First of all, I don’t believe there is any fine line between dramatic and melodramatic (although straight melodrama plays are clear). Many different elements in a story, depending on the amount and how they are presented, can determine whether or not a work is more melodramatic than dramatic.
These days melodrama on the stage is rare, but more common in film and novels, that I have seen.
What is Melodrama? Melodrama means “song drama” or “music drama”. It usually refers to a theatrical form made popular by the French at the end of the eighteenth century. Melodrama focuses on serious dramatic elements, storylines, and characters. It is similar to drama, but these dramatic elements are pushed over the edge – often becoming comic, and may even seem facetious in intent.
Is melodrama bad? No, it does not have to be. But it often is when an author doesn’t realize that their work has been nudged from the dramatic realm to the melodramatic. I have noticed that when this happens, readers will laugh at scenes that are meant to be serious. They might wonder if this was the author’s intention.
What is an example of melodrama? Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a modern example of something close to a full-fledged melodrama. Is the movie laughable? To some, yes it is. But does that mean it is bad? I don’t think so, because the melodrama works for the story. Many audiences may not think the movie is any good, but it grossed over $126 million in box office sales its opening weekend – a big success. Obviously the general American public, at least, likes melodrama.
Now that I’ve given you some introduction to melodrama, you may wonder what an author can do in order to either avoid or create melodrama in their work. Defining what gives a work melodramatic tendencies should answer this question.
The characters in a melodrama or a work with melodramatic tendencies will typically be stereotypes that embody the forces of good and evil according to their role. You won’t see them sitting down to ponder over their actions. Instead, they are good or bad through and through. Black and white is how I like to think of it, hence the picture above. These characters rarely change or grow, and their actions are predictable.
Oftentimes secondary characters in these stories and simple minded and flat, and provide comic relief.
Predictable. Always predictable. Good wins. Evil loses. The hero saves the day. This is often the appeal of a melodramatic piece. It is basic and stable. These stories build and build, creating a sense of entertainment more than anything else. Drama tends to pull the reader in by reflection and identification with the characters. Melodrama merely gets the reader from point A to point B in an entertaining fashion.
The conflict of a melodramatic work often lies in the Hero vs. Villain, and is therefore predictable in nature. The hero always wins.
In the end, what will make melodramatic elements work in a story is the intention of the author. Perhaps making a story more melodramatic can strengthen a weakened plot and flat characters if the author doesn’t want all the fuss of fleshing things out. Perhaps adding a melodramatic flair to a piece will add some needed comedic elements. Perhaps it would simply ruin the story. Who knows. What matters is the author’s intention. A friend of mine once commented that my novel was cheesy. I think that maybe she could have meant more melodramatic than cheesy. In any case, it isn’t working, and I’m scrubbing out those elements as fast as I can because “cheesy” and “melodramatic” was never my intention.