(Listen or watch this writing tip on Youtube)
So you're writing your story, and your characters are getting really emotional--yelling, screaming, crying, overreacting. It's turning into a soap opera. And then you stop and wonder, "Is this melodramatic?"
That happened to me once. Thankfully it was just a first draft.
Melodrama is defined as "exaggerated emotion." Alright. But what exactly is exaggerated emotion? I wondered, how do I know when the emotion is exaggerated? Because my characters are dealing with some emotional situations right now.
Well, I realized melodrama is like this:
Event < Emotional Reaction
The event is less than the emotional reaction of the character, meaning, the character is overreacting, over-emotional to the situation. In my case, my characters were kicking and screaming because another character looked at them funny (okay, it wasn't that bad, but you get the idea). Having someone look at you funny doesn't merit a temper tantrum.
Looked at you funny < Temper tantrum = Melodrama
I realized I was running into these melodramatic problems because the event wasn't strong enough to hold the story on it's own. The plot wasn't strong enough. So, I was trying to make it better, more interesting, by amplifying my characters' reaction to it. Bad idea.
Instead, I needed to go to the root of the problem, to what elicits emotion: the event. I needed to revamp the plot and make the plot better, so it's stabilized.
Event = Emotional Reaction
Unfortunately, that's a lot harder. But it also makes your story a lot better.
Now, if you want to take it to the next level, and make your story and characters even stronger, you try this:
Event > Emotional Reaction
When the event is greater than your characters' emotional response, it makes your character appear stronger and makes him more likable. Readers see how tough he is. But it does more than that, it puts the responsibility of emotional reaction on the reader. The reader gets to make up the difference, to equalize it. I can't explain scientifically how this work, but it does. Read this post to get what I'm saying.
When the characters' emotional reactions are less than the event, it has a greater impact on the reader. When I started watching 24, I definitely did not expect to cry in it. The first time it happened, I was surprised, but the second and third? I've never cried in a thriller! It's because the writers of 24 followed this rule, and the show is stronger because of it.
One of the problems with being melodramatic is that you can't jump over the "emotional response bar" you've set for yourself when a bigger, more serious event hits. If my character is kicking and screaming because someone looked at her funny, than how on earth, as a writer, am I going to have her react when she finds out her son has cancer? I already used her kicking and screaming card. . .and yet, I need to top that because her son having cancer is more serious than someone looking at her funny. What does she do? Kick and scream more? I don't have a higher emotional response to build up to! I used it already.
The emotional response, of course, depends on the character. Is your character supposed to be melodramatic? Is that part of his personality? Than have him be melodramatic. In my story, I have a character who tries to manipulate others. One way she doesn't this is by emotionally overreacting to things to get people to feel bad for her, so melodrama is fine, because she's faking it.
Not all characters are tough. That might be part of a character arc. They learn to become tough throughout the story. Their emotional reaction might be equal to the event. That's okay.
Looked at me Funny < Screaming
Yeah, unless the screaming is misguided. People get in heated arguments all the time about petty things--but often it's actually not the petty things that are spurring the argument. It might be Jessica's husband's infidelity that actually spurs her to scream at him for leaving the toilet seat up. Often when people are really upset, especially over a long period of time, they're indirect about their feelings. They get in arguments about things that don't really matter, and avoid discussing the root of the problem.
Husband's infidelity --> + Toilet Seat up = Screaming
That's not melodrama. . . as long as it's clear to your reader what's really going on.
And there you have it. To get rid of melodrama, get to the root of the problem.