While no beta, CP or my alpha reader has described my polished manuscript's main character as being melodramatic (ok, not in the last 10 versions or so -- early on, yes, my alpha did make quite a few comments about it), I ended up with two big take-aways from Ellen Brock's YouTube Novel Boot Camp posting from a few years ago.
How'd I get there in the first place? Looking for a fix to a totally different issue that I've heard repeatedly from betas and CPs of the MS.
What I keep hearing is that they want more backstory, more of the world's structure, to understand why my MC feels the way he does at the very beginning. This gets expressed in a variety of ways, but I know they're not asking for an info dump. By the time they make it past the beginning ten or so chapters, when my character is analyzing the case and the clues he finds, they feel all is made clear -- or clearer, I guess. But initially, they want to know why my character feels the way he feels.
And I think it's because I did exactly what Ms. Brock describes. As a newbie writer, I swung too far to the "showing" side and didn't do enough "telling" -- which she defines as introspection -- early on. It's only after finding her video and her explanation that I was able to identify that's what I was doing, and come up with a fix.
Here are my notes from her YouTube session. It's more of a transcript, interspersed with my thoughts and how I plan to use her advice. You may choose to use her advice differently. Maybe your MS has different issues. But what I've found is that if I don't take notes and write about whatever new wonderful tool I've found,I don't internalize the advice / technique and I subsequently don't USE it.
This was just one session that resonated with a specific issue I'm having / a mistake I think I made with my current MS.
Brock starts by defining melodrama as "when the drama comes across as unrealistic, silly, over-the-top, the reader isn't really buying into this emotional expression, and it's not working the way you need it to."
She states this disconnect typically happens for two reasons:
1. The writer tries to show emotions -- exclusively. (Bingo! She had me right there. I realized I was doing this, early on, but either wasn't aware of it or didn't see a way to fix the issue. It was how I wrote, in early versions of my MS.)According to Brock, "the problem with this is that in real life, we tend to try to hide our emotions in most situations. It's not very common to show them, maybe with our closest friends or loved ones, but in life in general we wouldn't have these big external depictions of our emotions. We typically try to stay in control, act like adults and not have melt downs in public, sighing, gasping, clasping hands."
Very, very true.
She has two diagnoses, which I found very interesting.
1. She says, when as a writer you're relying too much on showing, you can sometimes have characters that are "so forthcoming with their feelings that it can come across as unnatural." (OK, this is not my MC's issue. But it's good info to know, in any case.) Now, she makes a point of emphasizing, she's not saying, don't show emotions. Showing, painting, illustrating an emotion has the potential to be a strong way of conveying it, but she cautions: "What happens when you're writing a novel, you end up having the same emotions coming up over and over. (Yep. I've written about The Emotion Thesaurus. As much as I love it, and recommend using it, this tome can actually exacerbate the process she lays out, especially if you're a novice writer and unaware of what you're doing, or only vaguely aware of it.) Your character is scared and anxious in a majority of scenes. If you're relying exclusively, or almost exclusively, on showing emotions, the problem is, you're not going to want to repeat the same descriptions over and over again. Initially your character's heart is pounding, and then her heart is slamming against her ribs, and then her heart is knocking against her lungs, and you keep coming up with slightly different and slightly more intense descriptions of basically the same thing. This often results in an increase in the severity of the description, so not only are you using a variety of descriptions, you also make the showing element more and more severe."
Yep. My MC was a crying, blubbering mess in the beginning drafts. My alpha, my husband, caught it and demanded I give him other emotional tags. While I didn't swing quite this far, I did make a concerted effort to "stay out of my MCs head" while I was writing his emotional reactions -- and therein lies the issue.
2. Brock says the other cause is when an author adopts the opposite approach, when the writer tells emotions almost exclusively. (This is not my issue, but I do need to learn to write more of this "telling' in my MC's voice. My MC needs to do more of what she calls "introspection," actually. It will take more editing to fix, but...what the heck? Why not try?) Here's her diagnosis, and it's disturbingly similar to the first one: "When you rely on telling, the telling will get more and more severe. First, the character is scared, then she's scared half to death, then she's the most scared she's ever been in her entire life, and the problem is, it's very hard to create degrees of emotions in the reader when you're just telling, when you're just stating, this is more dramatic, scarier, more embarrassed, or sadder than before. It's hard to convey those degrees to the reader through telling. Telling doesn't allow the reader to really experience it and really connect with it, so there's often not a lot of strength to that kind of writing."
She goes on to say that often writers will try both methods (and here I think she meant, exclusively -- swing from one extreme to the other, without mixing them. It's that whole "show don't tell" c-r-@-p rule that gets bandied about on writing boards, FB groups and other social media as gospel. Anyone who's read extensively knows, the best authors do both. Regularly. It's how we get into the character's heads. So why did I swing one direction -- showing? I think because I was trying to "show" in other contexts, pull his thoughts out of his head and convert them to dialogue.). They try to rely exclusively on telling. They read something that says showing emotions is a better choice, and then they'll rely on showing, exclusively. Then they'll get frustrated, because the character is still not quite as relatable as the writer wants them to be, readers aren't emotionally connecting to their work.
And this is the feedback I kept getting, but was didn't know what to do about it. Thank you Ms. Brock! I think this is an apt diagnosis of my MC's issue, and in general, my writing in my first MS.
And then for my Eureka! moment! This really resonated with me:
"Here's the key: most writers don't need to get better at conveying emotions. (Eureka! Solution, right here. I needed to hear this.) It makes sense to think that, because the emotional connection isn't happening. It's logical to conclude you need to get better at describing emotion. But that's not true."
Brock says "most writers do not need to get better at describing emotions, they need to get better at introspection: what your character thinks, how they interpret the world, how they interpret their emotions, that is a lot more important that what they feel. (And here I felt angels were singing from on high. Thank you, Ms. Brock! You offer a solution. It's up to me to implement it, but it's a diagnosis / treatment or solution.)
She further expounded that, "the emotional description is common. We all feel the same in stressful situations. Describing their emotion doesn't tell the reader anything about your character. The emotion is not special. It's not unique. It's just the obvious reaction to that situation.
What is special and unique is what your character thinks (sic -- in those circumstances). What you want to do is convey what is unique and special about your character's reaction (I daresay this is voice, and this develops further into my MS than beta readers want. They want it up front, right away, to slip into his head while they're reading, and I don't give them enough to do that.), their flavor of the emotion, their unique way of responding, what do they think, what parts of the situation stand out to them, what are their observations. Those things are way more powerful than just the emotion itself."
She goes on to state:
What your character thinks and how they interpret things -- that's what makes them unique, that's what helps the reader to connect to them. It doesn't matter if you show or tell the emotions. It's the introspection that will make the writing work. If you nail the introspection, everything else about the emotion will fall into place. The reader will connect with your character, and the emotion will hit the reader. (This is what I need to go back and do. Evaluate my MS and identify the spots that need this. Looking back at it, I can see where beta readers have already identified these spots for me, so I'll go back through their feedback again, and take a look at rewriting those scenes. I guess it's natural for some writers to do this. It was not in DL, not for me. Writing is a learning process. I learn by making mistakes. And I still have a lot to learn.)
Often there is no need for physical description of the emotion (and I would add -- remember she said that's common, unremarkable, not unique). We get it from the character's thoughts. You can use telling. It emphasizes the intention of the introspection.
Introspection adds to the dialogue, too. It means so much more than just a simple articulation of the (telling the) emotion. It's unique to the character the way it's described. It shows how the character is interpreting what's going on, and that's unique to the character's perspective. The reader likes to have that unique perspective.
Thank you, Ms. Brock! I've got rewriting to do, but I have a solution in mind, and implementing it is just a few keystrokes away... thank you!