Monday, July 4, 2011

Drama vs Melodrama

In a few years this post may be completely obsolete, in that there may be no meaningful difference between the terms I'm using. To teens, drama means melodrama. To a writer, they are something different.

a composition in prose or verse presenting in dialogue or pantomime a story involving conflict or contrast of character.

a dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion .
melodramatic  behavior or events.

By my handy definitions above, the term should be high school melodrama queen. But, A. It's high school. If you get everything right in high school, you get to skip ahead 5 spaces to middle age. B. Drama queen is catchier and easier to say, and it's been used by books and movies for the last few years. 

Verdict- Melodrama Queen is never going to catch on. 

But as a writer, the difference is very important. Drama= tension and stakes. Melodrama= stuff that makes a reader roll their eyes. It can be the same stuff, the same events, the same types of conflict. The difference lies in how  the writer tackles it and how the reader responds. 

I got a little sentimental this week and took out the ARC for my first book, Handcuffs, and read the editorial letter at the beginning. Even as an adult, I'm sure you remember the giant hole that was left in your life when a relationship ended. Walking down the halls, sharing a classroom with an ex...breaking up is an experience that is only more agonizing in the high school setting. I could argue that many (read--most) things are more agonizing in the high school setting, but yeah a high school break up can be very public and agonizing. It can also be dramatic or melodramatic depending on how it is presented. 

I guess it's easy to say the difference comes back to the stakes and the tension. Right now I'm writing post-apocalyptic whole world depends on the outcome drama. So different sets of stakes, tension caused by danger and possible death! (sorry that required an exclamation point!) In an adventure story, the stakes are naturally higher. But as a former writer of the realistic and the contemporary, and as all our realistic contemporary friends can surely attest, making the everyday situation fraught with genuine drama is possible. 

Possible but not required elements for creating Drama (as opposed to that other thing)
1. High Stakes- make the reader understand why it is important. Make them believe it. 
2. Tension- get the reader on the edge of their seat. I always use the Truman show as a great movie that builds tension more effectively than many horror films I've seen. 
3. Authenticity- make it seem real so that readers can relate.

Some adults look back on high school as a roller coaster of the melodramatic. But if you really let yourself feel the pain and the angst (admittedly, you have to be crazy to do this)  you have to acknowledge that the emotion is real. The pain is hyper-real. The anxiety, the pressure, the passion... :) 

In reality, your adolescent Psyche text will tell you that teens lack a sense of the big picture. They often feel that they are the only person on earth who has ever been so in love, so devastated, so elated, so sad. This lack of perspective makes all of us adults want to A. roll our all-seeing adult eyes and B. slap them. 

As, neither eye rolling nor slapping are the desired emotional responses to our teen protagonists, in your quest for verisimilitude, you may want to leave that part out. Instead, go for depth, go for emotion, and go for the gut wrenching reality of teen emotion that your teen readers will recognize and your adult readers won't throw across the room. Drama, not melodrama. 

Back to my original definition- conflict is the heart of your story, high school/the teen years are the epitome of conflict, so the YA author should be all set up for drama. 

And, of course, that part is always subjective. I had a student who insisted, INSISTED, that the MC of The Hate List was whiny. I loved that book and was outraged. Whiny! She had tension, high stakes, and authenticity, and I believed every bit of her pain. And most of my students did, too. But to this student, it didn't ring true. By the same token, I got frustrated by Liar because the stakes kept changing with the story. My favorite realistic book of the year was Before I Fall, which I felt built high school tension beautifully. 


Katie McGarry said...

Love this post Bethany! As a writer of realistic contemporary, I agree there is a thin line between writing drama and melodrama.

Kurt Hampe said...


On a less melodramatic note, you hit the nail on the head with 'cause and effect.' I think that's what separates a good genre story from an eye-roller.

Or put it another way, dragons may be cool, but they aren't a story by themselves. (for the record, neither are vampires)

bethany griffin said...

What, you guys think I made sense? I was a little addled from the holiday and all. But it is something I've thought about a good deal. :)

Sarah Skilton said...

Great post. It's a thin line sometimes, between the two, and I often struggle with making the drama authentic and not "melo-". But then sometimes for YA, melodramatic IS realistic. Now *I'm* getting addled... :)

Colette Ballard said...

Great post, Bethany! As you guys in our critique group can attest, i have had to reign in the 'melo' a few times: ) Thank God for crit. groups!