We are thrilled today to be joined by editor Deborah Halverson. She is the founder of the well-known Dear Editor site as well as a former editor with Harcourt. Her most recent publication is Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies.
*Ms. Halverson has generously offered to give one of our QT followers a copy of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies. The details of how to win are at the end of the post.
Melodrama Isn't a Four Letter Word
So, you’re a Thirty-Something writing a teen novel, and you want your narrative voice to sound convincingly youthful. That’s an outstanding goal. A believable voice makes all the difference in the success of a manuscript. But how do you actually do it? The answer might surprise you. It may go against every rule you’ve ever learned about writing good fiction. It might actually make you shudder. The answer is . . . you need to channel a key element of the teen persona: melodrama.
“No! No!” you cry, throwing back your head and draping your forearm across your brow. “Not (*gasp*) melodrama.” Indeed, every writing instructor who ever lived has marked up countless margins with the red-inked words “Not believable—too melodramatic.” I often penned it myself as an editor, first for a major publisher, and now freelance. And with good reason. Melodrama is exaggerated emotions. Melodrama is indicative of stereotypical characters and a lack of tension in your plot. Melodrama is hokey and makes readers think, “Oh, gimme a break. No one would say that in real life.” Melodrama is a no-no.
Or is it? Those are all good points, no doubt about. But they aren’t the be-all, end-all, either. Melodrama isn’t always bad. In the case of teens, melodrama is real.
Think about it—with a teen, things aren’t bad, they “suck, big time.” And Big Brother doesn’t get mad, he “freaks out.” And don’t forget the classic, “He’s gonna kill me!” Teens don’t self-analyze, they just react. They are all about exaggerated emotions and grandiose notions of self. The world revolves around them, doesn’t it? They certainly don’t analyze their treatment of their friends and come to sophisticated judgments like, “I was curt, even to Melanie.” They say, “I even ripped into Melanie for no good reason. Some friend I am. Here, Mel, let me shove you off a cliff while I’m at it. God, I can be such a jerk.”
Your preferred narrative voice might not be that colloquial, of course. You might be going for a more formal feel, with the terms “gonna” and “ripped into” and “freaked out” far from your word bank. But your character’s situation will be the same. The words and phrases you choose must suggest a grandiose view of that situation, its extent, its implications, and its impact on the protagonist herself. Teens tend to see themselves as the center of the universe, and their judgments stem from that. One aspect of your protagonist’s internal journey will involve the maturing process, with her learning through the course of the book that the world does not, in fact, revolve around her. She’ll see that what she does affects others, and that what others do isn’t necessarily about her. So, okay, maybe Big Brother won’t actually kill her.
Cracking the door open for teen melodrama does not mean you’re throwing that door wide for stereotypical characters or hokey dialogue. You still need to support your characters with a strong plot filled with tension that stems from high stakes. You can’t let everything lie flat and just count on melodrama to add all the excitement—that’s what’s given melodrama its bad name. Wield melodrama as but one tool in your belt, the one that will add a youthful outlook to your narrative voice.
Teens can smell a poser a hundred yards out. Melodrama is your ticket to crafting a believably young voice. It’s about overreacting to the situation, sounding way too dramatic for the events at hand—and that’s pretty much a definition of the teen experience, isn’t it? You’re absolutely right to want the narrative voice in your teen novel to sound convincingly young. Let the things that happen to your teen protagonist rattle her cage, big time. Let her be melodramatic about them, let her judge herself and others harshly, erroneously, and/or quickly. Inject a little melodrama into your character’s personality . . . you’ll sound decades younger in no time.
*To enter to win a copy of Ms. Halverson's book, Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies, leave a comment below. The winner will be contacted by email on Monday, July 25th. Links to more posts by Ms. Halverson and other chances to win her book can be found here.