In Praise of Melodrama
or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ridiculous”
What do I mean by melodrama? A dramatic work in which the plot is sensational and designed to appeal strongly to the emotions. It often makes use of tropes and stereotypes in order to quickly establish scenes, settings, and atmospheres. The word is often used as a slander.
Let’s begin by discussing a subject about which I know very little – romance literature.
Serious literary critics and screaming scifi fanboys alike will tell you that romance, as a genre, is a ghetto, formulaic and base. Part of me wants to agree.
A while back I stopped at a tiny library in the middle of nowhere while on vacation. I picked up a random romance novel from the rack whose name and title I have long since forgotten. I flipped it open to a random page and put my finger down. This is the sentence I read, and I swear this is true:
“He turned her over his knee and spanked her like the little girl she was acting like.” I flipped a few pages later and read, “There was no need for foreplay, they were as wild as the land around them.”
Case closed. Romance is the worst.
But is it?
Everybody who writes fiction at all has heard how much romance sells. I saw a statistic somewhere that said romance fiction is a $1.4 BILLION per yer industry. It’s easy to believe. Every time I go to research a genre on Amazon, the best selling results are muddied with the shirtless-dude-cover romantic crossovers into the genre. I’ve spoken several times with the owner of my local used book store, who has told me his business survives because of romance readers. Romance takes up like 1/2 of the shelf space in his store, and it constantly flows in and out, a literary retail lifeblood. In other media, there’s even multiple cable channels devoted to romantic movies.
The readers and watchers of romance are voracious.
Are all of these (largely) women grossly unhappy in their relationships? Are they just looking for a substitute to fill their otherwise empty lives? I guess maybe, but I suspect the truth is far less grim. It’s far more likely that these fans simply like to feel those lovin’ feelings. And Harlequin and Hallmark are more than willing to help them feel.
Is that so wrong?
In the June, 1930 issue of Writer’s Digest, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote, “In fiction the reader has a right to expect entertainment and relaxation.” Burroughs certainly practiced what he preached. For a time, Tarzan was about the largest pop culture character imaginable. There have been many Tarzan movies, cartoons, radio shows, and theater productions. For a while there was even Tarzan bread. How to you think he got so popular? By writing entertaining stories.
“Fiction, however, is instructive in an occasional secondary application only. Fiction’s vital function is to entertain.” Henry Albert Phillips in The Plot of the Short Story
“The first requirement of the magazine writer is – a good story. A good story is one which entertains the reader.” Walter S Campbell in Writing Magazine Fiction, 1954
What does it mean to entertain?
In my mind, it is this: To entertain a reader is to provide an opportunity for that reader to feel a desired emotion.
In his blog posts about writing craft, bestselling author Jim Butcher says this:
Simply put, story craft is nothing more and nothing less than manipulating the emotions of your reader.
Sounds cynical and mercenary, don’t it?
It isn’t. And it is.
Stop and think about it for a minute. You’ve all read books. You’ve all paid money for them in the expectation of being entertained. The books written well enough to make you burst out laughing, break down in tears, tremble with fear, snarl with anger or smolder with desire are probably the ones you like the most. They’re also the ones you are happiest to pay for and most enjoy talking about. As a reader, you want to be entertained.
You WANT the author to manipulate you.
Authors are the other side of the coin. From an artistic perspective, you have an obligation to manipulate the reader to the best of your ability–that’s what makes a good story. From a mercenary standpoint, successful manipulation is also what gains the most readers and makes the most money through increased sales.”
People like to feel certain emotions. And they will pay with their money and time to be manipulated into feeling those emotions.
Now, which emotions is a matter of individual preference, and that’s fine. Some people just love to laugh. Some love to fall in love. Some enjoy the tension and release felt during a thriller. Some enjoy the struggle between light and dark inherent in horror. Some live for the thrill of victory presented by an underdog sports tale. There is no accounting for taste and nothing will ever change that.
Your job as a writer is connect the emotions presented in your fiction with the audience that wants to feel them.
And if you want your readers to feel something, your fictional characters have to make big choices, or do important things, or feel enormous feelings. In other words, they have to be melodramatic. Deborah Chester wrote on her blog:
“Does this mean you must create hysterical, histrionic, over-the-top characters? Does this mean you have to write the way William Shatner acts?
“Uh … why not? Shatner knows how to deliver a quiet, nuanced, restrained performance, but doing so hasn’t kept him working all these years.
“Okay, your characters don’t have to be hysterical and histrionic, but they need to be E-X-A-G-G-E-R-A-T-E-D. And if exaggeration puts them over the top, so let it be written; so let it be done. You can always tone down the draft later in revision if it’s too much. But in rough draft, push the emotions until you flinch. Then push them some more.”
Let’s look at some examples and consider what emotions, what melodrama, helps make them popular.
Critical Role has captured the imagination of an immense audience. Their Kickstarter campaign was what, the fifth most successful ever? And this a show where you listen to other people play D & D. I have a daughter that wanted to play some rpgs at home, so I watched/listened for a couple of months. One thing I noticed is that every week or two, random characters step aside and talk in private to just tell each other how they “Do have friends after all, and you’re stupid if you don’t realize it.” And every character is as misfit-y and outcast as possible. Yet here they are, making themselves into a tight knight group, building friendships when before they could have none. People want to belong, and they want to feel wanted. Listening to this crew gives people a chance to feel that belonging. It’s melodrama that keeps the audience coming back.
The movie Frozen was crazy huge. A major running theme had to do with the emotions of being cast out, and of embracing the thing that makes you different enough to be cast out. And then having people embrace you because you embraced your specialness. Almost everybody has been on the outside at some point in their life, and wanted in. This story marinates in that feeling. It’s melodrama that made it resonate with so many groups..
Pretty much every superhero movie ever has moments of outlandish awesomeness.
For example, in Wonder Woman, there’s a scene when she decides to cross “No man’s land,” a gap between opposing trenches during World War I. She runs out into the war-torn desolation and begins to draw the fire of every enemy combatant In the German trench. She blocks some bullets with her bracers, runs in slow-mo, then pulls out her shield. There’s this moment where she’s bracing herself, holding back the onslaught of machine gun fire. She’s artistically silhouetted, she’s strong, and you know she’s going to make it through, if only by sheer force of will alone. She flat refuses to let petty things like bullets and mortar shells get in the way of her doing the right right. It’s this melodrama that made fans cheer.
In this world of turbulence, gray morality, and individual powerlessness, some people like to see a hero, standing against a clear evil, doing what’s right, and looking smokin’ hot while doing it. Some says that this kind of scene is cheap theatrics or that it’s cheesy. To that I say “So what? So what if it’s unrealistic? So what if it glamorizes heroism?” And you know what else? A lot of people like to feel like a hero. They want to be that. They want to believe that if they had powers and an opportunity, that they to would be like Wonder Woman.
If you are a writer and you’re lucky, maybe you help someone feel those feelings. And maybe, just maybe they take that longing for heroism with them when they’re done and they make the world a slightly better place. That’s a lot to ask, I know. But my point stands. It’s perfectly fine for people to like it.
People don’t like the Harry Potter series because J.K. Rowling is a superlative wordsmith, because she is not. They like it because they connect emotionally with the story. Everyone has felt dumped on at some point, and when we see the Dursleys melodramatically pouring on the mean, we connect with Harry. We want him to succeed because we want to succeed when we’re being treated unfairly. And who hasn’t wished that they had some secret power or destiny? It’s melodrama that hooked a zillion readers.
I love watching the Speed Racer movie, and not only because I’m a sucker for bright and shiny. The family relationships are where its at for me. I’ve heard the word saccharine thrown around in relation to this show. I don’t care. Family is important to me, so I like stories that uphold it. And there’s plenty of pro-family scenes in there. A big plot point is that family can have differences, but in the end they should support each other, fight ninjas together, and cheer each other on. It’s melodrama that powered the Mach 5.
One of my favorite shows is Strictly Ballroom. The mixture of pride, love, and redemption displayed by the father when his son finally decides to throw aside the rules and dance his own steps at the Pan Pacific Grand Prix get me every time. The son does what the father couldn’t. Through his son he confronts and demolishes his greatest shame. It’s melodrama that tangoes this movie into people’s hearts.
Let’s turn to some of my favorite literature for a moment, the greats that came from the pulp era. Melodrama is why several of those stories and characters have lingered in popular consciousness since the 30s.
Everybody has at least heard of Conan the Barbarian. He’s one man against the vast horde, competent to the extreme, yes, and also fearless and proactive. He has no special powers other than a rugged childhood, thick, corded muscles, and unflinching grit. His fans love to feel what it is like face down terrible odds with grim determination and hard-won skill. It’s violent melodrama.
One of the pioneers of space opera was Doc E. E. Smith in his writing the Lensman series. It presents concepts, tropes, and ideas that have been embraced by countless other properties. There are almost always long passages in these books that expound on the beauty and enormity of space. Guess what? Some people like pondering the grandeur of the cosmos. Evil clearly exists in these books, as does pure good. The good guys have sharp minds and unshaken desires to fight evil, and the books suggest that there are powers out there beyond our comprehension that have been always been fighting that fight. Besides the descriptions of the mightiness of the universe, there are always war scenes that bask in displays of terrible power. Some people like all that all of that melodramatic action.
Doc Savage was an amalgamation of pretty much the best parts of every literary hero that had come before him, and then magnified times ten. And he then became a major inspiration for the superhero explosion that followed. For example, Superman borrowed his “s” curl (yes, Doc had one before the 60’s reprints), his arctic fortress of solitude, and even his first name. Doc Savage books are full of moments telling us just how incredible Doc is. His finger strength is so strong that he can scale brick walls. In fact, when he works out, he works out so hard that people watching start to sweat just by the power of suggestion. I could go on about Doc Savage, but I’ll leave it at this: readers love him because who he is and what he does is over the top and melodramatic.
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who won’t connect with a few or even any of the examples I’ve cited. That’s completely fine. Those people just happen to connect with their own preferred melodramas.
Have I beat this drum enough yet? Emotions connect people to stories. I like the excitement of frantic car chases. I like watching righteous judgement being meted out, often with two fists. I like bravery in the face of visceral evil. Those emotions are enjoyable to me.
Any situational emotion can be stretched until it becomes Melodrama, at which point, it will connect with someone. That’s why they still make slasher movies, write boy and his dog books, and perform love songs.
As I’ve mentioned, every melodrama won’t connect with everyone. That’s to be expected. Some people like scifi that champions a very clever idea based on what we know now about science, and some folks just like to see a scrappy do-gooder save a space princess.
My point here is that it is not writerly weakness to go over the top. And there will always be popular fiction that is just so “poorly written” that it can’t possibly be a bestseller, and yet it sells. Maybe it is too formulaic, or it has too many adverbs, whatever. When a piece is popular, it’s obviously connecting with readers. And isn’t that a pretty strong metric of “good writing?”
I don’t think writers should try to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. They should appeal as strongly to a specific audience as possible, in as melodramatic a way as they can.
There’s a well-loved old time radio show called “Escape.” It’s a fantastic anthology series that told all sorts of mysteries and adventures. At the beginning of every episode, the narrator says, “Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all?…We offer you….ESCAPE!” Escape is what people are looking for, and melodrama is the boat that gets them there.
In the end, fiction creators in every medium are offering the reader/watcher/listener a brief escape into whatever emotion they want to feel. So if you’re a creator that wants to build any sort of audience, ramp those emotions up to 11. That’s melodrama, and its a perfectly fine technique.