Drama, or Melodrama? The Fine Line of Emotion

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.

 Gettysburg Review Winter 2013

 

 

 

South85 Journal

South85stack-1South85 Journal is the official literary journal of the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program.

“I won’t change anything the first year,” I said to both retiring Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gray and Contributing Editor Rick Mulkey when I took over as Editor-in-Chief of South85 Journal this past December.

That was before I led my first staff meeting at the Converse Low-Residency MFA program, where I was inspired by the enthusiasm of the staff.  Not only did all of the previous staff members (except Sarah Gray, of course) decide to stay, but quite a few new people joined us:  David Colodney, Kristi Hébert, Rebecca Landau, Connie Thompson, and Jacob Allard.

I left the meeting with my mind racing with ideas about what to do with everyone who was interested in serving our journal.  Improvements I knew we needed to make – like a weekly blog, a social media presence, a review section for the journal, and a brand – became possible immediately rather than in the months – or even years – to come. We now have a Blog Editor, a Review Editor, an Artistic Director, and a Social Media Director.

With these new positions, we have created a logo, redesigned our site, started posting to our blog weekly, begun conversations on Facebook and Twitter, and planned reviews for our upcoming issues.  In addition, we have kept up with our regular task of reviewing work submitted to us for our 2014 issue.

So, if you haven’t visited our website lately (or ever), please stop by.  If you like what you see, here are three ways you can support us…  and none of them involving donating or spending any money: `

1.  Read

One of the most important things you can do for any literary journal to read  it. As much as writers say they write for the love of writing, writers also want to be read. And without readers, there would be no reason for literary journals to exist. So, check out our past issues. If you like what you see, sign up for our e-mail newsletter, and we’ll let you know when the next issue is available. Also, visit our weekly blog for a little literary inspiration. You can subscribe to it using your favorite RSS reader, or sign up to receive posts in your inbox.

2.  Contribute

If you are a reader, a writer, or an artist, we want to see your work! If you love to read and want to tell others about good books, join our staff as a reviewer. If you’re a writer or an artist, you can contribute your work to our journal. Our reading period ends April 30, so don’t delay if you have something good to show us! We are looking for poetry, creative non-fiction essays, short stories, and visual art. Also, we have a weekly blog where you can share your thoughts on all things literary with other likeminded people. Visit our submissions guidelines page for information on all of these categories.

3.  Participate

We are not a static, stuffy journal of the past! We want our readers and contributors to be a part of the conversation. Plug in by following us on Twitter and liking us on Facebook. We are planning some fun contests using these two outlets starting this summer, so you don’t want to miss them.

Thanks in advance for your support!  We look forward to seeing you online, and please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any ideas about how we can improve our journal.

Debby DeRosa holds a BA in English from the University of South Carolina-Columbia and an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College.  In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of South85 Journal, she is the Marketing Manager of Five Star Plumbing Heating Cooling in Greer, SC, and she freelances as a copywriter and content developer.