Sunday, July 16, 2006

Drama vs. Melodrama

Copyright © 2006 Laurie D. T. Mann

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This is kind of a vague essay on drama vs. melodrama. I don't know how detailed I want to be about an unpublished novel...I might write a more specific essay to share with people who have read the whole novel, to see if this makes any sense.

As I've said, my first, unpublished novel, IRL, is a mixed bag of a novel. It's comic at times and quite serious at other times. But, the version I wrote in 2005 had two very shocking elements:

  • * a character suddenly becomes deathly ill, causing another character to have a major crisis of conscience

  • * a character dies in a terrorist incident

When I started re-examing the novel in early 2006, I realized both of those elements were simply too melodramatic. The novel was already death-obsessed, and these elements were over-the-top. I came to the conclusion about both elements at about the same time; both caused the novel to lose its focus.

The "deathly ill" part took place in Chapter 11. Chapter 11 is a very pivotal chapter, about 1/3rd of the way through the novel. I realized by not making the character in question "deathly ill," the chapter generally felt more realistic. I rewrote the chapter in pretty much one day, and it went from being too tortured in places to being mostly subdued. But that was OK; the "more tortured" chapter in that part of the novel needed to be a later chapter.

When I looked at the novel again this July, I realized Chapter 11 was now too quiet. In particular, a character's attitude changed quickly with little consideration. So, I revised Chapter 11 a little bit; it wasn't a rewrite, so much as a reshaping.

As the novel winds down, a character becomes debilitated and this impacts the story dramatically. For the longest time, I killed off another major character at the end in a terrorist incident. I came to the conclusion in January that this was just too much.

In late January, I wrote a long bit involving the terrorist incident. Instead of dying, the character survived, though badly injured. In some ways, writing this sequence was helpful; it got me started writing again after a nearly six-month hiatus. But, after about two weeks, I realized I was going off in completely the wrong direction, so I deleted the terrorist incident all together.

So I had to write an all new ending. Much as I avoided writing this particular ending for nearly five years (I started this novel as a character sketch in the winter of 2001 for a writing class, and had a rough outline almost immediately), I finally wrote a different approach to the ending. I hate to say "thus and so almost wrote itself." I was shocked by how quickly I was able to write the last chapter. Maybe it was because I'd thought so much about the characters and their situation over a very long time. While it still needs a small edit near the very end, the last chapter is basically a first draft. I don't write description well, but the description in the last chapter seems to work.

If too much bad seems to be happening to your characters all at once, perhaps you're substituting melodrama for drama. I suspect this is an easy mistake for some writers to make. I may still be spilling over into melodrama over the last quarter of my novel, but it doesn't feel as obvious to me now as it did last winter.