Monday, September 24, 2012

Just Say No To Melodrama

Today I am excited to welcome Becca Puglisi, one half of the awesome blogging team at The Bookshelf Muse and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Chracter Expression.  For today’s post, Becca will be sharing an excerpt from The Emotion Thesaurus.

Just Say No To Melodrama

If all emotions were of average intensity, they’d be easier to describe. But emotions vary in strength. Take fear, for instance. Depending upon the severity of the situation, a person might feel anything from unease to anxiety to paranoia or terror. Extreme emotions will require extreme descriptors, while others are relatively subtle and must be described as such. Unfortunately, many writers make the mistake of assuming that to be gripping, emotion must be dramatic. Sad people should burst into tears. Joyful characters must express their glee by jumping up and down. This kind of writing results in melodrama, which leads to a sense of disbelief in the reader because, in real life, emotion isn’t always so demonstrative.

To avoid melodrama, recognize that emotions run along a continuum, from mild to extreme. For each situation, know where your character is along that continuum and choose appropriate descriptors. Just as extreme emotions call for extreme indicators, temperate emotions should be expressed subtly. The indicators for intermediate emotions will lie somewhere in the middle.

It’s also very important that your character follows a smooth emotional arc. Consider the following example:

Mack tapped his thumb against the steering wheel, one arm dangling out the window. He smiled at Dana but she just sat there, twisting that one loop of hair around her finger.
“Worried about your interview tomorrow?” he asked.
“A little. It’s a great opportunity but the timing’s awful. There’s too much going on.” She sighed. “I’ve been thinking about cutting back. Simplifying.”
“Good idea.” He nodded along with the radio and waved at the biker who thundered past on his Harley.
“I’m glad you agree.” She faced him. “I think we should break up.”
His foot slipped off the gas pedal. The air grew heavy, making it hard to breathe. The car veered toward the middle line and he let it drift, not caring whether he lived or died.

Unless Mack has a psychological reason for doing so, he shouldn’t jump from placidity to depression in a matter of seconds. A realistic progression would be to move from contentment to shock, then disbelief, and finally to grief. Done thoughtfully, this emotional arc can be shown with relatively few words:

“I’m glad you agree.” She faced him. “I think we should break up.”
His foot slipped off the gas pedal. “Break up? What are you talking about?”
“Mack. We’ve been headed this way for awhile, you know that.”
He gripped the steering wheel and took deep breaths. Sure, things had been rough lately, and she kept talking about taking some time, but she always came around. And she’d definitely never uttered the words “break up.”
“Look, Dana—”
“Please, don’t. You can’t talk me out of it this time.” She stared at the dashboard. “I’m sorry.”
His insides twisted. He darted a look at Dana, but she was curled against the window now, both hands resting easy in her lap.
He gaped at her. They were totally breaking up.

Make sure that your character’s feelings progress realistically. Map out the emotional journey within the scene to avoid unintended melodrama.

All of this is not to say that real life doesn’t produce extreme emotion. Birth, death, loss, change—some situations call for intense responses that may go on for awhile. Many writers, in an admirable attempt to maintain believability, try to recreate these events in real time. This results in long paragraphs or even pages of high emotion and, inevitably, melodrama. Though real life can sustain this kind of intensity for long periods of time, it’s nearly impossible for the written word to do so in a way that readers will accept.

In these situations, avoid melodrama by abbreviating. This method is often used for other real-life scenarios—conversations, for instance. Small talk is left out to keep the pace moving forward. Mundane tasks are also cut short, because the reader doesn’t need (or want) to see the entire car washed, a piece at a time, while Bob ponders a problem at work. In the same way, extensive emotional scenes should be long enough to convey the appropriate information, but not so long that you lose the audience. Write the emotion well, develop empathy in your reader, maximize the words that you do use, but don’t overstay your welcome.

Becca Puglisi is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. The Emotion Thesaurus is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords, and the PDF can be purchased directly from her blog.

For anyone who would like to read the book review I posted for The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression, CLICK HERE.


Janet Johnson said...

Great post on emotion. Becca and Angela are amazing and their blog is simply brilliant!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great points, Becca. Having those characters jump from point A to point B with no journey isn't much fun - and it throws everyone out of the story!

Come At Me Bro said...

This is great!

Susanne Drazic said...

Hi, ladies! Thanks for stopping by.

The Bookshelf Muse and The Emotion Thesaurus are awesome writing tools that every writer should be taking advantage of. Thanks Becca and Angela for providing these valuable tools!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

True, most people aren't a stick of dynamite ready to go off at a moment's notice.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Oh, poor Mack!
Glad he didn't let the car drift suicidally into the other lane!

You are right. A progression of feelings and emotion works so much better than letting go full blast.

Arlee Bird said...

The writer's job is partly to manipulate the reader's emotions, but it should be done in such a way that it's almost unnoticed how and why the emotional state came about.

Wrote By Rote

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Another great post, Becca.

Melodrama has it's place (hello teen life), but it should be treated with care.

Love love love The Emotion Thesaurus. :D

Gail M Baugniet - Author said...

I liked your written examples of how not to, and then how to express excalating emotions or reactions to given situations.
When you talked about sustaining an emotion for any length of time, that reminded me of the movie I watched last night, "Get Shorty". After the character Chili Palmer is almost killed and he is driving the female lead home, she asks if he was scared. When he says yes, and she says you don't look scared, he tells her, "I was scared then, how long do you want me to be scared?"

Theresa Milstein said...

I own this book. It's awesome!

LTM said...

oh, such great advice! And such a great example of how to know if you've slipped into dreaded melodrama--emotions run a continuum! Great advice. Thanks, Becca! <3

Shannon Lawrence said...

Great advice and example! I wish I'd read this earlier, as this topic came up in a discussion at a writing gathering I was at.

Shannon at The Warrior Muse

Susanne Drazic said...

I wanted to say thanks to everyone who stopped by to check out Becca's guest post on melodrama.

Becca, thanks for the great guest post!

Peggy Eddleman said...

Great post! Such an important thing to remember!

Becca Puglisi said...

Whew. Sorry I've been MIA; was out of town.

I'm so glad you're all enjoying the post (and The Emotion Thesaurus, for those of you who own it and like it). Emotion is such a tricky thing to write, and it has to cover so many levels. Hopefully these tips will help in overcoming the melodrama trap :).

Thanks so much, Susanne, for letting me crash!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I love this little book! I've read it twice and plan to again in a few months. Seems this old brain of mind needs constant reminding. Haha.

Thanks, ladies!

Deb Marshall said...

Wow...some great great advice and really really loved the example. Bookmarking this article and pasting this on computer:

"To avoid melodrama, recognize that emotions run along a continuum, from mild to extreme."

The emotional arc in a scene needs to make sense!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susanne and Becca - such a great post - and your book is definitely on my radar - it sounds just so useful and sensible a guide ...

Cheers Hilary

Bish Denham said...

Another great example give to us by Becca. Thanks for having her here, Susanne!

Jennifer Shirk said...

Great post! I need to get this book!

Susanne Drazic said...

Becca, it was great having you guest on my blog.

Joylene, it is a great book.

Deb, thanks for stopping by. Glad you found the article helpful.

Hi, Hilary! Thanks for stopping by.

Jennifer, it's a very helpful book. A great tool for all writers to have.

Hi, Bish! Thanks for stopping by.

Stephen Tremp said...

Its great to meet Becca! Congrats! to her and best wishes for her success!

Susanne Drazic said...

Hi, Stephen! Thanks for stopping by to check out Becca's guest post.

Susan Hornbach said...

I bought this wonderful book before it was even published. What a great concept for a book. My daughter wants one for Christmas
Wishing you great success Becca.
Thanks Susanne.

Susanne Drazic said...

This book has been so helpful. It definitely belongs in every writer's toolkit. Susan, thanks for stopping by!


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