WARNING: Possible swooning, wailing, or lamentation ahead.
Probably my own biggest struggle with writing at this point is avoiding melodrama. Moment of truth here— I am an extremely dramatic person. Ever since I was old enough (ie, two) to burst into heartbroken tears when my mom told me not to touch her alarm clock, I have been the acknowledged drama queen of the house, and have done my utmost to maintain that reputation.
I like to think I’m a little wiser at eighteen than I was at two… but I’m no less dramatic than I ever was.
My drama just finds a different outlet.
This can be a problem.
My natural writing voice can be poetic, is definitely intense, and very emotional. I see the world and people as they are, and strive to capture everything— joy and grief, hatred and love, anger, courage, jealousy, loss… the list goes on. Human emotions fascinate me, and for a drama queen like myself, that fascination can easily lead to the lair of a dreadful many-headed monster.
It’s a running battle. I still struggle with this more than anything else. But today I’m going to share the first of several weapons I’ve found helpful for vanquishing this horrific monster.
The First Weapon: Focus on the Little Picture
One of the chief causes of melodrama in my work was my realization that human emotion is so deep and vast I can never, ever express it properly in its full depth.
…And if there’s one thing no one (including myself) should ever do to me, it’s tell me I can’t do something.
“Oh, so capturing the full depth of emotion is impossible, huh? WELL THAT’S WHAT YOU THINK. Imma show you different… just you wait…”
Dear readers… I hope you never ever have to suffer through the deluge of melodrama that happens when you try to accurately describe a human emotion.
Suffice it to say, trying to pour the uttermost secret depths of the human heart out in stark black ink on stark white paper doesn’t work.
Well… how do we touch our readers deeply through the emotions of our characters, then?
Good question. It’s an enormous question, and many facets of it will have to be covered at another time. But for now, there are two things you need to realize.
1. The Reader is on Your Side
You are not writing a disquisition on human behavioral patterns for emotionless extraterrestrials. You don’t need to describe emotions in all their depth, because your story is being written in the hearts of readers who know what it is to be human, and feel all the human feelings.
Honestly, a good fifty percent (probably more) of any story is written entirely in the reader’s head. You don’t need to vomit the entire universe and all of humanity onto the page; you’re already writing it on an infinite human soul that will recognize it at a glance and fill in all the gaps.
Your job is simply to guide the emotions of the reader in the direction you want.
But that’s a different weapon, and I’ll cover it in the future.
The second thing you need to realize is…
2. Spelling Emotions Out Cheapens Them
The reason emotions can’t be captured in words is that they are too complicated and sacred for logical human comprehension. Words cannot hold the universe. They are too small. And when we try to explain infinite things in finite words, we make infinity so much less than it really is, which defeats the entire purpose.
Also, by spelling out the implications of an emotion in a factual manner we appeal to the logical side of the reader’s brain instead of to his heart, which is where the story should be happening. When this happens they try to grasp it logically and find that they can’t.
Just like no one can grasp the full horror of a world war simply from reading the statistics, but the instant we hear one story of a daddy who never came home to his kids, it’s real for us. In one seemingly random and irrelevant detail the entirety of the horrible truth is laid before us, because it appeals to our heart.
This is what I mean by focusing on the little picture. By veiling the enormity of something incomprehensible in one small detail, we make it infinite. I think that’s because the limits of logical comprehension are pretty stark, whereas there is no limit to how much we feel.
Basically, less is more. Don’t try to out-drama the human heart. No matter how wonderful of a wordsmith you are, the human heart can always comprehend it better.
And that is entirely to your advantage.