Less is More
by Jessica Dall
Note: As I’ve had a couple of people asking about it, I’m going to start posting guest blogs whenever people are interested. Please email me at jesskdall(a)gmail.com if you’re interested in speaking more about it.
Being an editor can make reading hard. Ever since I had my internship with a press back in college, I’ve done my best to put away the red pen while “off the clock” but that doesn’t stop the fact that I still will mentally try to rewrite sentences when I find one that bothers me. And one thing I can never seem to get past is when I find melodramatic writing.
Now, telling is bad. It’s so common a piece of writing advice that “show, don’t tell” has become nearly cliché when it comes to tips you’re likely to find. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to be on a witch hunt for “to be” verbs (a common symptom of telling), if you can help it “He gritted his teeth” is a much better way of showing anger than “He was upset”
What can be just as bad as telling, however, (at least in my opinion) is melodrama. A bit like “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome, melodrama often comes when authors try too hard to show during emotional scenes.
Now don’t get me wrong, you don’t want to leave an emotional scene with something like “I was really sad” and then move on, but you don’t want it to turn out like this either (1:27 in the video). Angst and melodrama are no more fun to read than “I was sad. I felt like crying.”
So what make something melodramatic rather than showing? Like everything with writing, I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer. Where a line can work well in one situation, it can seem completely out of place in another.
So, how then, do you know if you’re heading towards melodrama? Short answer is, it’s something you learn. Writing is a skill, the more you write, and read, and listen to critiques, the better you get at it. It just takes trial and error.
Honestly, the way I joke you tell if something is melodramatic is if, when you read the line in your head, it sounds completely natural when using an over-theatrical voice (like Calculon in this clip from Futurama)
Let’s do a quick test:
1) “He clenched his fists.” Ok, you can get away with the Calculon voice, but it doesn’t sound like it was written to be said that way. Passes the no-melodrama test.
2) “I found myself caught in a shrieking trance of irrationality.” Hmm, first part of the sentence is ok, but “shrieking trance of irrationality” totally sounds like it’s meant for that voice. Sounds melodramatic.
3) “I was sad.” You could make it over dramatic, but it would really be stretching things (“I was SADDDDDDDDD”) Not melodramatic (but definitely telling).
4) “A dark visitor to her soul had captured her .” On the fence with the Calculon voice, but I’d err on the side of caution unless there’s literally someone in the story capturing souls (I’m sure there are a couple of fantasy/horror stories out there with that happening).
Now, some of you might be scoffing (“shrieking trance of irrationality? I would never write that”) but there are also likely some people out there wincing. Personally, my early writing tended towards “He was sad” more than “shrieking trance” but they are both very common writer growing pains. We all have to work with our styles before we actually come to something that feels like it works. Even after we’ve got that, it’s common to still have some problems (I admit it, my writing isn’t perfect…It’s what editors are for). And, when trying to rein “He was sad” or “shrieking trance” in, it’s really easy to swing from on to the other. They’re on opposite ends of the same spectrum, and finding the perfect balance in the middle can be hard.
So, what can you do to stop melodrama from sneaking into your writing? Here are just a few tips:
1. Gage how much drama is in a scene before you start writing. All right, you’ve been writing for months and months (or days and days if you’re a really quick writer), you’ve carefully plotted your way along, built up your characters, had a couple of struggles, and you’re finally here, the climax of your story. Time to let it all out and make this the most dramatic piece of writing ever, right? Depending on your book, maybe, but interestingly enough, the more dramatic the scene is naturally, the less dramatic you need to make the writing. Again, you don’t want to end up writing something like “He shot the guy and the guy died” but a man dying is powerful itself. If you pile dramatic language on on top of the inherent drama in the scene, you’re going to be pushing dangerously close to being overdramatic. Show the bullet hitting, show the man falling to the ground, don’t detail each drop of blood and how it’s spraying out with copious mounts of adjectives. Try to balance the drama in scene and the drama in your writing accordingly.
2. Don’t feel the need to make your writing “powerful”. This is where melodrama and “Hey look! I’m a writer!” syndrome can match up. While a new writer that has a problem with making scenes melodramatic may not have the same need to make all of their writing flowery and poetic to seem like a better writer, they get to a powerful scene and suddenly worry that by not using overly dramatic language, the scene won’t have any effect. Proper word choice is always important, of course, it’s what being a good writer is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that overly dramatic language is proper for a dramatic scene. As I said above, it often just makes the entire scene overdone. Focus on the scene itself, and write what sounds natural. Trying to force “powerful” language in will make it simply sound, well, forced.
3. Understand the difference between emotion and angst. Melodrama can run rampant in emotional scenes, and once again it’s a balancing act. Emotional writing is good (if it’s a sad scene, and you can actually bring your readers to tears [that aren't related to having to read the writing] that’s a very good thing) angst, however, is bad, even if just because it gets really annoying to read really quickly. This is another case of taking a step back, and sizing up what is appropriate for a scene. Is the character devastated by the death of their mother? Ok, show that, but first think about how the character would realistically react. Are they the type to literally rip their hair out? Ok, go with that. Most people, however, are likely just going to cry, or want to hit something, or go catatonic. Just because a character is only crying and not cursing the heavens doesn’t make the scene any less powerful, it just makes it more realistic.
Also do your best to refrain from repeatedly coming back to an “emotional” point–especially if you’re going for a ripping-out-hair example. As they say, “Time heals all wounds” As your story goes on, your character should be slowly overcoming things, not sitting around thinking the same thing over and over ad nauseam. When nothing happens, reading becomes boring. When the language is overdone on top of that, it becomes annoying.
3. Remember, less really is more. Sometimes at least. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but then every little in writing is. Most of the time, however, you don’t want to take a page to say what you can say in a sentence. Even in slowly moving stories, there has to be some sense of progress. When you’re filling up page after page of flowery, emotional, or “powerful” langauge over one event, you have just stopped the story from moving whatsoever. By talking about a powerful topic, and then moving on before the reader is sick of it, you tend to leave people with a much stronger image. It also makes sure that your audience will read all of what you have written. When progress stalls, more than a few people will jump to the next thing that seems to move the story along, further weakening a scene (we may not get to the screaming at the heavens part if we’re still stuck at how each tear is falling like a snaking river…)
4. When all else fails, try try again. Is your writing still coming out melodramatic? Is trying to fix it keeping you from writing? Let it go. You can always fix things in editing. The most important thing is to get the thoughts down on paper (no matter how well done it is). You can’t get better if you don’t write. Once the story is done, you can always come back and edit, and rewrite, and edit, and edit, and rewrite again. Good writing takes practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself.