Reality: The Avoidance of Melodrama

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Reality: The Avoidance of Melodrama

A consistent differentiator we see at ScriptArsenal between pro and amateur screenplays is the inclusion of melodrama. This can manifest itself in various ways, but most typically shows up as overreaching. If your characters are screaming, “Noooooo!!!!!!” a half dozen times in a script, that’s one sign you may be indulging in too much melodrama.

A film that nails this, and a worthy example for screenwriters to study, is the Best Picture winner SPOTLIGHT. Late in the film, SPOTLIGHT dances nimbly around a scene that, in most scripts (and produced films) would probably tip over a bit into melodrama.

Michael Keaton’s journalist visits an old friend, an insider, someone he knows at this point has intimate knowledge of the Catholic church’s cover up of abusive priests in Boston. The men are friends, so the insider’s wife greets Keaton warmly.

The insider takes one look at Keaton and calmly asks his wife to give them a minute. Keaton presents the insider with a list of names, and tells him they’ve found cover up stories on seventy priests. He claims he needs confirmation from the insider to be able to run the story.

Calmly (this is the crucial part), the insider asks if Keaton is out of his mind. Keaton pressures the insider to do the right thing, essentially. The insider points a finger and takes offense at being told what to do.

He defends himself as doing his job. He tells Keaton to get out of his house. Keaton leaves. As he walks to his car, we hear the insider say, “Hey!” The expectation is of an explosion, maybe even physical violence, but instead the insider’s next words hint more at guilt/shame (“You come to my home and lay this shit on me?”)

The insider flips the blame onto Keaton, asking where he was when all this happened, and what took him so long. But in the end, he asks for the list of names, and gives Keaton the confirmation. Without another word, he goes back to his house.

No one rants and raves in this scene. Keaton could easily have screamed at this guy, and blamed him. The insider could have done the same. Instead, this is a scene between two conflicted, compromised, messy human beings. And that’s why it works.

How do you avoid melodrama in your writing?

What movies do you believe handle the avoidance of melodrama well?

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