustache twirling Snidely Whiplash, the Dudley Do-Right hero, the damsel in distress tied to a railroad track...
[Brandon] Right. It's become more and more exaggerated, where the melodramatic form is now self-aware, and so they make fun of the melodrama during the melodrama. But if you just boil it down to the definition, everyone only has one emotion, one thing they do. This person is noble. They are noble in every situation, and that is just it.
[Howard] So in addressing the... in trying to avoid melodrama, what we have to recognize is that we're usually not talking about the classical definition of melodrama, we're usually talking about one of the side effects. One of the side effects is that if the character can only express anguish or sadness, then the variability of emotion in that character is really just sad on a scale of 1 to 10.
[Brandon] Right. They become Eeyore. How sad is Eeyore today? Well Eeyore is pretty sad. And then that's your character.
[Dan] Well, I think one of the big problems with that is not, like you said, this character is noble and they always are noble. But I think where it really becomes a problem is this character is noble because he is noble, and not because he has any good reason...
[Brandon] Okay. That's an excellent example. I mean, there are characters that I have loved in fiction who can be dominated by one emotion. I mean, Javert... or one paradigm. Javert from Les Mis, who I think is actually a very nice complex character despite the fact that he usually exhibits one trait associated with him. What keeps Javert from being melodramatic in that case? Well, he's got... he is a policeman. You can look at the various actions of what a policeman... why he would be like he is, and I think that the book does. It considers all of these things. It shows who he is and why he is the way he is. One of the great things about that, also... attacking this from another direction... the thing that makes it not melodramatic is the story is in a way undermining that, meaning it's proving that you can't be that. The story is working on forcing this character to acknowledge their faults.
[Howard] The other thing that I would come back to... and I talked about melodrama as if it's a volume knob. If you want to show contrast for a character, you don't just show loud and soft of the same thing, you show two different things. You contrast sad against angry, or sad against in love, and... or sad against happy, which we often feel are part of the same scale. But you start contrasting those emotions of the character... we have benchmarks against which we can judge what they're feeling. That way, when they're over-the-top on one, it doesn't seem as melodramatic, because we've got the sense that they're a real person.
[Brandon] Well, and the other problem with this is, we don't want to go too far in the other direction, meaning the character is not identifiable and does not act consistently in character. We do want characters to act consistently in character. So we don't want to react too much against this. It's sometimes nice to be able to define who a character is in a couple of sentences. You just don't want that to be all that they are. That's what you say... you describe the character. If you've only got a sentence, you describe him this way. When you've got a paragraph, you can fill that paragraph with who they are. When you've got a novel, you can fill that novel with who they are and it takes that long to show you who they are. That's what... I guess it just comes down to the depth.
[Dan] Now let me give a counter example to this. The character of Puddleglop -- I'm pretty sure I'm remembering the name -- from the Silver Chair by CS Lewis. It's the fifth of the Narnia books. He is a wonderful character. A lot of people think he's one of their favorite characters. He is very one sided. He's always sad. But he's just very charmingly sad. So it's not so much that he has depth of character, but that he's very well written and you like him. I think that can work in the Narnia books because they're very simple stories. Something like that wouldn't necessarily work in Les Mis.
[Brandon] Well, is he a main character?
[Dan] He is the guy who tags along with the two main characters. He is essentially comic relief, but he's sad relief, I guess. He's depressive relief.
[Brandon] He's [inaudible]
[Howard] Well, having it done as comic relief, we look at Marvin the paranoid android in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
[Brandon] See, but Hitchhiker's is a bad example, because I think in some ways he is writing melodrama intentionally.
[Howard] Exactly. That's why I'm offering it up as an example, because when we look at that and we can see, "Oh, if I'm writing something serious, I can't use a character in this way, because it's too melodramatic." I'm sorry.
[Dan] Wow. You brought it back. Full circle.
[Brandon] So. I guess what I'm getting at is... give your character... make your characters real people. I know we've talked about this a lot in the podcasts, and sometimes we have to attack these concepts from a lot of different directions to kind of have something to discuss.
[Dan] That's a great thing. We don't have to feel bad about saying the same thing over and over, because for writers, that's fantastic. If the same thing can answer 29 of your questions, wonderful. Then that's a good principle that they need to learn. Make sure your characters are really well rounded.
[Howard] That's why the word character in our tag cloud is like in 40 foot tall letters. Because it keeps coming back to that.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's go ahead and do our book of the week. This week...
[Dan] Yes. This week, I'm going to talk about F. Paul Wilson and the Repairman Jack series. This is a... he's a character that I think does a really good job at avoiding melodrama. He's a very conflicted character. Kind of a borderline sociopathic. Lives off the grid, righting wrongs for whatever. Up against a lot of supernatural menaces. The book I am going to recommend specifically is the first in his series. It's called The Tomb. It is up on audible. It's really good. If you've never read F. Paul Wilson, fantastic urban fantasy horror with a really compelling main character.
[Brandon] And that's to start your 15 day free trial.

[Brandon] All right. So. Let's take the other direction on melodrama. We talked about the classical definition, but a lot of people, when they say, "Oh, this show is melodrama," they're actually not talking about that definition. What they really mean is, it's too sappy. There's too much emotion.
[Dan] It's overwrought.
[Brandon] It's overwrought. So when people are saying that, how do we deal with that? How do we deal with not making our stories like this?
[Howard] I was going to say... by the time they've said that, ah, you screwed up. We need to get ahead of the curve and write it... what are the tricks to writing strong, deeply felt, powerfully expressed emotions without coming across melodramatic?
[Brandon] Right. How do we do that? That's what we need to tell them?

[Howard] I'm going to say, avoid like the plague cliched dialogue. If it feels like something that you've heard on a soap opera or in an action movie or whatever, when somebody was feeling this particular emotion, don't use it. Find another way to say it.
[Brandon] Or just... if you're really good at this, twist it in the right way. The classic example... the I love you scene in Return of the Jedi. Right. I love you replied to with I know.
[Jordo] Empire Strikes Back.
[Brandon] Is that Empire?
[Dan] That's Empire Strikes Back.
[Brandon] Oh, yes, it is. I keep always thinking that scene where they're kneeling by the power generator.
[Dan] It gets repeated again in Return of the Jedi, though.
[Brandon] Oh, does it? Okay. So... Jordo just saved us from like 50,000 e-mails.
[Howard] [whistle] Thank you, Producer Jordo. And a counter example, Shatner often gets accused of melodrama. The moment... we've all seen it... in Wrath of Kahn where he's got both fists in the air. Khan! That's actually a really cool moment in that movie. When Lucas did it with the brand-new Darth Vader at the end of...
[Dan] Revenge of the Sith.
[Howard] Revenge of the Sith, where he puts both his fists in the air and goes, "Argh." Oh...
[Brandon] It was painful.
[Howard] It was really painful. And it was cliched.

[Brandon] I think I can talk a little bit about this is. I've actually thought about this a lot. Personally, my take on it is if you are in the moment, if the scene is captivating and you are there, something that might otherwise come across as melodramatic instead comes across as a powerful scene of great emotion. We take the Kirk scene... if you just see that one little clip of him yelling, which people like to post all over the Internet, it seems cheesy as all get out. If you are watching the show and you care about the characters and you are into this moment, when he screams that, you feel like you are screaming it too. That's a very big distinction. So if people are calling your scenes melodramatic, maybe the problem is not that emotional scene. Maybe it's several chapters back when you have not brought them into the story well enough.
[Howard] You haven't wound up to that point correctly yet.

[Dan] My books... John Cleaver is the most cliched, angst ridden teen. That stereotype of the angsty teen who has the inner demons and feel so horrible and doesn't know, but from the very beginning, everything I've done in those three books is try to get you to like him. Once you like him, like you say, that makes you much more accepting of all the other things he does, because you're pulling for him, you like him, you're with him there.
[Howard] Okay. So that's three tips. Avoid the cliche, make sure you're setting it up right, and make the character likable.

[Brandon] Yeah. But let's look at this... one other aspect of this that we can look at is the fact that... we're always talking about give everybody conflict. Give everyone conflict. Make sure we've got lots of conflict. I have read stories that are actually well written, where at the end, I'm just like, "You know, there's just too much angsty-ness going around." Each of it's well written, but I end up just, at the end of it, saying, "Ah!" I think... my advice might be there, and this is something I try to do, I really try to break up my novels so that there is... in between the angst, there is humor, or there is action, or there is emotion... there are ups and there are downs.
[Dan] I got a great example for that. The first season of the TV show Heroes. In its later seasons, it got very mired in melodrama. The first season was actually very good. All of the characters were angsty, except for the one guy named Hiro, the Japanese guy. Who was always happy, he was always excited, and you just liked him. It was this great palate cleanser to go from these other stories which were still very good, but very dark, and then have this big peppy cheerful guy in the middle.
[Brandon] Yeah. Well, I think it's a great reason why you can't always be at a 10 all the time. In fact, I feel I had a problem with this in my books. We've talked about the Brandon avalanche. I've talked about how I actually am actively trying to not do the Brandon avalanche so much. The Brandon avalanche is, particularly in my early books... Elantris has a really big one... all of the plot threads come together at the end for a super huge bang. Which really sounds great on paper. But as you're reading the story, if you're in climax of the story for 150 pages out of a 600 page book, those climaxes just start to...
[Dan] They lose power because you're desensitized to them.
[Brandon] They lose their power.
[Howard] There's not enough contrast. There's not enough contrast between other things. It's again, it's the change between loud and soft and other sorts of...
[Dan] I think a good example of where you've done that very well is the third Mistborn book, which started paying off series long conflicts and plot threads almost from the beginning. So they were spread out very evenly and yet they still built towards a thundering climax. That worked very well.
[Brandon] Yeah. That was the first book I actually actively said, "Okay, I can't do this the same way." Because... otherwise the entire book is always going to be at a 10. If the entire book is at a 10, then the entire book might as well be at a 1.
[Howard] As I was outlining the climactic sequence of the current Schlock Mercenary story, there were a lot of things that I wanted to pull in. Then, as I sat down and started scripting... punchlines flow from conflict really, really handily. I realized at this point in the story, I needed to stop doing that. If I was going to make a punchline out of a conflict, I absolutely could not introduce a new conflict, because we're too late in the story for that. Even a small interpersonal conflict at the end of the story... last 20% of the story, is probably too much with everything else going on. So I consciously dialed it back. As I looked at it, I realized okay, these two characters actually have a good reason to maybe be in conflict right now, and I need to give that a wash because the story is not going to read well if I put that in there. That's fine. They can have that fight later. They can have that fight in another book. I'm going to come back to these people.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's go ahead and do a writing prompt. I'll go ahead and do it this week and say, "I want you to write a story in which you take a cliched, angsty hero of some sort of genre, whatever you're doing. Give them... make them very angsty, and I want you to take a completely new direction for that, so that by the end of the story, it doesn't feel cliched at all anymore." All right. You're out of excuses, now go write.

[Howard] And now a dramatic reading from Excuses Piece Theater.

I have coated my left hand with magical ink, and I am terrified.

You might think that I'd be happy with the magic that the ink has granted me, but there are two problems with that line of thought. Firstly, this ink is usually applied in sparse quantities and in complicated runic patterns, not in one large splosh. Secondly, it's horribly expensive, and my master is going to kill me for spilling the whole jar of it.

No. Really. She's going to kill me. Literally. Dead.

Her last apprentice was killed for handing her a wrong ingredient. At least his death was swift. Mine will be painful and slow.

I suppose I could use the magic from the ink to save me, but that presents another problem.

I'm not left-handed.

[Howard] This writing has been brought to you by Mike O, as an outgrowth of our writing prompt three weeks ago. Thank you, Mike.
[Brandon] Thank you very much, Mike.
[Dan] Thank you, Mike.

[Note: Mike O and the Mike doing this transcript are not the same person.]
Tags: characters, cliche, emotions, writing excuses
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