What makes something melodramatic?
May 24, 2005 11:18 PM   Subscribe

What makes something melodramatic? I have an idea of its definition, based on context; but would never use this word, since I'm not exactly sure -- what does it mean to you? I've known people who use the term to mean something like dramatic or overly dramatic or emotional, over-wrought or even hysterical. So, okay, dramatic; but why mellow?

I first encountered the word long ago, when I'd scan
TV Guide's movie listings, seeking out those labeled
"Science Fiction" -- the most common descriptive
was "Melodrama." Why not just "Drama"?
posted by Rash to Writing & Language (16 answers total)
The Wikipedia entry answers this question well.

And it's not melo- as in "mellow"; it's melo- as in "melody"
posted by mr_roboto at 11:31 PM on May 24, 2005

Yeah, nothing mellow about it.


1. Having the excitement and emotional appeal of melodrama: “a melodramatic account of two perilous days spent among the planters” (Frank O. Gatell).
2. Exaggeratedly emotional or sentimental; histrionic: “Accuse me, if you will, of melodramatic embroidery” (Erskine Childers).
3. Characterized by false pathos and sentiment.

Histrionic strikes me as the word most similar in meaning.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:05 AM on May 25, 2005

I'd say it's "melo"dramatic because it's not a tradegy. When I think "drama", I think tragedy except if the term is preceded by mellow. Dunno if that's widespread.
posted by ruelle at 12:06 AM on May 25, 2005

That is, histrionic is similar to what I think of as the everyday usage of the word to describe someone's behavior, not the story genre.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:07 AM on May 25, 2005

I'd say it's "melo"dramatic because it's not a tradegy. When I think "drama", I think tragedy except if the term is preceded by mellow. Dunno if that's widespread.

That's just wrong.

Rash: you did consult a dictionary on this before asking, right? What is it about the dictionary definition that confuses you?
posted by grouse at 12:34 AM on May 25, 2005

Tragedy is just one form of drama, ruelle. The Greeks recognized comedy as a subtype of drama, but usually today we see them as different. The most obvious other type of drama is the romance, but there are numerous ways of telling non-comedic stories that don't involve tragedy -- the bildungsroman, the satire, etc.

Melodrama is often thought of as cheap, overwrought drama with scant character development, but this need not be true; see opera, a true type of melo-musical-drama. For me the two important traits that define pejorative melodrama are falsity and contrivance. Think Who Shot J.R.? or, if you're not old enough, Titanic. It's not enough that Jack has a rival for Rose's affections -- why, Cal must be evil and contrive to have his private detective effectively murder Jack during the sinking! Now, Cameron did have his reasons -- the nature of the plot allows him to stage scenes in, around, and through the sinking ship. But Titanic is a classic melodrama, and so are most summer movies. I would posit that any very special episode of your favorite TV show is going to be a melodrama -- think Dr. Ross pulling a kid from an overflowing storm grate. Respectable melodrama can be found in the work of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg, and in a certain six-episode movie series.
posted by dhartung at 12:51 AM on May 25, 2005

Copious amounts of alcohol helps make any situation melodramatic
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 1:47 AM on May 25, 2005

Something that is melodramatic is dramatic solely for the sake of being dramatic. In other words, the drama is manufactured, not inherent.
posted by JPowers at 2:39 AM on May 25, 2005

Best answer: The original meaning of 'melodrama' is, as folks have noted, a drama accompanied by music; a play, for example, in which an orchestra accompanies. Here is definition (b) from the OED:

"b. Originally: a stage play, usually romantic and sensational in plot, and interspersed with songs, in which the action is accompanied by orchestral music appropriate to the various situations (now hist.). Later (as the musical element ceased to be regarded as essential): a play, film, or other dramatic piece characterized by exaggerated characters and a sensational plot intended to appeal to the emotions."

Definition (a) is: "A genre comprising any of the types of melodramatic work, esp. exciting by exaggeration and sensationalism, and often (chiefly in earlier use) accompanied by music appropriate to the action; the style of drama characteristic of such a piece."

Nowadays melodrama and melodramatic refer to anything that is 'overly' dramatic; but a better way to think about is probably in terms of addition to the basic form. Dhartung is onto this w/r/t Titanic, since there the already extant dramatic situation (the rivalry between Jack and Cal) is augmented by obviously additional and unnecessary material. But melodrama can exist only in moments of a more serious dramatic work when, for example, the score kicks in to make you feel SAD or FRIGHTENED, or when swoony music indicates LOVE. All through the early years of movies, for example, there were cheat-sheets that told performers in silent movie theaters and, later, movie directors which music to use for which scenes: e.g., "for love, use this piece by Elgar; for a chase scene, use this piece from Wagner," and so on. That is also melodrama, since the music is an obvious addition to the work.

People act melodramatically when they add to their 'natural' expression of feeling an element of canned drama. In both of these cases we recognize the melodramatic when it happens; and so usually melodrama involves some sort of distanced consciousness of the devices used to create feeling.
posted by josh at 7:17 AM on May 25, 2005

Histrionic is when someone is beyond reasoning with, and their voice/speech becomes histrionic, unintelligible screaming and such....
posted by svenskjenta at 7:46 AM on May 25, 2005

"Histrionic" doesn't mean "unintelligible". Where'd you get that idea? It means, roughly, "stagey" and "overdramatic" -- the root is from a Latin word for dancer that was then extended to refer to stage-players in general.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:49 AM on May 25, 2005

Oops, sorry, I believe the "dancer" part of the etymology was pre-Latin, and the word's entire Latin career was with the stage-player meaning.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:52 AM on May 25, 2005

I believe that svenskjenta has confused "histrionic" with "hysterical," but that's just a guess.

Tangentially, I like the idea of a word having to give up dancing in order to have a Latin career.
posted by anapestic at 8:21 AM on May 25, 2005

Response by poster: I think svenskjenta is confusing hysterical with histrionic. And grouse, yes, I checked the dictionary before posting my query, but naturally its definition wasn't nearly as colorful, detailed and explicit as this discussion -- thanks, all!
posted by Rash at 8:22 AM on May 25, 2005

Also, I may be wrong, but my sense is that the behavior that we currently call dramatic used to always be called melodramatic, and the current "dramatic" is just a shortening. The use of "drama" and "drama queen" and other derivatives to mean someone who's overly emotional is relatively recent. I think when I was younger, I was more likely to hear someone refer to "dramatic events" just to mean things that created a large impression and/or were surprising. There was little or no negative connotation.
posted by anapestic at 8:27 AM on May 25, 2005

Melodramatic almost always means that you are seeing a drama that is overly simplistic, with exaggerated situations and overwrought emotions. In a melodrama you can expect the bad guy to have a black hat and the good guy to have a white hat, and in general by the end of the story everyone will get what they deserve. The Lifetime network shows melodramas. Most television mini-series are melodramatic. Et cetera.
posted by Hildago at 9:50 AM on May 25, 2005

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