The Power and Problems of Melodrama

Because melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely, it often creates a credibility problem. Because it chooses the heart over the head, the snap reaction over thoughtful consideration, emotion can go over the edge into sentimentality, tear-jerking, thrills or scares for their own sake, as empty of meaning as a whoopie cushion. Melodrama can therefore seem or be sensation-mongering, appealing to the lowest common denominator and our least intelligent responses; so it also has a respectability problem. But carefully managed, it has power.

At the best, it's as fundamental and useful as salt, heightening and bringing out the flavor of whatever it's added to; at the worst, it takes over and drowns all lesser seasonings and renders the dish uneatable. Such built-in power isn't something any writer can afford to dismiss or ignore without risking blandness. But it's not something to toss in by the handful, either.

Like myth, legend, and fairy tale, melodrama is a part of our common emotional and cultural language. Judiciously used, it can create instant rapport between writer and reader. It can be casting an effective spell—or it can be a curse, a pitch as blatant, annoying, and obvious as somebody stridently hawking used cars on late-night tv. It's a question of degree, and of craft.

Whether a given melodramatic event or character is effective or becomes a kind of emotional and literary cliché, trivializing the story in which it appears, is just a matter of how it's handled, set up, shown.

If your story is founded on melodrama—the death of a child, first love, God running a society of secret agents (Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday), a vampire opening red eyes, a maniac stalking and slaughtering teenagers—it will need to be handled with special care if it's to avoid being or seeming clichéd, overdone, or outright silly and weird.

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