Beware the Violins - How to Avoid Melodrama in Your Writing

By Rukhsana Khan

For the beginning writer, searching to write a poignant and dramatic piece, there is always the possibility of overshooting the target. Instead of achieving poignancy they get something that’s maudlin. Instead of drama, they end up with melodrama.

I think this is where good editing comes in. When you’re beginning to write a scene, let yourself go, say whatever you really want to say and don’t worry if it is over the top. But when you go back to edit, look at it with a very cynical and skeptical eye.

What sometimes helps me is to look at my scene as if I’m writing for Saturday Night Live and I’m looking for something to poke fun at. Now the thing is, I hate Satuday Night Live. I’ve only ever seen it once or twice, but from what I know of them, they take anything even slightly melodramatic and have fun with it. If some guy from SNL could have a field day with the scene you just wrote, then you’ve probably crossed into the realm of the melodramatic. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that there’s no merit in the scene, it may just mean you need to tone things down.

The problem with melodrama further gets complicated because writing that may begin as dramatic may end up as being melodramatic over time. I’m not sure if there’s a way of guarding yourself from this. For instance, take any scene from The Ten Commandments. I remember the first time I watched it in a cinema, in the seventies (it was practically the only movie my dad took us to see) the entire film was so DRAMATIC! And exciting! And now, when it comes on the tube around Easter, and we get to the scene where Nefertiri is throwing herself at Moses, asking if his wife’s lips are as red and soft as a pommegranate--like hers, I burst out laughing. Ten Commandments is an example of a great movie that started out dramatic but that has turned into mushy melodrama over the years. And yet out of all the characters in that movie, the character who’s held up best over time is that of Ramses. I wondered why until I realized that with Ramses’ character, the dialogue is under-stated. And old Yul delivered the lines in a matter-of-fact kind of way. I heard that Charlton Heston once said that if he’d had it to do over again, he’d do a much better acting job on Ten Commandments. I think Charlton Heston was guilty of over-acting in this movie. (And that’s what melodrama boils down to--over acting, or in our case, over writing.)

But the main problem with Ten Commandments has to do with the change in the audience over the years. It was made a long time ago, when audiences were perhaps more naive. Somehow the dialogue rang true to that generation. They didn’t find it over the top. Perhaps within the context of the times, it was fresh and original, but over the years, it has shown itself different. Perhaps it isn’t even fair to judge it in modern terms.

But there are some movies that hold up well over time. Casablanca comes to mind, although there are scenes in it too that I consider a little over the top. It’s hard to tell which movies will hold up. Time will tell which stories become classic. But it has been my observation that the ones that have held up tend to have understated dialogue. They allow the action to carry the drama.

Melodrama also seems to be a matter of degrees. When the writer is taking themselves or the subject matter too seriously. Trying to force extra drama into a situation in a desperate kind of attempt to get the reader or audience to ‘feel’ for the characters.

When I was a teenager in high school I’d forgotten an important assignment at home. I began telling the teacher a long convoluted story about why I’d forgotten the story and about all the pressures I was under. I was trying to convince her that she shouldn’t deduct marks for my handing it in late the next day. At the end of the story she looked at me with a sardonic expression, placed her hand on her opposite shoulder and started twiddling her thumb and forefinger together. "See this?" she asked. "It’s the smallest violin in the world and it’s playing just for you. Hand the paper in tomorrow. I’ll take off five marks."

In movies, the sound of violins in the background music, the score, have become a cliche to signal a dramatic scene. Their presence is designed to get the tear ducts flowing. You most hear the violins at spots where you’re supposed to feel really sorry for the characters. The job of the violins is to strike home the tragedy of the situation.

But many times, the violins, like too much description, are trying to take a short cut into our emotions. They’re trying to force us to care.

When the writing or dialogue is trying too hard to make us feel sympathy for the characters is where melodrama enters into the equation.

And what can happen is the exact opposite of what the writer intended. Instead of wanting to cry, we’re tempted to giggle. Instead of feeling sorry for the characters, the whole scene goes ‘over the top’ and ends up being funny, in a ‘Saturday Night Live’ kind of way.

Mind you I’ve just outlined how to write a satirical scene. And in fact much of humor involves the very kind of exaggeration that leads to melodrama. Done right it can be very effective.

What I’m trying to say is that melodrama tends to be lazy writing. Lazy in that you are not using fresh ideas and imagery to convey the pathos of the scene.

My second book, The Roses in My Carpets has been described as poignant. In fact when I was signing copies of it at a promotional event, a lady came up to me with tears in her eyes. I asked her if she was okay. She smiled, nodded, and said, "Oh yes. It’s just that while I was in line I managed to read your book." She went on to say how much she loved it. But the fact that it could make her cry, in such a non-dramatic setting as a line up at a book signing, made me think that perhaps I’d really succeeded in conveying true pathos.

Being able to move some people to tears with your words is an amazing feeling. As a writer, there is no better testament to the power of words. And yet it is also a very humbling feeling--at least for me. When I was writing Roses I had no idea that anyone would react to it in such a way. In fact I wasn’t thinking of the reader at all. I was immersed in the story. I only knew that when I finished writing it, I was trembling. The story had moved me. I think that’s all we as writers can hope to do. Write something that moves us, and hope that others will find something in our work to relate to.

Melodrama seems to surface when we’re consciously trying to impress the ‘reader’, rather than writing a story that’s true to ourselves.

So my advice to any writer trying to write a dramatic piece is to use under-statement. Let the action and dialogue convey the tragedy. Try to use fresh images and at all cost, avoid the hackneyed and cliched. And most of all, beware the violins!

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.