Finding a balance between drama and melodrama can be very hard sometimes. Today, let’s take a look at some of the areas an author may want to examine when self-editing to assure that the drama is not overdone:
Don’t take a small conflict and try to make it bigger: When an author takes a minor problem and turns it into something major without providing motivation for the larger conflict, the reader will think the work contrived. Instead, if Betty’s prom date calls up ten minutes before the prom to tell her he’s taking Debra instead of her, let that be the necessary drama. The reader can sympathize with Betty, and Betty needs to take some major action to get back into the game—like calling her drop-dead gorgeous-guy of a best friend who happens to attend a school outside of town. She might be a little late to the prom, but she’s going to make her date and Debra jealous. And what if Betty finds true love with drop-dead gorgeous guy of a best friend but doesn’t realize it because she’s busy chasing deadbeat prom guy. On the other hand,what if Betty knows that Debra is a little off from center, and that her prom date might be in danger? Then Betty’s reaction would be decidedly different and a little more dramatic. She has to save the no-good cheat despite the fact he dumped her.
Understated drama pulls a bigger punch: What happens if Betty is at home waiting for her mother to arrive so they can go shopping for her prom dress? This is the biggest event that has happened since her father passed away two years before, and Mom has smiled for the first time in ages. When a car pulls up in the driveway, Betty is excited. Mom will probably come in and change out of her clothes, and they’ll be on their way. Betty pulls back the curtain, and instead of her mother’s car in the driveway she sees a state trooper—just like the night her father died. Yes, you could make Betty fall apart, fall to her knees, fall into the arms of the trooper, but what if Betty opens the door and braces herself for the trooper’s words? She doesn’t say a thing as the officer tells her that her mother has been seriously injured. She remains quiet when the officer asks her to get the number of her nearest relative who lives several states away—someone her mother would not want her to be with. She still doesn’t speak as they tell her the relative will arrive soon. Only after the trooper has done all this does she speak. She keeps her back straight and with a very steady voice says, “Would you mind taking me to my mom? She doesn’t like to be alone when she’s not feeling well.”
Don’t bury the humor: High-volume conflict sometimes does bring out the humor in others. When things are at their most intense, humor can be the author’s greatest tool. Allowing the reader a slight break from the conflict isn’t letting the reader down. Instead, a little humor gives the reader a necessary and unexpected break. Humor in the midst of the extreme conflict is better than a scene where the reader is pulled away from the conflict completely. However, both type scenes are necessary. If the story isn’t a comedy, the author may wish to keep the humor to a medium, but even one line that makes a reader laugh out loud will secure that novel in the readers’ minds for years. John Grisham did that for me in his novel The Runaway Jury. I can still quote the line today.
When writing drama, it is important to ask others if the drama is too melodramatic. Could a character handle a situation with calm and add to the tension, and can humor provide the relief a reader might need in the middle of an intense scene?