How to hit the right emotional note to attract a reader—or melodramatic vs dramatic—is a key consideration of writing relatable fiction. It’s a juicy question! We want our readers to know that something BIG is happening, but we don’t want to lose them with purple prose. How can we pull this off? Read on!
Melodramatic vs Dramatic, A Definition
It’s important to think about toning down the high emotional description, especially during really emotional events. That’s when you want to rein it in, which seems counterintuitive, I know, but when the situation is screaming and the character is screaming, and the tone of the writing is screaming, that’s overwhelming and can stop feeling authentic.
In the fight of melodramatic vs dramatic writing, I define them this way:
Melodramatic: Inauthentic high emotion that has the potential to distance the reader, including use of histrionics, purple prose, and ?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!? Facebook punctuation.
Dramatic: Appropriate language and character expression that capture the tension and emotion of a high-impact moment which let readers know that emotion is called for, without going over the top.
Obviously, the melodramatic vs dramatic definitions above are heavily biased, but when we write for kids, I really want to stand up for authenticity first. That’s what will come across as true and vulnerable to your readers. Let’s see it in action. For example, imagine that a kid learns that their parents are getting new jobs and moving across the country.
Sure, if your character has a melodramatic flair, you may have a BIG reaction. After all, this is a big moment and directing reader attention to big moments is important.
However, if your character is always acting like someone died, you are at risk of purple prose. You are also blunting readers to what’s important and potentially abusing the Law of Diminishing Returns.
Here’s an example of melodramatic writing:
Katie fumed at the top of the stairs, having overheard the monstrous, devilish, life-shattering news. They were moving?!??!?!?! How could her parents do this? It felt like her soul had been rent from her body and dashed against the cliffs of despair. She could die. Maybe she had? Maybe this was hell itself? One thing was clear: life as she knew it was utterly and completely over.
Now, let’s consider how to take this dramatic situation and give it a bit more finesse. After all, we want to make sure it lands as serious in Katie’s world, but maybe without quite so much flailing and rending and dashing. For example:
Katie froze at the top of the stairs, her hand gripping the banister. But Rochester was hundreds of miles away—from her school, her friends, the only house she’d ever know. If she left behind all of the things she considered hers, that had gone into the last thirteen years of her life, who would she be, even? Would she still be Katie Higgins in Rochester? Or someone else, new and strange? The familiar design of the wallpaper swam in front of her eyes. Soon this would be someone else’s house. And soon she’d have to answer all of these strange new questions for herself.
What’s interesting is that I took a very subdued approach here. Yes, there are BIG questions and ideas, but the thoughtfulness helps to bring a lot of the main issues to light. She stops to consider the ramifications of this—or the stakes. That, to me, establishes the impact more than purple prose ever could. It gives me a portrait of a character thrown into a real identity crisis. It wins the melodramatic vs dramatic face-off because it considers the practical effects of this news. That carries a lot of weight that, to me, is truly heavy and dramatic, rather than being excessively bloated and melodramatic. It captures the stakes, not the freak-out.
Struggling with tone and description? Hire me as your novel editor and we will find your unique writing voice together.