You’ll often hear the phrase stop being so melodramatic. It is advice often given to writers, but is it always good advice?
For me, it’s all about context. Some books, films, TV programmes and plays are all the better for having the melodrama gauge dialed up to eleven. After all, would novels like Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre seriously benefit from being less melodramatic? Would Arthur Miller’s The Crucible be as effective theatrically without all that hysteria in your face? What about Romeo and Juliet without the famous double-suicide finale?
Would Gone with the Wind, Peyton Place, Mildred Pierce and All that Heaven Allows be considered Hollywood classics if they weren’t so gloriously overblown? Consider the political belligerence of Oliver Stone’s best films – Wall Street, JFK, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Salvador, etc. They all go into melodramatic overdrive, but that’s what makes them work so well.
I actually get irritated when stories should go for a bit of melodrama and don’t. Yes, the right to do so has to be earned, and I can think of several examples of times in print and on screen when melodrama renders a story laughable, but why writers are encouraged to avoid the melodramatic at all costs is beyond me. Sometimes the big emotional scene is exactly what is needed to give real punch to the tale. Restraint in such circumstances can make a story feel like a muted let-down.
A relatively recent example of a novel with a big emotional turn in the finale was David Nicholls’ superb One Day. The event in question was unexpected but unquestionably earned and strengthened the overall piece considerably. A more timid novelist might not have gone there due to foolish worry about being melodramatic, but thank goodness Nicholls had the bravery to disregard such a notion.
For my own writing, I try to earn any “melodramatic” moments by applying the following principles:
Always use humour. And I do mean always. If The Passion of the Christ and Schindler’s List can have a couple of funny moments, there is no excuse for you to take your story that seriously. Real life is full of humour, even in the darkest, most desperate situations. Humour provides an ideal counterpart to tragic developments in a plot. Two examples from the world of film: Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is self-explanatory, and The Empire Strikes Back, in which the darkness of Luke’s story is leavened by the humour in Princess Leia and Han Solo’s screwball comedy relationship.
Don’t have too many melodramatic sequences in rapid succession. The repetition of tragic or overblown emotional scenes is actually a comic device, so don’t have them appear one after the other after the other. The audience/reader will end up laughing for the wrong reasons. Two more examples from films: Legends of the Fall – a truly terrible, humourless work that piles tragedy on tragedy to the point that it becomes laughable. On the other hand, Dead Poet’s Society contains a lot of humour (see above) and a single tragedy that drives the melodramatic final act, making the overall film all the more poignant. On the subject of Dead Poet’s Society…
The melodramatic moment must seem inevitable. A careful study of the Dead Poet’s Society screenplay will reveal the melodramatic incident that dominates the finale was a serious probability from the outset, and inevitable once the Robin Williams character started teaching those boys to think for themselves. All great melodramatic works across all storytelling mediums – in everything from TV’s recent Broadchurch, to plays like Oedipus or Hamlet; or in films like The Godfather or novels such as Birdsong, any melodramatic sequences must, in retrospect, feel inevitable from the very start.
Gone with the Wind applies all the above principles in a very interesting way. Melodramatic incidents follow one after the other, which upon initial inspection appears to be a violation of my second principle. However, both book and film get away with it because the story applies the other two principles so rigorously. Take for example the melodramatic way Scarlett O’Hara marries her first two husbands and their subsequent demises. This is undercut by the wit and humour Rhett Butler brings to proceedings, dryly commenting on her actions by proposing to her, since he needs to catch her “between husbands”. The presence of humour provides a wonderful counterpoint between Civil Wars, starvation, tragic incidents with birthday ponies, and so forth. And yes, the events of the finale are both inevitable and satisfying.