On Melodrama

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The word “melodrama” has taken a rather sorry turn in modern usage. Today, if someone or something is called “melodramatic” it is viewed as “over the top” in a bad, silly, or unbelieveable way. It suggests a lack of subtlety or character or a firm relationship with reality. Generally, if someone calls your work “melodramatic,” it isn’t a compliment. (And yet the word “dramatic” hasn’t quite descended to the same depths as its longer cousin.)

This saddens me, because in the classical sense, I love melodramas. The work of Dickens or the Brontë sisters and even Jane Austen can be called melodramas because they appeal to emotion and are sensationalized to heighten those feelings. So many of my favorite stories are technically melodramas, from Little Dorrit and Jane Eyre to more modern incarnations like Ripper Street and Doctor Who. (The argument could be made that these are technically dramas, but I personally feel like “drama” is just short for “good melodrama.”)

I personally love them because they are fantastical and yet usually do not involve magic. Sometimes there is a suggestion of ghosts or paranormal activity, but usually it’s just people with the lens fixed squarely on very human emotional turmoil. There’s a certain level of unreality to the style that is appealing. Coincidence, long-kept secrets, unbelievable reversals of fortune, intense (and sometimes doomed) romance, heightened emotion, lyrical or poignant dialog, external setting mirroring the internal mental or moral state… all of these are hallmarks of melodrama. Used properly, it can create a memorable, even gut-wrenching, experience. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of ways to mess up melodrama, usually by pushing the exaggeration so far that it becomes silly or comedic rather than moving. (Unless, of course, you are trying to write a comic melodrama, in which case pull out all the stops!)

I have heard complaints that melodramas have flatter or more stereotypical characters. Sometimes this is the case, but I would argue that these characters are distilled rather than flat. They’re evoking or emphasizing a particular facet, emotion, or role that tends to dominate their being in a way that may not be realistic and yet nevertheless rings true. As long as the emotion is genuine and the characters engaging in their own fashion, then the exaggeration works for me. It packs more of a punch and draws me in far faster than some other genres, especially if I’m dabbling outside the realm of fantasy. I can tell you from personal experience that I have rewatched or reread stories steeped in melodrama more than any other style. British television is especially well-suited to period-piece or gothic melodramas, which I adore. (Like the little British man on the DVDs says, if you take a society that represses its emotions and let it simmer for a few hundred years, you have the perfect recipe for drama.)

In the end, melodrama is both a style and a tool for storytelling, and should not be scorned or discounted simply because of the negative connotation that has become associated with it.

MELODRAMAS I HAVE LOVED:

Jane Eyre (book & 2007 TV series)
Little Dorrit (2008 TV series)
Nicholas Nickleby (2002 film)
Rebecca (book)
Doctor Thorne (2016 TV series)
Bleak House (2005 TV series)
Pride and Prejudice (1995 TV series)
Sense and Sensibility (2008 TV series)
The Woman in White (1997 TV series)
The Making of a Lady (book & 2012 TV series)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (book & 1996 series)
Ripper Street (2012 TV series)
Doctor Who (“NuWho” starting in 2005)

…aaaand pretty much any anime out there. ^_^;;

 

What melodramas do you enjoy? And, do you have any you would recommend?

 

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5 responses to “On Melodrama

    • Interesting… I was actually thinking about “High Rise” when I wrote the part about distilled characters who might not be entirely realistic, and yet evince a certain aspect of human emotion. And I honestly hadn’t thought about horror films, since I don’t usually watch them myself.

      “High Rise’s” characters didn’t work for me (the level of exaggerated emotion was so high that it rendered them inhuman to me), but I can definitely see that it could be considered a melodrama. Same with Tarantino, although his characters in “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” worked for me on an emotional level.

      Excellent suggestions with a twist! Thanks!

      • Your description of the distilled characters is what made me think High Rise! The reason they worked for me is because they were more akin to how people act in dreams. The whole movie felt like a dream – especially its sense of beginning realistically, following a slow devolution into nonsensical chaos.

        Your post really made me think about fiction. I found myself contemplating most good, quality fiction (aka, fiction I like, because I have superb taste, obviously), and I found that the majority would fit under the category of melodrama as defined here. I think most of what I *write* could be considered melodrama… what are some examples of fiction that doesn’t fall into that category, particularly genre fiction?

      • You read this, so obviously you have superb taste. 😉

        I think that it’s a matter of degree. Most fiction, especially genre fiction, has at least a touch of melodrama to it, but I think then it just gets called “drama” and gets left at that. I know that much of what I write is definitely drama and could be called melodrama, depending on how you define “heightened emotion” or “sensationalized.”

        I can’t think of any examples of fiction that don’t have at least a hint of melodrama in them, especially since I don’t read or watch much outside genre fiction. I mean, what IS outside genre fiction? Realistic fiction? The few of those I’ve tried were pretty boring, so I have no idea what to list. If I find any, I’ll let you know!

  1. Genre fiction can be very realistic. The opposite of genre fiction is literary fiction. But where it gets confusing is that there tends to be overlap, and authors of literary fiction can write genre fiction as well. It can be really hard to spot the difference… ech.

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