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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Melodrama Isn't a Four Letter Word: Guest Post by Deborah Halverson


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
by
Deborah Halverson

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.


Deborah Halverson is the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth. Armed with a masters in American Literature, Deborah edited picture books and teen novels for Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years before leaving to write full-time. She is a frequent speaker at writers conferences and a writing teacher for groups and institutions including UCSD’s Extension Program. Deborah is also the founder of the popular writers’ advice website DearEditor.com and freelance edits fiction and non-fiction for both published authors and writers seeking their first book deals. For more about Deborah, check out her website DeborahHalverson.com.

*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

22 comments:

Stacy S. Jensen said...

True. I think teens can smell a poser. Thanks for sharing these tips.

Avery Michaels said...

This made me go back and look at my WIP and see if there are any places I sound too 'stuffy' and 'old' and make it better. Thanks for the great post!

Avery

Jennifer Lane said...

I'm with Avery--I'm wanting to go back to my WIP and insert more melodrama, hee hee. I enjoyed reading the YA novel "Revolution" but for some reason the melodrama turned me off. I think there's a fine line between creating a believable melodramatic teen and one who is too over the top, who has trouble eliciting sympathy for his/her character.

Marsha Sigman said...

OMG, this post was awesome! It has changed my life!

Too much???

Really good post!

Mr. Boylen said...

Great "truth" about the teen experience. I teach 8th grade writing and what they pen can be all melodrama. I read tons of it. Asa with anyone, it is easy to overdo though. Then it falls into the not believable realm. Great post and thoughts.
Scott

jenehilt said...

One of my favorite actresses Claudia Black from Farscape said she was born with a surplus of emotion. I think that is true for all us creative types!

marcie_ann said...

It can be hard to channel your inner teenager sometimes, but it is so important if you're going to write for them. Otherwise, the MS will fall flat because, as you said Deborah, the kids will see right through you. Great tips!

Robyn Campbell said...

Great post. Thinking like a teen is exhausting but fun. I want my story to ring true. Teens and even young children can pick out the sham. Thanks for the very important thoughts. You definitely rock! :-)

Deborah Halverson said...

"Too much", Marsha? No, just right. :)

I'm glad folks are finding this helpful. Indeed, as with any technique, there's a line to walk. Just right vs too much. This writing stuff sure tests one's balance!

Guyanne said...

Thanks for the help. I'm a grandmother . . . I need it. I live with my three teenage granddaughters. And listening to them and their friends, you are right! Everything is about drama. Life is a melodramatic drama cycle. It's like a vortex and everything in its path can get sucked up into it. Teenage granddaughters are an incredible source of real life melodramatic ideas. I wouldn't trade this experience for all the rubies in the world.

kathrynjankowski said...

Great post and so timely as I've been worrying if my YA fantasy was too melodramatic. Still, I think you need to be careful not to wind up with a caricature.

Natasha Hanova said...

Wonderful advice. It's easy as adults to think things through from multiple angles, rather than through the tunnel vision teens use. They make mistakes and have to learn from them, just like we did.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great post, Deborah! My very mature 15 year old will have these dramatic outbursts periodically. For me it's fun to watch, because she is usually so composed. (More so than me.) I've actually heard her stomp around her room, when she can't find the right outfit. Teens...you've got to love them. :)

karenbschwartz said...

Love that! Thanks for permission to go totally over the top to stay true.

tracikenworth said...

Thanks for the advice. I worry about not having a youthful enough sounding voice and therefore losing my readers because of it. These tips should help.

Don A said...

This puts into clear words what I've kinda known. Thinking about it I realize I learned about melodrama from comic books. If you want examples of excess to study that's a place to go.
Don

Deborah Halverson said...

Don, my father is a prolific reader and was thus one of my literary role models. He got his love of reading from comic books. He'd go to the dime store and buy a grape soda pop and stay for HOURS reading the comics on the shelves. The awesome store owner let him do it. That store owner is a hero of mine, too. And I've got a big soft spot for comics.

storiesofmoss said...

Great article! I think you're absolutely right; a nice balance of melodrama is a key element to a realistic teen voice. I think it's something I've known for a while now without really analyzing it on a tangible level. I'm going to add MELODRAMA to the post-its I keep in front of me when I write, so I don't ever let that concept slip away. And I'll definitely have to get a hold of your Dummies book if it's full of more gems like this one! Thanks!

Jason Temple said...

When I set out to write my young adult novel I hit this problem like a tone of bricks, in fact I'm still working through it on the 3rd re-write, and with this information in mind I might abandon my 3rd re-write and jump to a fourth.

It's so simple it makes ABSOLUTE sense. Thank you.

Sally said...

Thanks for being a part of the blog tour! I am having a lot of trouble with my charactor's voice and Deborah's cheat sheets are giving me much needed help!

Susa Silvermarie said...

Yes yes yes! Permission to (have a character) overreact!

melodycolleen said...

This was very helpful to me. My MG WIP has a five-year-old with autism who is over the top dramatic, but I think my pre-teen characters could possibly use a bit more after reading this. They're really close to that age, and I think I missed it.