MENTION MELODRAMA AND ALL IT CONJURES UP for some people is a wide-eyed heroine being tied to the train tracks by a moustache-twirling villain. But that’s not it. Not by half.
If drama releases the electricity implicit in small events, melodrama calls down lightning.
Melodrama is the equivalent of a blinding flash accompanied by a loud noise. It can be a bony hand creeping from behind a curtain, a grand passion, someone teetering on a high ledge, or any of a thousand vivid situations and characters. Their meaning is right out in the open; they seem special, unusual, exciting. Such events speak directly to our imaginations and emotions.
Some people seem larger than life. Who and what they are is recognized at once. It’s similar to the way a good caricature of a President or a celebrity can be more easily identified than an ordinary snapshot: a caricature draws in bold lines those features most associated with that person and downplays the unimportant ones. Some fictional characters seem larger than life: strong, interesting, dramatic. They too speak directly to our imaginations and emotions.
Melodrama is a technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle, the remarkable rather than the ordinary.
Events and individuals whose appeal and significance speak directly in this way, that don’t need explaining, can immediately involve readers and arouse their sympathies. Using them in fiction can lead to forceful plots relatively unencumbered by exposition and peopled by vivid, colourful characters. For that reason, melodrama is the foundation of popular (genre) fiction, aimed at the broadest possible range of readers and intended primarily (but not solely) for entertainment.
Melodrama is also used, selectively and often with even greater impact, in literary fiction, which aims at a narrower readership and is intended primarily to present the author’s view of the world/life/people. Because it’s heightened, exaggerated reality, melodrama lends itself easily to symbolism, allegory, and the meanings implicit in objects, people, or events become more luminous and accessible than meanings normally are in the chaotic muddle of our everyday world. Sometimes visionary, heightened reality is the most real of all, because all the transitory, trivial details have been stripped away to reveal the fundamental essence of things.
The Power and Problems of Melodrama
Because melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely, it often creates a credibility problem. Because it chooses the heart over the head, the snap reaction over thoughtful consideration, emotion can go over the edge into sentimentality, tear-jerking, thrills or scares for their own sake, as empty of meaning as a whoopee cushion. Melodrama can therefore seem or be sensation-mongering, appealing to the lowest common denominator and our least intelligent responses; so it also has a respectability problem. But carefully managed, it has power.
At the best, it’s as fundamental and useful as salt, heightening and bringing out the flavour of whatever it’s added to; at the worst, it takes over and drowns all lesser seasonings and renders the dish uneatable. Such built-in power isn’t something any writer can afford to dismiss or ignore without risking blandness. But it’s not something to toss in by the handful, either.
Like myth, legend, and fairy tale, melodrama is a part of our common emotional and cultural language. Judiciously used, it can create instant rapport between writer and reader. It can be casting an effective spell – or it can be a curse, a pitch as blatant, annoying, and obvious as somebody stridently hawking used cars on late-night tv. It’s a question of degree, and of craft.
Whether a given melodramatic event or character is effective or becomes a kind of emotional and literary cliché, trivializing the story in which it appears, is just a matter of how it’s handled, set up, shown.
If your story is founded on melodrama – the death of a child, first love, God running a society of secret agents (Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday), a vampire opening red eyes, a maniac stalking and slaughtering teenagers – it will need to be handled with special care if it’s to avoid being or seeming clichéd, overdone, or outright silly and weird.
TAMING WILD MELODRAMA
Curses are melodramatic – the ancient kind, especially in mysterious symbols on parchment, especially involving mummies. Especially curses that work. (Boasts Shakespeare’s pompous Glendower, “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” to which Hotspur retorts sardonically, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call to them?”)
So how can you have something like, say, a real working curse, something that actually comes, in your story and make the reader want to believe in it while the story lasts?
How can you encourage what literary critics have called “the willing suspension of disbelief” when your story is found on something intrinsically unlikely, strikingly unusual, or even impossible?
Melodrama, what I’m going to call “the curse” as a kind of shorthand for discussion, can be any of a variety of events, horrible or wonderful: love, death, or both together. It can be the supernatural, the exotic, the strange, the highly improbable coincidence. It can be monstrous or magical character, divorced from the usual range of human experience or capabilities.
Melodrama is extremes of any kind, things intended to rouse strong emotions and invoke implicit shared attitudes. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, you can’t let go of such powerful material until you’ve come to terms with it, turning the curse into a blessing.
Taking the Curse off the Curse
There are straightforward ways of setting your curse in the middle of solidly credible things and declaring it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting attention so that the curse has already happened and been accepted before the reader has a chance to holler, “Hey, now, wait a minute!”
I’ll start with the front-loading ways first – putting the unusual right up front and making it part of the story’s fundamental reality.
- Show that it works, right away. Have your curse actually operating (or your vampire stalking, your magician performing prodigies, or whatever) right on page 1, so the reader knows that in this story, one of the rules is going to be that your particular curse works. Show it, don’t tell it.
Star Wars starts out with a backdrop of stars and two spaceships blasting coloured rays at another. Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire starts out with a vampire talking into a tape recorder. Either way, you know pretty clearly what you’re in for from the beginning. Each story demonstrates its central premise: modern vampires, or shoot-‘em-up spaceflight. What you see is what you get.
If your story will be playing by rules other writers have used before – that vampires exist, that faster-than-light travel is possible – this may be the best way. Introduce your premise with as little fuss as possible and get on with your story, what you’re going to be doing within that accepted convention.
If you’re embarking on a thoroughgoing surrealism, then make that clear from the outset. The unfortunate protagonist of Kafka’s Metamorphosis doesn’t turn into an insect halfway through but in the very first sentence. State the premise, make the rules of your fiction clear, and go on from there.
- Show that the curse has worked in the recent past. Sometimes this way is better, particularly if you’re working with an unusual premise that will be entirely new to your readers and that they’ll therefore be more resistant to than a familiar one. That way, your curse becomes, not a possibility, but an accomplished fact.
We know there’s no arguing with the past: it’s over. That psychological quirk, our willingness to accept something that happened in the past more readily than something claimed in the present, can work for you.
This can include having your curse (or unusual character or event) talked about before he/she/it actually appears, to prepare the ground. That’s the way Melville sets up Ahab.
Or you can have a past event for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been found. The story then demonstrates the cause in the present, which also explains the past, retroactively. The real and undoubted past event anchors and renders credible the present investigations, revelations, and developments.
You can also tie in the in medias res advice I gave earlier, in this regard – showing curse #2 threatening first, then dropping back to let the reader know about curse #1 (or the fact that three teenagers have already been found mysteriously hickory-smoked to death or whatever your improbable premise may be).
- Establish a reasonable character, and have him take the curse seriously. Don’t have anybody doubting it, at least not for long. As readers, we’re used to fictional conventions. We’ll accept that in one story there’s a secret door to elfland. It doesn’t really do any good, anymore, to have some stooge still claiming, “It can’t be: another head growing out of her WHAT?!”
The reader gets annoyed at such a character, who’s still resisting what the reader has already accepted as a basic premise. A resident Doubting Thomas doesn’t defuse incredulity, as he once served to do in earlier fiction for a more literal-minded age; he just looks like a dolt.
Instead, have your whole cast of characters either ignorant of the curse, or worried/hopeful about it – just the one, or the other. Once the reader has accepted your premise, anybody who stubbornly refuses to do likewise is obviously a jerk (and you might want to use that fact to undercut a character at some point). Show that in your story, ordinary, reasonable people – not just those privy to the Secret Knowledge of the Ancients, like Dr. Van Helsing – take your premise very seriously indeed.
- Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail. Paraphrasing the trenchant observation of a former Dr. Who, the Yeti (Abominable Snowman) you surprise in your suburban bathroom is a lot scarier than the one encountered on a glacier in exotic Tibet.
Realistic details make for realism. Alfred Hitchcock knew this, and made ordinary things the springboards for horrifying and unlikely occurrences: remember the shower scene in Psycho? Remember the birds roosting patiently (and in ever-increasing numbers) on the jungle gym, waiting for school to let out?
Things can get more and more bizarre as your story progresses, but if you anchor your improbability solidly in the everyday to begin with (nice urban professional couple – husband a little moody, wife pregnant: Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby), the reader will accept it.
If you’re going to have, as a character, the eight-armed ambassador from the Wobbly Worlds, don’t introduce him/her/it doing something alien and incomprehensible. Open the story with him/her/it swearing at a cabdriver in midtown Manhattan or searching myriad pockets for change of a ten. Or have the alien doing something plain and simple, like watching the sunrise or playing a flute. Balance the extraordinary with the mundane to give the reader a solid point of contact.
- Use just one curse at a time. Don’t have more than one major improbability per story. If there are a whole lot of odd goings-on, as in Peter Staub’s Ghost Story, they should all have, finally, a single cause. That one cause accepted, all the rest follows: the other oddities fall into place. But don’t turn your story into Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula, and the Smog Monster. That just turns into embarrassed giggles, not serious (if temporary) belief.
Don’t cross genres, either. Don’t have what, for 2/3 of the story, we’re led to believe is a normal (if insane) mass murderer, in a police-procedural sort of story, and then change gears and reveal that the murderer is a filthy Arcturan spy after our electromagnetic secrets or a Neanderthal thawed from a handy nearby glacier. State your rules, make your promises, at the outset; then stick to them.
However, you’re free to extrapolate, as Stephen King does in ‘Salem’s Lot. His premise is your basic vampire. His extrapolation is that, in an isolated town with only so many bite-ees available, one vampire with one victim per night would lead very shortly, by geometric progression, to virtually everybody in town’s becoming vampiric. (One bites one; two bit two, the following night, for a total of four; four bit four more, and now there are eight, just in three days, and so on.) That’s a valid, reasonable extrapolation from the initial premise. Science fiction does a lot of similar extrapolations – one speculative hypothesis, and then the rest solidly logical and reasonable, given that initial premise.
Keep to one central premise, and what hangs by it. Refrain from throwing in kitchen sinks.
- Don’t undercut your curse. Don’t play for laughs, ever, if you want it otherwise taken seriously. Don’t show it was all a dream, or not really a curse at all, or all due to a fever hitherto unknown to science. A contemporary reader’s belief isn’t too hard to earn, but can be lost in a flash. Don’t explain your curse away or make fun of it. Your monster can show up wearing a Mickey Mouse watch (or, as in the case of King’s It, a clown suit) – but it’d better be very sinister Mickey Mouse watch, worn for a solid and serious reason, not because you’re laughing at your own story and making it look silly. That has all the charm of a comedian getting hysterics over his own gags while the audience prepares to pelt him with week-old kumquats.
Your readers can’t express their indignation quite so directly; but they’ll flip the page or do something more interesting, like sort coupons. And they won’t come back. Ever. Why risk that, for the sake of a few authorial chuckles at your story’s (and your readers) expense?
- Especially at first, don’t talk about the curse yourself, in narrative summary. Show it in action and dialogue, in scenes. As the characters discern what odd thing is going on, the reader will be finding out along with them. And the characters provide a solid anchor (if you don’t make them unbelieving fools). The reader will tend to accept what they accept, if you’ve established them as credible people the reader is willing to identify with.
Dialogue is more believable than summary. We overhear it. We assume the characters believe and mean what they’re saying, unless they’re visibly foolish or obviously lying. The dialogue is shown (heard), not told about in summary, and therefore has greater immediacy and impact. We may not be inclined to credit what the author claims (until we’ve seen it for ourselves), but we’ll believe the characters if they’ve been made credible as people to begin with.
- Don’t let the curse either take over, rendering the whole story weird and uninvolving, or become commonplace. If you’ve got a magical character, don’t have him or her casting spells every few pages, or the reader will find it too hard to make contact with the reality the fiction presents. A story where literally anything can happen is a story where nothing makes sense. It has not internal coherence, no rules, no dramatic tension. If anything can happen, it all happens for no particular reason and leads to no particular result. No build. No momentum.
Similarly, an all-powerful character, one who can do anything he or she chooses, kills drama and suspense. That’s the trouble the original creators of Superman ran into – nothing was a real challenge, the way Superman’s character and powers had been defined. Voila: Kryptonite!
If the extraordinary character is somebody other than the protagonist (usually a good choice: remember what I said about bridge characters, back in Chapter 3), keep that character off-stage most of the time and centre attention on the more credible protagonist. That’s why Tolkien kills off Gandalf fairly early in the first book of the trilogy and doesn’t resurrect him for several hundred pages. He wanted to focus on the hobbits, who have to make hard choices, not on a wizard who just has to wave a wand and speak some words to get out of trouble. And he shows the limits on Gandalf’s power throughout, to bring out the wizard’s human qualities and counterbalance the magical ones.
Make the magician or elf (or whatever) very normal and ordinary 99 percent of the time, but with the potential of being extraordinary once in a while. That builds credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the specialness to come out.
Michael McDowell has a remarkable multi-volume novel titled Blackwater. It’s an account of the doings of a fairly ordinary southern family, except that the protagonist turns, every now and again, into something apparently indistinguishable from the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The rest of the time, she’s an interesting but by no means remarkable housewife. Sometimes, just once in a while, she transforms and eats people who annoy her. That gives, as you might well imagine, heightened drama to arguments with her in-laws and makes readers take a particular interest in her children’s adolescent difficulties.
If you’ve got a monster, don’t trot it out in every Chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monster you image, as a reader, is much more frightening than the monster you see. The reality will tend to be a letdown, simply because it’s a determinate object and no longer. The Unknown.
Waiting to find out builds suspense, drama. Actually finding out should be reserved to a climax, a set-piece. Afterward, if the story continues beyond that first face-to-face revelation, you’ll need some new source of drama because the monster won’t be quite so scary anymore.
Doyle knew this in The Hound of Baskervilles: he let the reader hear the hound’s howling but didn’t give more than a glimpse or a hint until the very end. He avoided undercutting his monster, too. The hound isn’t supernatural, but it’s still quite capable of tearing somebody’s throat out. It’s not the same threat as was feared, but it’s a legitimate threat all the same. Remember what I said about twists, back in Chapter 5? That applies here, too. Your twist (if you use one) must satisfy and improve upon what it substitutes for, not just change it to something else. That’s anti-climax, letdown, disappointment.
FAKING OUT THE READER
The other way of winning conditional belief in your curse, especially after the story’s initial section, is to keep the reader watching the right hand while the left hand is doing the funny business.
Here are the major techniques:
- Introduce the melodramatic element by the back door in a scene ostensibly dealing with something else. (“Charlie, I’m getting a divorce. I’m sick of your father’s drinking, the way your brother Greg seems to disappear into the wallpaper, and your mother’s flute playing.” Disappears into the wallpaper? Hmmm.) Make the curse seem innocuous at first, until the reader is solidly hooked. Then develop it.
- Have one or two previews, or false alarms, before the real curse shows up. Introduce, just casually, some apparently trivial elements that have buried, hidden connection to your as-yet unrevealed curse.
Don’t have any important plot element or character revelation depend on these false alarms, so the reader’s resistance isn’t alerted or raised. Don’t make them carry any immediate narrative weight. The elements are just there, seemingly incidental, hardly noticed at the time.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, as Scout and Jem Finch are trudging through woods toward the schoolhouse for the pageant, another child jumps out and frightens them. On the way home, Scout thinks she hears following footsteps and believes it’s the same child trying to startle them again. She calls out, but gets no reply. She and Jem begin to walk faster, still expecting the malicious child. When the backwoodsman who hates their father suddenly attacks them, the emotional groundwork has been laid.
Again, the reader is surprised – nobody expected the man to attack the Finch children (despite an oblique warning from the sheriff) – and not surprised, since Scout was expecting somebody to jump out at her. She just didn’t expect an adult with a big, sharp knife. An effective false alarm leaves the reader both prepared and unprepared – surprised, but believing. Even though the reader didn’t realize the false alarm was groundwork, it’s been laid and will sustain the strangeness when it comes.
In general, because readers take plot seriously and follow most attentively what at least seem to be plot developments rather than incidents, misdirecting their attention (now that you know what they’ll be paying special attention to) isn’t all that hard.
- Have a character expecting something even more extraordinary, so that when the real curse comes, it’ll seem credible by comparison. In Wuthering Heights, the initial narrator, Lockwood, is confronted by several extremely crude and unfriendly people on his first visit to Heathcliff’s house. He’s shortly attacked by some savage dogs which Heathcliff, entering, drives off. By contrast to what he’s met so far, Lockwood takes Healthcliff to be a rare good fellow – a little harsh, but clearly a gentleman. It takes Lockwood a while to realize Heathcliff is the most savage, wild creature in the place. Far from being a gentleman, Heathcliff is an embodiment of amoral and practically demonic energies – hardly even human in the usual scene of the word, much less a social being of any sort. But by that time, the emotional groundwork of surrounding savagery and Lockwood’s error has prepared for this extraordinary character.
But be careful, if you use this method, that your actual curse is really worse (or better) than what’s expected, even though it doesn’t seem so at first. Otherwise, it will be a letdown.
- Alternatively, have a character expecting a smaller and more credible version of the thing you actually intend to spring on him. In Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” the homely and highly intelligent protagonist thinks the boyish traveling Bible salesman is out to seduce her, and rather patronizingly decides she’s willing to let him. She looks forward to his shock when she tells him she really doesn’t believe in anything. Seducers are a common and relatively routine sort of predator she can handle easily enough, she thinks.
It’s another matter when she realizes, too late, that what he’s really after is her artificial leg. He steals it, expressing his contempt for her supposed superiority and a cynicism and lack of belief far deeper than her own. She’s left stranded, in humiliated helplessness, in the barn. It’s a real seduction, and a real psychological rape, though not the sort she expected and felt so confident of handling.
It’s weird and melodramatic story – the clichéd Traveling Salesman and the Farmer’s Daughter, for heaven’s sake – and yet it works beautifully. The groundwork – preparing to handle a seducer when the man is really something much darker and more cruel – is well and unobtrusively laid. You don’t see it coming until it happens. And then you believe it.
COMPENSATIONS FOR COMPENSATIONS
In many ways these four techniques of displacement and misdirection contradict the eight methods of putting your curse right up front and toughing it through with all the compensations possible, which I discussed earlier.
I’d tend to use misdirection in situations of gradual revelation, when a mystery is involved and finding out the exact nature of the curse is the basis of the story (as in The Hound of the Baskervilles). I’d also use it when a melodramatic element is so outrageous that it needs considerable preparation, or when I wanted the reader to be expecting one thing when in fact I was planning to pull a switch (a satisfying, valid one, remember).
But, really, these are mix and match techniques – especially if your story is going to be novel-length. You may want to use one of the straightforward techniques early in the novel and some of the double-fakes later on, or the other way around. It depends on what you’re trying to do in each particular section of your story.
And just as there are all sorts of melodrama – of events and of characters – these techniques can be used to prepare for and “take the curse off” any strong element in your story, whatever it be.
If the strong element is a very complex prose style, you may want to balance it with vivid, direct happenings and simplified, exaggerated characters, the way Faulkner often does. If it’s a lot of unavoidable and concentrated exposition, as often happens in mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy, melodrama may come to your rescue, keeping the story moving until the necessary explanations are done.
Melodrama can be a compensation for any narrative element which tends to distract attention from the story and the characters. It’s so strong that it’s impossible to ignore, and the story falls back into an effective balance between showing and telling.
But melodrama, in turn, needs compensation because the reality it presents is so exaggerated and intense. Whether you choose techniques of straightforward preparation or buried preparation, you can use melodrama to show a heightened reality even truer than our more mixed and muddled everyday existence, where things seldom show as clearly what they are and what they mean as fiction can, and life is seldom so interesting and exciting as a story.