Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion
by Rhonda Browning White
Successful stories are emotional stories: we connect with that which moves us. A writer’s work is at its best when the reader feels emotion alongside a character. We must take care not to cross that very fine line and overdramatize a character’s feelings; otherwise, a reader will be about as patient with the emotional scene as with a toddler’s temper tantrum.
An excellent example of understated yet powerful emotion is present in Leslie Pietrzyk’s “The Circle”, a Pushcart-Prize-nominated short story appearing in the Winter 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review. “The Circle” relates the stories of two characters—one a young female narrator grieving her husband’s recent death, the other a grief counselor named Ruth who is in denial of the cancer that’s taken root in her breast—deftly juxtaposed and intertwined. Death and cancer: two painfully grim subjects that if not handled correctly, especially when examined in one short story, risk leaving a reader morose and depressed, potentially swearing off the author’s work forever. The last thing needed in a story of this gravity is melodrama, but there is equal danger in making light of such serious subjects through use of glib dialogue, inappropriate humor, or unrealistic character actions.
Fortunately, Pietrzyk’s “The Circle” conveys honest emotion through the body language, dialogue, and the internal thoughts of both of her point of view characters, without veering across the line into melodrama. One case in point is the recent widow’s bleak expression of hopelessness when describing the room in which her support group is held:
“Drab, large, as shapeless as something with four walls could be, so that while the room was rectangular, the boundaries felt ill-defined. Alternating between stuffy and chilly. Windows high up on the walls, offering squeaks of light but no view. Fluorescent lighting with a slight buzz. An unplugged coffee maker on a long table covered with a plastic, red-checked tablecloth with dark brown burn circles where someone had set down something hot. It was a room where sad people collected, people with vast problems. She stared at a wall calendar with a picture of a European castle, wondering why something seemed off, and finally realized she was looking at last month’s dates.”
Pietrzyk doesn’t tell us her character feels hopeless, nor do we see the young woman moping, shoulders sagging, as she drags herself into the room. Why? Because that would be melodramatic. Instead, as we see the room through the character’s eyes, we feel her heavyheartedness.
We see a concurrence of bleakness—this time expressed through anger—in grief counselor Ruth, when she refuses to call her doctor, refuses to schedule a breast biopsy, and lies to her friends about doing both. We feel her resentment when she takes control of what she worries may be the short amount of time she has left.
“People ramble through grief at their own pace—tiptoes to raging bulls—and Ruth does not judge. It’s not a race.
“No, what Ruth finds disturbing is the steady gnaw of anger as she listened to the widows speak that first night. She’s been tired lately, maybe, or about to get her period. Maybe that ill-advised Mexican meal. But today, home after work, after not calling the doctor, she realizes why: those bitches are alive, and she is dying.”
Again, the expression of emotion is restrained, yet ruthless, and in a story that deals with difficult topics such as death and cancer, this is crucial. There can be no histrionics, no clichés, nor any falsely callous song and dance. This careful balance when walking the fine line of emotional expression in writing is what allows readers to engage and immerse in the story and experience truthful emotions alongside and through our characters.