When Plots Attack (Avoiding Melodrama)

I’ve been a lurker for most of my life. I like to stand at the edge of conversations, somewhere off to the side, listening intently. I’m one of those slightly too quiet people that listen and remember everything from conversations even though I’ll downplay it later.  I like listening to conversations, finding out what makes people tick, listening to their backstories. Everyone is interesting, even when they think they aren’t.

I’m a lurker online as well; it’s no secret that I tend to fan-girl over certain things. One of the most interesting aspects of online fandom is the community that is built, having thousands of different voices focussed on one topic breeds interesting conversation. I like reading the variations and interpretations that can spawn in fandoms. I watch and read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, most of which has multiple writers and producers, which sometimes means if a storyline is hand-waved away (usually with liberal applications of deus ex machina/magic/reversing the polarity of the neutron flow) I’ll go online to read other people’s reactions and their interpretations and personal versions of events.

Most of these interpretations are ‘fanwank’ or ‘head-canon’- where online writers and artists expand on what was already created; taking information already provided by the creator and adding small details, smoothing over any inconsistencies that develop through multiple seasons/books/movies. They try to make sense of plotlines and character developments that seem out of character (“OOC”).

Almost everything centres on back story – not necessarily rewriting but expanding.

This expansion is where novice writers tend to stumble. They turn to melodrama when they should aim for restraint. You’ll notice it in beginner fanfiction when already developed characters all have a secret, super special back story. Every character suddenly has a monumental trauma: a lost love, a family secret, something that makes them extraordinary. It’s similar to when I was younger, I couldn’t just pretend to be a fairy (oh yes, I wore my ballet costume and everything) I had to be the Queen of the Fairies…who was cast out, forced to live in squalor with humans with invisible armies.

There was a recent example of indulgent backstories in The Walking Dead fandom. The character Daryl Dixon has become a fan favourite in the television show. He’s a loner, he’s proficient, gruff, and a little crass… basically designed to appeal to a wide audience. His backstory is easily summed up due to growing up with an overbearing, redneck brother and an abusive father.

Because fans enjoy his character, they read into his actions, assigning them to a head-canon that overtly explains how/why he reacts to certain situations. A common fan theory I’ve seen concerning his backstory, was what if….Daryl had a blonde younger sister who went missing/was kidnapped/was killed by their father? Yes, I suppose that would explain his hesitancy around women and his obsession with the search for Sofia. But why take a simple, realistic backstory and twist it into something more dramatic? Is an abusive family no longer considered dramatic enough?

Back story provides motivation for characters. It explains their reaction to events and how they approach and solve conflicts. In this, simplicity is key.

In original writing, should tendency for melodrama rear its ugly head it can, ultimately, destroy your work. Drama is interesting, it captures readers attentions, creates a hook, but melodrama is cloying. Melodrama is all about exaggerated emotions and stories; it’s creating a soap opera. Exaggerated emotions can be cathartic, but if they dominate the plot and the setting they become eye-rollingly boring. If you overdo/overwrite the drama it loses connection with the reader. You can have melodramatic characters, or melodramatic speeches, but personally, the greatest sin is a melodramatic plot.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet is the prime example of melodramatic character. She flails, sobs, and weeps throughout the text. Of course, in the novel Mrs. Bennet was meant to be an overwrought character, lending a brand of comedy to lighten up the plot and shed light into the actions of Lizzie and her family. There are times that it becomes difficult to read her character or watch her interpretation on film. She is DRAMA! And that becomes exhausting. But in the novel, she is just one character, a problem that can be pushed to the side when she is too overwrought.

When plot becomes melodramatic it’s more difficult to fix. When there are murders, kidnappings, forced marriages, torture, the tropes take over the plot. It’s no longer about the character but what sensational plot device is next. I can’t say these aren’t popular. Melodrama has been a part of novels, movies and TV since their inception. There is even a network devoted to melodrama (*ahem* Lifetime *ahem*). The problem is that for new and beginning authors, melodrama, especially poorly executed melodrama, is an easy and quick way to lose readership.

There is a difference between poignancy and melodrama; that difference lies in the execution of your work.

Another acid test for melodrama is the tendency to resort to violence, either emotional (catatonic seizures, gasps, screams, floods of tears, verbal confrontations) or physical (fisticuffs—or worse, depending on the caliber of melodrama and available firearms).


 If drama is a perfume, then melodrama is your grandmother’s potpourri.

There is an easy way to limit the melodrama and that’s to cut rather than add. There’s a famous adage about jewelry: always take off one piece of jewelry before you leave the house. This applies to creating characters and plots as well. Consider your characters and plot, look at the back story you’ve created for each, if you feel an eye-roll while reading your work then you’ve probably strayed too far into melodrama.

There are always some quick solutions to look for when you’re looking to limit the melodrama:

  • watch for Mary Sues: the obvious protagonist
  • over use of adverbs instead of using ‘he/she said’
  • creating 3 pages of backstory for a one-off side character
  • character death or torture to fill up plot

Melodrama is meant to appeal to reader’s emotions, like I mentioned earlier this can be done through setting, character or plot. It creates sensationalism within the text and, if effective, it can resonate with the reader.  Too much drama doesn’t create pathos, it causes exhaustion. Tempering the melodrama is a key skill to acquire as a writer. Learning when to add a measure of normalcy or realism allows the reader to recharge and reengage with the text. Make mellow drama – not melodrama.

Articles on Melodrama and How to Avoid it: