This Blog was written before the Corona virus arrived in the U.S. In fact, I had several blogs already prepared when our world fell apart. I have considered whether to set these next few blogs aside and write solely about what we are all thinking and talking about, but I’ve decided that it might be a relief to think about, talk about something else.
Last time I wrote here, I was contemplating the way I use the failures of plays and films to recognize the crucial difference between drama and melodrama. As I said then, drama rises out of character, out of who that character is and what she needs. Melodrama is imposed on characters from outside, often to serve the writer’s purposes.
But as helpful as it is to note drama tipping into melodrama in a film, recognizing that problem in someone else’s work doesn’t necessarily keep me from enjoying melodrama in my own work. Melodrama can be compelling to its author.
Here is an example from a scene I struggled with in Sunshine, my upcoming novel. (Candlewick, spring, 2021.)
In early versions, in many early versions, the story pivoted around a climactic scene in which my main character’s mother, frantic because he has been gone much too long after taking off on his own, surprises him on his return by grabbing him by the neck and nearly choking him. “Where the hell have you been?”
It was a powerful moment, and I loved it. A gut kick for both character and reader. I could feel that scene moment right down to my toes. But I struggled with everything that followed. The boy is sullen, furious, convinced his mother tried to kill him. The mother, this mother who had abandoned her son long before, is apologetic. And where do I go from there? I had difficulty raising the stakes.
Finally a trusted reader said, “I wonder if this particular mother would really react that way.”
I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear the faintest suggestion that this beloved moment, this powerful moment might not be serving my story. That was my key scene! But her question sent me examining, however reluctantly, the deeper disconnection in this mother-son story. And what I found was something that couldn’t be expressed in over-the-top anger.
How would my story play out, I dared to ask myself, if this mother, instead of being enraged, was so intent on her own life, her own work that she didn’t even notice her son had been gone much too long? After all, a parent’s anger in such a moment comes out of deep caring. What if her greeting revealed her own disconnection instead, the disconnection that lay at the heart of my story?
It was a difficult turnaround to make, not because it was hard to write the new scene but because it was hard to let go of the old. But after a deep sigh—sighs are always permitted—I tossed the scene I loved (not too far in case I changed my mind down the road) and wrote the new one.
And it worked. I could tell instantly that it worked, even though I was still loved the scene it replaced.
And most important, the mother’s very different response gave me room to move forward.
It isn’t easy to recognize the too-strong moment in our own stories, melodrama instead of drama. It’s much easier to identify what is over the top in someone else’s work, easier to recognize what is being played for instant effect rather than to deepen character and story.
I talked last time about identifying those too-strong moments in film or on the stage. But the key to identifying, of course, isn’t just to critique. It’s to carry what we notice back to our own work.
Each time we see and name melodrama, we’re better equipped to recognize it at home.
Recognize it and soften it into a story moment that deepens, leaves our readers vibrating from a pulled punch instead of slammed into oblivion.
So hurrah for all the films and plays and novels that are executed with subtlety and nuance. And hurrah, too, for the ones that let their bones show.
What great teachers they are!
And hurrah for our own work when we can recognize each character’s truth and bring that to the page.
The most powerful impact story can offer isn’t the villain and the helpless maiden, however fast the locomotive is rushing. It is characters who stay true to themselves on the page.
Only then is there room for our own souls to inhabit our stories.