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




Voice, Language, and Perfect Endings

From time to time, Why The Writing Works will repost some of our earlier blogs. This entry was posted in February, 2012.

in Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Rhonda Browning White

Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford’s personal emancipation from a voiceless black woman who didn’t count for much in the grand scheme of her horizon, the Deep South, into a woman who explored the future, discovering strength in herself in spite of other’s opinions.

Strong themes run throughout the story—feminism, racism and classism, for example—but the thing resonant to me throughout is voice, or language, and the way the two intertwine. Metaphorically, Janie has little or no voice in the story, but relies on others to do the talking for her. This is true even as she relates her life story to best friend Pheoby in flashback, prompting Pheoby to repeat her story to others: “You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf” (6). This demonstrates Janie’s complete trust in Pheoby, but it also reveals Janie’s belief in the futility of talk, of voicing her opinion, bearing forth an argument, or trying to convince people to change their minds. “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Taint worth de trouble. . . . To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothing’ about” (6). Janie left home at sixteen with much to learn, and she returns having broadened her horizon (not only demographically, but emotionally, as well), and she is no longer as prejudiced as she was when she left.

Hurston’s liberal use of the Southern black vernacular spoken by her characters juxtaposed with the narrator’s rich, literary prose provides framework for the setting and underscores the sense of place in which the characters exist. This union of these two radically different styles of language adds depth and knowledge of the culture of 1930s Florida that environmental descriptions alone can’t provide. This change in voice mimics the distinctly different discernments of the scene as viewed through the eyes of Janie, who had never been there before and saw it as another “new horizon,” and Tea Cake, who knew from experience the hardscrabble life they’d live while inhabiting the Everglades. Hurston’s variation in these two interpretations of the place gives the scene a feeling of fact, depth and realism it wouldn’t have if both descriptions had been conveyed using the same regional dialect.

The story’s final paragraph returns to the narrator’s lyrical voice and ends with a reference to the horizon mentioned in the novel’s first paragraph and referred to throughout:

“The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came   and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. . . . She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (193).

An ending like this that references the beginning is a common trend in fiction, one that feels both necessary and natural. Had Hurston ended the story with Janie giving voice to her feelings, the story wouldn’t have had such power. Janie had finally learned what it meant to love, was at peace with the loss of that love, (because she felt honored to have experienced it for a time), and refused to share that glorious, private feeling of privilege with anyone else. She finally found her voice by defending herself and sharing her life story, but she determined to keep it to herself, to draw it close, cherish and protect it. This, in my opinion, is a perfect story ending.

Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper, 1998. Print.

The Spice of Backstory in Condit’s Starter House

by Rhonda Browning White

In order to move forward in a story, we must sometimes look backward. Readers need a certain amount of information to understand why a character acts the way she does, why she feels the way she does, and what makes her want to overcome the obstacles in her way. The trouble with backstory (aside from the fact the MS Word doesn’t recognize it as a real word), is that it stops the forward motion of your story. And if you’re not moving forward, well . . . you’re backing up. Readers want forward motion. We want momentum. We want action.

Fortunately, Sonja Condit has mastered the art of cleverly sprinkling backstory through her first novel, Starter House. Like salt and pepper (and a healthy touch of cayenne), Condit seasons her story by parceling out crucial background information—revealing it in thought, in action, and in dialogue—throughout the novel in brief snippets that never stop the forward motion of the story. In fact, the addition of backstory in Starter House actually serves to build ever-increasing tension and move the plot forward.

Starter House tells the story of Lacey and Eric, who seek and purchase Lacey’s dream home, which turns out to be haunted by an ominous presence only Lacey can sense. Condit immediately anchors readers in time and place and lets us know what her main characters want (the perfect house), while simultaneously providing crucial backstory—on the first page.

“It was already June, and the Miszlaks still hadn’t found a house. Eric wanted guarantees: no lead, asbestos, mold, termites, crime, or trouble. Lacey wanted triangles. ‘Triangles,’ Eric said, as if he’d never heard of such a thing. . . he with his binder of fact sheets organized by street name, she with her sketchbook, outside of their one hundred and eighth house. . . . She wished she could say, This is the one, I love it, for Eric’s sake. . . . They’d had enough of square houses, bland rooms no better than the motel’s she’ grown up in and the apartments they’d lived in together, houses with memory. They couldn’t live that way anymore, with the baby coming. ‘Triangles,’ she said, shaping one in the air with her hands. ‘Gables. Dormer windows’” (pg. 1).

We’re moving forward. We’re house-hunting. We’re feeling frustrated. As readers, we’re caught up in the forward motion (the action), the emotion (the frustration of looking at our hundred and eighth house), and yet we’re learning about Lacey’s and Eric’s personalities (he’s detailed, she’s a dreamer) and their past, through delicately sprinkled backstory. And all this happens on the first page. We haven’t lost momentum, because Condit has effectively parceled out tidbits of our characters’ pasts; the past months of house-hunting, their early cohabitation, Lacey’s childhood, even her recent pregnancy. And not once does Condit use flashback.

Also important in revealing backstory is withholding background information. Yes, you can pull a reader deeper into a story by concealing the past, while providing hints or glimpses of its importance. Condit subtly utilizes this technique, building immediate tension in the story, when Realtor CarolAnna Grey hesitates to sell the house to the couple. “Is there something wrong with this house,” Eric said (pg 6). The Realtor changes the subject, continuing to steer the couple toward other housing options, even telling the seller, Harry Razocky, “Harry, they don’t want it. . . . It’s not right” (pg 7).

Why don’t they want it?—as readers, we already know Lacey loves it. What is the Realtor hiding from them? Will they buy it? And more importantly, how can you as a reader stop turning pages, when a skilled author like Condit provides (and hides) just the right amount of spicy backstory to keep you intrigued? Simple answer: you can’t. You’ll have to read the rest of this riveting story to discover the answers to these spellbinding questions. As writers, we can strive for nothing more important than to entertain our readers in such a compelling, page-turning manner.

Works Cited

Condit, Sonja. Starter House. HarperCollins, 2013. Print.

The Perfectly Timed Lie: The Lie That Tells a Truth

 by Rhonda Browning White

 John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth is broken into three separate sections; “The Process” (3-115), which addresses writing habits and the writer’s life; “The Product” (119-264), a section tackling writing craft issues such as plotting, characterization, point of view and dialogue; and “Other Matters” (267-298), which discusses the importance of critical reading and also gives dozens of grammar, style and word-use tips for writers. In addition (and this is perhaps one of the things that endears this text to me), there are at least a hundred writing exercises and prompts that apply to each specific topic Dufresne discusses. The text is also sprinkled liberally with encouraging, sometimes humorous, quotations from well-known writers.

The chapter “Getting Her Up the Tree, Getting Her Down” (120-131), addresses story beginnings and endings. Story endings are a terrible sticking point for many writers. Dufresne provides a story example in this chapter in which the surprise ending of the example would best make a story beginning, which underscores that it’s important to write freely until we reach the crux of the story, then delete all that came before. Dufresne asserts that, “Endings shouldn’t be loose, shouldn’t drift or dissolve. They have to make a statement. They can be dramatic, but more often are muted, subtle” (125). This tells us that the ending of a resounding literary piece can’t simply go with the flow of what came before it; instead, the end must be evident in the beginning of the story, without repeating what has already happened. Tricky things, these endings. Dufresne also suggests ending a story with “a compelling visual image of the central character, one that is so resonant and compelling that it stays with us when we close the book” (126). I love that idea, don’t you?

The writing exercises and prompts you’ll find throughout this text are inspiring. Utilizing these writing-problem-specific exercises will do more than simply help you fill a page with words; they will help tackle specific areas where your writing needs improvement. This book supportively and helpfully addresses so many writing problems—both craft and style issues—in one place. One inspiring, liberating place. My copy of this text is tabbed, dog-eared, underlined and annotated. It has earned an important spot on my desk, within reach. For me, it is the right guide to writing fiction at exactly the right time. I hope you’ll find it perfectly timed for your writing, as well.

Work Cited

Dufresne, John. The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

What’s My Name?

by Rhonda Browning White

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (II, ii, 1-2).

Sorry, Juliet, I disagree.

In fiction writing, a character’s name is more than a mere identification label—it defines her, sets her apart, reveals something (perhaps something otherwise hidden) about her personality. What would Nabokov’s Lolita be like, if her name were Mildred? Does the new name evoke the image of an innocent, yet stunning, nymphet? Not so much. Of course every word in a story matters, but a character’s name is something that, if well chosen, will cause your readers to remember your character and your story for years, even decades, to come.

Annie Proulx is a master at naming characters. Who doesn’t feel a little thrill when coming across the character names in her short story “Pair a Spurs” from Close Range: Wyoming Stories? Who could expect a man named Car Scrope to amount to anything, or imagine a woman known only as Mrs. Freeze to show warmth and compassion to anyone? (150-86) Of course, she doesn’t.

Flannery O’Connor chose excellent names for her characters, even allowing one character in “Good Country People” to change her name from Joy to Hulga as her personality soured (271-91). Nor can we forget the name of the Bible salesman, Manley Pointer—a phallic name representing a man out to screw everyone he meets, if ever there was one.

Think outside the box when choosing a name for character. Avoid lazy tricks, like naming them after your own family members, or choosing stock names like John and Jane Smith. Leave Jack to his beanstalk, too. Make sure your character’s name is age appropriate. Novice writers often choose a name that his popular now for a character born fifty years ago, and it sounds false.  Also, take care not to give your characters names that sound similar, or that begin with the same letter. A story full of names like Kathy, Kristy, Karen, Sharon and Sherri will drive a reader batty.

When you chose names that are vividly memorable, those names may help link the characters (and thus the story) to the reader with some permanence. Reveal a concealed flaw, or declare an obvious trait when assigning names. Take your time in choosing each moniker, even each nickname. It’s important. Everything is in a name.

 Works Cited

Nabokov, Vladimir. LolitaNew York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 1971. Print.

Proulx, Annie. Close range: Wyoming stories. New York: Scribner, 1999. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet.

Fifth week round-up

Fifth week round-up highlights posts in the last few months:

May’s roundup

History and Humanity in Summary

A Different Sense of Place: Where a Story Begins and Ends

I Want Every Poem to Change My Life. No Pressure

Blogs You Should Be Reading

Winging It

Down the Rabbit Hole: Growing Strangeness in The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club

The Snow Child

Barry Hannah’s Monstrous American Hero

“Words that burn”: Honesty in Denise Duhamel’s Blowout

June’s round-up:

Writing Tips to Get You Through the Summer Doldrums

Diamond Mining

Biblical Allusion in Flannery O’Conner’s The Violent Bear It Away

Just Breathe

July’s round-up:

Lines That Linger

Repetition in Tanya Olson’s “Notes from Jonah’s Lecture Series”

The Threat of Violence

Werewolves and the War on Terror: A Literary Snob on Betrayal

Literary Magazine Highlight-Glimmer Train, Slice

Contributor News-Rhonda Browning White

Contributor Rhonda Browning White has a post on Ploughshare’s Writing Lessons blog where she writes about her experience as a student in Converse College‘s low-residency MFA program

Epistolary Writing: Why it Works in Fair and Tender Ladies

by Rhonda Browning White

Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies is an epistolary novel–a novel created with documents–written entirely from the viewpoint of protagonist Ivy Rowe Fox, through her consecutive letters to family and friends. The letters in the first part of the novel are written with many misspellings, as Ivy is a child around twelve years old at that point in the story. This brief period of phonetic spelling takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s certainly worth the effort. As Ivy matures and becomes better educated, so does the quality of her writing, though the entire epistolary novel remains true to the Appalachian vernacular of the early 1900s, the time in which the story is set.

The stories’ characters, as revealed through Ivy’s writing, come to life. The private nature of the epistolary novel gives the reader the sense of snooping, or eavesdropping, on the narrator’s private life, and thus one feels that intimate secretes are being revealed—important and covert things we might not otherwise learn, if we don’t continue reading. There is an underlying urgency for the reader to discover what happens next.

Though Smith chose letters as the form for her epistolary novel, diary entries or other documents may work equally well; however, the letter format allows readers to examine how Ivy speaks one way to, say, her sister, and yet another way to her teacher. We see myriad facets of her personality. Because the letters are written over many decades of Ivy’s life, we see Ivy’s emotional growth in a way that the traditional narrative form would not allow us to observe so clearly.

It is important for us as writers to always strive to improve our writing skill, and a great way to encourage growth is through the challenge of experimenting with new forms. As we consider the form of epistolary writing, let’s notice how each of Ivy’s letters follows the traditional storytelling rule of beginning, middle and end. Though the letters are brief, the narrative arc is present and intact in each, giving the reader a sense of satisfaction and of complicit understanding of Ivy’s most personal and private thoughts. We know her intimately, and because we know her, we care about her, and we are deeply invested in her story. This exciting writing form offers unequaled intimacy for reading, which is why the writing works.

Work Cited

Smith, Lee. Fair and Tender Ladies. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993. Print.

Regional Universality in Given Ground

by Rhonda Browning White

Ann Pancake’s Given Ground consists of twelve short stories that strike me as the author’s search for truth, for an uncovering of life’s harshest realities, a means of baring them to the light, so that we can all learn from them. Pancake uses dialect common to many rural parts of West Virginia in a way that is conversely harsh and poetic, but is nonetheless true to what I know, having lived twenty-four years in those same mountains. It is more than regional vernacular that causes Pancake’s stories to resonate long after readers close the book’s covers, as the subjects she writes about (such as teen pregnancy, natural disasters, dysfunctional families), affect people from all areas, social classes and levels of education.  

Though the topics of Pancake’s stories reference the human condition, the cadence of the writing and the unpretentious lyricism is what makes these stories unique. Most sentences in the collection are carefully crafted so that each reveals something important—character depth, fresh sensory description, realistic setting—so that the reader’s time is never wasted. For example, in “Crow Season,” Pancake’s narrator describes the family farm from where he sits in the bed of a pickup truck: “The way the land lays in here looks more like a human body than any land I’ve ever seen, pictures or real. And I often wonder if that’s the reason for the hold it has on us” (116). This kind of setting description does more than depict mountain farmland; it reveals the narrator’s inner battle with his home, his sense of place. We understand that he has the desire to move on, to get out, but is unable to leave the place behind.

Narrator Lindy learns, in Pancake’s “Revival,” that even when we physically leave a place behind, we can’t always get away from it. “Closed up in her head, the odor of anonymous sweat that had hit her when she walked in comes to her as familiar as the snow smell did. It is family sweat. The smell of how her mother sweats. Of how Lindy herself sweats. . . . For several minutes, Lindy has never left out of here at all” (19). This is the sense of place each of us, Appalachian or not, takes with us, and Pancake makes the reader acknowledge that no matter how far we travel, our history follows  us.     

Likewise, Pancake reveals complexity in her characters not only through dialogue, but through the character’s internal thought and self-assessment, also demonstrated in “Crow Season” when the narrator discusses how he looks like his late father: “I keep no mirrors in my place. I tell what I look like in others’ faces, me make-them-gasp identical. I know that I’ve grown into a ghost. Carrying in my face, in how my body’s hung together, I how I speak and move, the man who died and made me take over the looks of him. But I’m used to my outsides. What scares me is if it’s printed on my insides, too” (119). The phrases, “how my body’s hung together,” and “the man who died and made me take over the looks of him,” are easily recognizable as regional dialect, but instead of coming across as words from someone plain and ill-bred, phrases like this reflect the poetic language of people who experience visceral emotion—and that is each of us.

These common emotions expressed in uncommonly metrical dialect are what unites the regionally unique characters with universal readers. It is a lesson to writers to ensure that, though our stories may be precisely set in any particular region and may utilize the local vernacular, it is important that they address desires, fears and emotions felt universally, in order to be effective. It is these naked truths of the human condition that, when illuminated as in Pancake’s writing, make stories successful across regions and years.

 Work Cited

Pancake, Ann. Given Ground. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001. Print.

Lions and Mongooses and Footnotes: Oh, My!


Rhonda Browning White

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of Oscar de Leon and his family and their emigration and reculturization from the Dominican Republic to the United States. More importantly, it tells of their fuku; the curse that plagues their family and fouls every good intention and goal they set.

The story is narrated by Yunior, Oscar’s dear and only friend—despite that Yunior failed Oscar numerous times. Yunior doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, but instead relates Oscar’s childhood and rise to geekdom, then switches to Oscar’s sister Lola’s coming-of-age clash with her mother Beli, next recounting Beli’s life in the Dominican Republic (DR), then Yunior’s college experience with Oscar at Rutger’s, then tells Oscar’s grandfather Abelard’s story of his life and death in the DR, and finally Yunior relates the end of Oscar’s story—the end of Oscar’s life. Why would Yunior would narrate a story that began generations before his own birth, we wonder. We realize, by the end, that even though the story is presented to us as Oscar’s story (based on the title, prologue and first chapter), the fuku is the actual central character, the protagonist. This family curse introduced in the beginning is the common thread throughout every chapter

The novel is rife with footnotes clarifying historical events, and at first, one might find these off-putting (they may initially pull readers from suspended disbelief and drive one into a fact-finding mission). Once readers find the story’s rhythm, however, they’ll come to appreciate these interruptions. The indirect dialogue and lack of quotation marks helps one feel as if Yunior sits alongside relating the story, therefore the footnotes become as natural asides that occur in any conversation. The footnotes improved my personal understanding of the DR’s (and therefore the characters’) history, while the numerous Spanish phrases assisted the narration in coming across as natural for an immigrant.

In addition to the superhuman-like fuku, appearances are made by a talking mongoose, a black-pelted golden-eyed lion and a man with no face: these characters bring with them salvation, protection and (in the case of the faceless man) foreshadowing of imminent destruction. Oscar often disappeared into a fantasy world of video games, graphic fiction and sci-fi novels, and Diaz asks the reader to join that fantasy world, as well, by introducing these creatures into his story. If Oscar and his family truly believe in fuku and zafa, in talking mongooses, in black rescue-lions and faceless men, then their fatalism is more understandable, their passive acceptance of impending doom more explicable, perhaps even logical.

Utilizing interlinked stories that work as a novel, footnotes in fiction, and supernatural characters that mimic or mirror human character’s emotions are tools that, with practice and effort, can add depth, understanding and passion to a serious writer’s work. Diaz’s story serves as the perfect example of how these tools can be successfully used.

Work Cited

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: A Novel. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.