There it is. You’ve just finished up a real doozy of a chapter, only to sit back and worry that what you’ve written has gone overboard in some way.
Maybe you’re writing about someone who was perceived as the least likely person to end up with a drug addiction. But now, this person, your protagonist, is just that, and lying in a gutter. Standing over him are his supposed friends. They rifle through his pockets, stealing the drugs and what little bit of money he has, and you’ve written that they kick and punch him as he lies there. He covers up his head, cowers in fear and wonders if he’ll live through it, when suddenly he jumps up like some superhero and doles out retribution for all they’ve done to him.
Maybe you’ve written about an abusive relationship gone horribly wrong and you are second guessing the part where the husband relentlessly beats his wife to death, going into detail about blood spurting out of her nose, and the sound his fists make as they land on various parts of her body . You may be questioning whether you went too far with your description of all he’s done to her, all of the horrors he’s inflicted, even down to the dragging of her lifeless body outside, where he’s trying to figure out how to dispose of her. The descriptions of this horrific scene go on and on.
How do you know when what you’ve set up is a good dramatic scene or that you have fallen into what a reader would consider to be melodramatic, an overwritten piece that reeks of, “the writer is trying too hard?” (Personally for me, if I roll my eyes when reading something = MELODRAMATIC)
Let’s face it, there is a tipping point when setting up high stakes and tension that needs just the right touch, the ability to see what works and what doesn’t, that tricky spot when a story could easily tumble into being melodramatic if a writer isn’t paying attention to what SHOULD be happening.
The first thing to consider is, what is realistic? You’ve got to pay attention to what makes sense. You’ve got to know what would be a reasonable reaction that your characters should do or say. The ability to determine how your protagonist would react goes back to how you’ve created them. What is it about their personality or traits that would make sense for the given scene?
For example, the scene above about drug addiction. Considering what you may have already written, if your protagonist is non-confrontational, it wouldn’t make sense to have him suddenly become that super hero, right? You might wish that could happen, just because you want to give him some revenge. Maybe later you do give him the chance and when you do, it should make sense for his personality, otherwise, it wouldn’t be realistic.
As well, be careful not to overdo a theme. A good example I should use here is one of my own, although the story set up with the husband’s abusiveness to the wife works too. I learned about not overdoing themes when my editor pointed out that I WAS on the verge of “overdoing it,” in my first book. The mother was abusive to her daughter, and I kept writing in scenes of her doling out that abuse, thinking I was introducing drama. I was told, “we get that Dixie experiences horrible abuse.” The reader usually “gets” it with the first scene, therefore, I didn’t need five more scenes to drill that in, nor do you. I had to go back and remove several pages, then figure out another way to liven up the story without overdoing the abuse angle.
I think one of the best quotes I’ve seen that can succinctly explain the difference is as follows:
I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries. ~ Frank Capra
I think that sums it up perfectly.