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