By definition, melodrama is a clearly exaggerated drama, in which the characters' actions, reactions and speeches are intentionally very exaggerated. However, through my readings here on Writers SE and the public's impressions on some works, I find myself confused, because it's quite common to a type of dramatic scene that I find no problem, being considered "melodramatic".

I like drama and, for me, the story just needs to execute the drama well and I just find it fine and emotional and even good, but then I see people calling it melodrama, and being that characteristic their reason to despise the work. But what makes me worried is that most of my stories are dramas or have some dramatic scenes, and if people call "melodrama" dramas I see no problem, then it's possible that they will also call mines too.

I know that for a dramatic scene to be effective it needs to build up all the emotional connection to achieve the drama, else it is over-drama. But where is the line separating drama and melodrama/over-drama? Is it they who are confusing definitions or is it me who have a low critique sense (which I don't)? What are the characteristics of a drama that can cause this confusion and how do I know if my story is or is close to crossing the line?

  • Just as @MarkBaker said--it tis a matter of taste.The line is not clear. What some consider romantic, some will call sappy, what some think heroic, some will label stupid, etc. The only reference point is--be it as simple as it may--real life. Observe. Take notes. Extrapolate--imagine a person you know well in an entirely foreign situation (constructed up by you) and try to predict their behavior: What Would Uncle Josh Do if his favorite goldfish keeled over? Shoot himself in the forehead or go get another beer? Or say "I have goldfish? Hm..." It is for you to decide where to draw the line.
    – Lew
    May 27 '17 at 6:15

Well, from a commercial point of view, there is nothing wrong with melodrama. People make very good livings producing melodramas, and for the most part I think they are unapologetic about it.

In part this is simply a matter of taste. Saying that food is sweet or spicy refers to something objective: we know what chemicals produce the sensation of sweetness and spiciness. But too sweet or too spicy are defined differently for different people. I like very spicy and not very sweet. Others have the opposite taste. So in some sense at least, what is drama to one is melodrama to the other based simply on how much drama they like.

There is another sense, though, in which one could regard something as objectively melodramatic. This has to do with proportional responses to events. An emotional response that is out of proportion to the event that preceded it can be considered melodramatic. Someone who goes into a week long rage because they were short changed 25 cents at the store is being melodramatic.

Notice the difference between these two meanings of the word. The first sense of the word refers to too much drama at once -- too many dramatic events piled one on top of the other, like putting six spoonfuls of sugar in your coffee. The second refers to an emotional response that is out of proportion to the event that caused it. My wife left me, my house burned down, my partner stole my savings and my dog died all on the same day is the first kind of melodrama. One of my goldfish died and I slit my wrists is the second kind.

The second kind can be objectively criticized for being false, for not representing human life as it is. This does not mean it will not sell. In fact, there is a great deal of literature whose success depends on it presenting human life not as it is but as some portion of the population wishes it were. Utopian and dystopian fantasies are often more popular than realistic portraits of life.

In the first case, the line is purely personal. Some people like six spoons of sugar in their coffee. In the second, the line is truthfulness. It is up to you decide how much truthfulness matters to you in your writing. (It is not necessarily immoral to tell fanciful tales of happier lands.) If truthfulness does matter to you, then it is up to you be be diligent in discerning and telling the truth. But don't expect that everyone will congratulate you for it, or agree with your vision of the truth. As Jack Nicholson would say, most people can't handle the truth.


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