MENTION MELODRAMA AND ALL IT CONJURES UP for some people is a wide-eyed heroine being tied to the train tracks by a moustache-twirling villain. But that's not it. Not by half.
If drama releases the electricity implicit in small events, melodrama calls down lightning.
Melodrama is the equivalent of a blinding flash accompanied by a loud noise. It can be a bony hand creeping from behind a curtain, a grand passion, someone teetering on a high ledge, or any of a thousand vivid situations and characters. Their meaning is right out in the open; they seem special, unusual, exciting. Such events speak directly to our imaginations and emotions.
Some people seem larger than life. Who and what they are is recognized at once. It's similar to the way a good caricature of a President or a celebrity can be more easily identified than an ordinary snapshot: a caricature draws in bold lines those features most associated with that person and downplays the unimportant ones. Some fictional characters seem larger than life: strong, interesting, dramatic. They too speak directly to our imaginations and emotions.
Melodrama is a technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle, the remarkable rather than the ordinary.
Events and individuals whose appeal and significance speak directly in this way, that don't need explaining, can immediately involve readers and arouse their sympathies. Using them in fiction can lead to forceful plots relatively unencumbered by exposition and peopled by vivid, colorful characters. For that reason, melodrama is the foundation of popular (genre) fiction, aimed at the broadest possible range of readers and intended primarily (but not solely) for entertainment.
Melodrama is also used, selectively and often with even greater impact, in literary fiction, which aims at a narrower readership and is intended primarily to present the author's view of the world/life/people. Because it's heightened, exaggerated reality, melodrama lends itself easily to symbolism, allegory, and surrealism, a different but related kind of exaggeration whereby the meanings implicit in objects, people, or events become more luminous and accessible than meanings normally are in the chaotic muddle of our everyday world. Sometimes visionary, heightened reality is the most real of all, because all the transitory, trivial details have been stripped away to reveal the fundamental essence of things.
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