You might laugh, cringe, and roll your eyes when you see it, but what is melodrama, and what causes it? Melodrama is when drama goes too far into theatrics. When you read it, you might be pulled out of the story because a character’s actions don’t fit the moment. It breaks the suspension of disbelief. Usually, melodrama is caused by extreme physical reactions and extreme metaphor. Think Vampire Diaries, Grey’s Anatomy, or literally any soap opera.
Personal taste will determine what you think is over-the-top, and what is considered melodramatic sways between genres. For example, sweeping proclamations of love are common in a romance, but not in a thriller. Many reactions and emotional displays can be melodramatic, but for this article we’re focusing on grief. Crying, sobbing, wheezing, and wailing. The Big Sad.
Here are three tips to write grief without being melodramatic.
1. Train of Thought.
Readers know what happens when a character cries, they know the burning in the throat and the flow of tears, the gasping breath. Describe these things, but don’t linger. Focus on what your character is thinking. Show me their unique feelings about the sad thing, not the motions of crying. I know they’re sad — show me how. Convince me to be sad.
(spoiler warning for The Hunger Games)
In The Hunger Games, the death of twelve-year-old Rue is devastating and sudden. Katniss has come to think of Rue like her little sister Prim. She sings Rue a lullaby and sees her tears drip onto Rue’s face. Then, Rue dies. Katniss doesn’t have time to grieve — she thinks of revenge against the Capitol. She decorates Rue with wildflowers, says goodbye, and the mockingjays take up Rue’s song.
In this tragic scene, the author focuses on Katniss’ connection with her sister, revenge, and the symbol of the mockingjay. Rue’s death is arguably the saddest scene in first book of The Hunger Games, and Katniss being unable to focus on her sadness makes it all the more tragic. Katniss must survive. She must be strong. When I read this scene for the first time, I was definitely teary-eyed. The author made space for me to have my own emotional reaction towards Rue’s death instead of presenting me with a tearful, wailing Katniss. The movie version, however, is a tad more dramatic.
2. Less is More
Instead of telling you what I mean by this, I’m going to show you. I’ve written an example of melodramatic crying. You have my permission to cringe.
Liquid sadness streamed down Riley’s cheeks. Her throat ached like fire. She cried and cried and cried. She gave into the grief and collapsed onto her bed, slamming her face into the pillow.
When you draw out scenes of emotion you can lose the reader’s attention. I’ve rewritten the above example to be less dramatic.
Riley cried. Her throat burned. She got into bed and sobbed, pressing her face into the pillow.
Writing emotions simply can be powerful. Not only is this more subdued, it’s quiet. It lets the emotion exist without being crowded by extra sentences. Repetition and metaphor are often the culprits when a scene is too dramatic.
Sometimes we’re afraid of writing an action the same way over and over again. This leads to choosing stronger verbs and dramatizing events. As an avid user of WordHippo.com, I’m guilty of this. Be sparing with the tears, gasps, shaking, and collapsing with grief. And, if a character has tears, use tears, not liquid sadness.
However, not all emotions need to be subtle or quick. If there’s death or serious trauma in your story, than your characters are going to have some pretty big emotions. It’s all about weight. The level of grief should fit the cause. You can have drama. Who doesn’t love sentences that hit right in the feels? Try building up tension(but not for too long) and end with a short emotional release. Not only will this prevent drag, it will also make grief hit harder.
3. Create Balance
When there are no emotions or wins to balance out grief, plot can drag and make readers pull away. I’ve been reading The Wandering Inn recently, a web serial about a young woman who keeps an inn in a fantasy world, and something the author has done well in the first book is balance. Our main character Erin mysteriously appears in the strange fantasy world and encounters many dangers to begin with. There are moments of fear and grief as well as delight and pride. There are good things like learning how to find food and earning her first money. The tragic moments feel heavy, but they are earned through the compelling story and Erin’s naive yet sincere perspective. Here’s the link to The Wandering Inn if you’re interested.
Let me level with you, I wrote Merlin fanfiction for a Latin project in ninth grade. Merlin and Prince Arthur traveled in time and at the end there was a dramatic death scene, and I loved it. I thought to myself, “oh, this is so sad — it’s perfect.” I liked sinking into the feeling of writing tragedy, of tearing my characters apart with dramatic confessions and death. But that’s exactly what I was doing — I was tearing them apart until they became caricatures instead of characters. Yes, stories need conflict, but they also need balance.
But, come on, who doesn’t like a little drama? Fan fiction is abundant with it. The YA genre often has melodramatic reactions because it’s relatable to its readers. The main takeaway? Balance is Key. Don’t be afraid from having drama in your stories, it’s just important to find that line between serious and light. Just like our lives are not all sad — hopefully — our stories shouldn’t be either.
For more on avoiding melodrama, I’d recommend Ellen Brock’s How to Describe Emotion Without Being Melodramatic or Cliche or ShaelinWrites’ How to Avoid Melodrama In Your Writing on YouTube.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.