This is a distinction that I know I occasionally have a problem with, but I acknowledge that it’s really important to get right in order to become the kind of writer I want to be. Stories are about conflict of some kind. This does not necessarily mean physical conflict, as I’m sure you know – in fact, physical conflict is less emotionally engaging than internal conflict. Gun fights and car chases are melodrama.
Drama reaches down inside to the very heart, soul and psyche of the individual. Melodrama is almost always about the external and superficial. Melodrama is shrieking vs the quiet and deep truth of drama. – Les Edgerton, Hooked
Yes, I know. Edgerton again. Look, it’s what I’m reading at the moment and he’s got some interesting ways of putting things. Anyway, he defines drama as intense wanting and melodrama as physical action with minimal emotional engagement. He quotes Janet Burroway, who puts it beautifully:
Fewer people have cause to panic at the approach of a stranger with a gun than at the approach of Mama with the hot iron. More passion is destroyed at the breakfast table than in a time warp.
And which do you think leaves the reader more shaken up and invested, if well written? I have set out to explore different types of almost fanatical desire in my writing, which just happen to take place in a high-fantasy war setting. It’s therefore really useful to have this kind of distinction made so very clear because it helps me concentrate on the development of character emotion as the drama, rather than feeling pressurised to concentrate on the melodramatic action.
This also ties into the whole ‘less is more’ and ‘brevity is your friend’ approach. Hugely emotional reactions, though emotion rather than action, still count as melodrama of course. And therefore it still has the effect of losing your reader’s buy-in.
If the character cries on the page, the reader won’t.
Underplay things. Be subtle. Let the reader extrapolate from minimal detail and as a result, because they are adding the lines and colours which come from their own psyche, they are that much more emotionally invested.