Saturday, June 09, 2012

OVER THE TOP


My critique group consists of folks with a wide range of reading tastes and writing styles.  We frequently have minor issues during critiques over what amounts to the literary versus genre debate.  One popped up the other day when several lines of one member’s story were deemed “melodramatic” by another member.  There were suggestions that the writer should “tone it down.”

This got me thinking on the subject.  And thinking on my part often leads to a blog post.  Here it is.

First, my general rule on writing literary versus genre fiction is that, if you’re writing literary fiction, “tone it down,” if you’re writing genre fiction, “turn it up.”  Of course, literary writers like Cormac McCarthy turn it way the hell up.  (Read Blood Meridian.)  Ray Bradbury, who recently died but who was accepted as a “literary” writer by the establishment, turned it up, at least in works like The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

A key, though, is that a work has to have coherence.  One reason Bradbury’s prose is accepted by the literary establishment is because it was so clearly a total package.  His prose was bright, surreal, powerfully dramatic, but it was also consistent throughout.  Such prose is a problem only if it is “mixed” in with more restrained language. 

Say I wrote for example: “Tom stared out his window at the drizzle that fell steadily from a gray sky.  He didn’t like the rain.  He’d never liked it.  It changed his mood for the worse.  It made him feel empty.  And when he was empty the depression tended to find him.  That depression was like moving into Satan’s apartment in the black bowels of hell, where the only light was the scarlet screaming of blood and sin.”

The last line is way over the top from what came before, and I certainly consider it melodramatic.  However, there are several issues to be considered with that line. 1: While it’s over the top to me, not everyone would necessarily agree.  2: Even those who agree that the line is over the top are likely to remember it, and being remembered is generally a good thing.  You don’t sell books by writing material that isn’t memorable.  3: In a differently styled story, with a different kind of build up, that line would fit perfectly and wouldn’t be judged as over the top at all, at least not by the folks who read (and buy) that kind of fiction.  (Like me.)

Melodrama lies in the eyes of the reader.  Many readers prefer what I will call “restrained” prose to unrestrained prose.  Others do not, and there is little doubt that restrained prose sells less well than unrestrained.  Consider “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a very non-restrained work.  You should use the “look inside” feature at Amazon to read a few excerpts from that.  And it sold in the millions.  No one remembers or talks about “restrained” fiction.  

I think what writers have to do with their stories and prose is to seek a consistency across the entire piece.  If your language is generally heightened, then more pedestrian phrases will call unfortunate attention to themselves.  But if your prose is restrained, then heightened phrases will clearly stand out and likely evoke cries of “melodrama.”  

In other words, and seeking to be memorable at the risk of being called melodramatic, I’ll say: Set your prose mower wherever you like, high or low, but then leave it the same for the whole piece. 

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38 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think I'm rather consistent - neither melodramatic nor literary.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

I confess I like mine over the top in fiction, mixed in with anything. I liked your example a lot. The term 'Literary' and who decides it is a joke to me. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, I believe that's the ultimate key.

Bernard, I'm the same way with fiction. I like the over the top stuff. That's a main reason I both read and write.

Merisi said...

"And, as this young, almost conventionally handsome man walks purposefully past you, you note his fine brown, breeze-blown hair, his pale grey suit ", then seven lines about the gentleman's attire, ending with "... just as he's almost conventionally handsome, so is he also almost a dandy." *

"Almost conventionally handsome" twice - and I was flabbergasted at the first mention already. How would you read that? ;-)

*) William Boyd, Waiting for Sunrise

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, that's a fine example. I actually liked the last line — there's no harm in building something up to a crescendo. Bring it on. I thought a line like that would fit in well with genres like sf, fantasy and horror. "Melodramatic" or "unrestrained" prose catches the eyeballs if done really well.

David J. West said...

Loved this Charles-but you already know which way I lean.

I had to laugh that the "literary" examples you gave are the only ones I actually enjoy in that spectrum.

I know what I like to read (and thus write). I have yet to find much of anyone telling me to "restrain", guess I'm not much for that company.

Chris said...

My head tends to hurt when I try and make these kinds of separations. Good writing to me is like obscenity: I knows it when I sees it. It's almost visceral. Some lines will jump off the page when they are exceptionally good or meaningful, and likewise if they are bad or jarring. One just hopes for more of the former than the latter!

Deka Black said...

I'm more a over the top reader.. and when i write, too. because is what i find fun. But above all, i think like many others: first of all is to be coherent.

Oscar said...

Sounds like good advice to me.

Travis Cody said...

That's solid advice.

There was an exercise I tried several years ago. The object was to write a short piece of flash fiction, then find 10 key words in the piece and swap them out for different words. I didn't realize it at the time, but some of the changes tilted the tone of a particular sentence from restrained to melodramatic, or the reverse.

Question of style perhaps, but I've always believed in trying to remain consistent with the language I choose. I don't mind a little melodrama, if it fits the flow of the story I'm trying to tell. Perhaps that comes from my first instincts as a writer, which tend toward the poetic rather than prosaic.

Ron Scheer said...

I think the correct response to a comment like "That's melodramatic" is to ask, "And your point is?"

Turning up the melodrama is fine when it's plausible within the imaginative world of the story. Maybe that's what you mean by consistency.

I, too, like the example you give, as it illustrates the fragile hold the character has on sanity.

laughingwolf said...

i'm with bernard :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Merisi, egads, that's pretty bad.

Prashant, I think the line is a good one on it's own. It would have to be used in the right context, though, the buildup, as you say.

David J., I know when certain folks tell me to dial it back that I've got to push it to 11!

Chris, it's kind of a thankless task doing this kind of thinking, but I actually find it fun. Just the way my head bangs, I guess.

Deka, I think that's it. It's just plain fun.

Oscar, thanks, man.

Travis cody, I was thinking later I could have brought the 'poetic" into this essay and made some sense. I may do that later, because that's another issue but it impacts the "melodrama" of prose.

Ron Scheer, yes, it has to be consistent with the world view. I don't know, I thought that last line was pretty far over the top. :)

Laughingwolf, as am I.

Rick said...

Well said, Charles

ivan said...

Dunno.
I am pariapatetic, whatever the hell that means. Wandering through mediums, I suppose.

I kind of like the late Janis Joplin.

She sets the mood early in one of her more moody songs, "Ball and Chain"

S.s.s. sittin' by the window

Lookin' at the rain..."

Ty Johnston said...

When writing, I find I don't consciously make a decision whether to be melodramatic or not. I simply go with whatever I feel is appropriate for the tone of the story. After, looking back at what I've written, then I can say to myself, "Oh, yeah, that's more literary," or not.

When reading, generally I don't make such a distinction, or at least it's not at the front of my thoughts, even when reading. Either a book is enjoyable to me or it's not, and the style of prose is only one factor in that equation (though often a big factor).

David Cranmer said...

I've never understood the Lit vs. Gen debate. If I like it, I like it. Whether it is F. Scott or Lester Dent.

the walking man said...

Sounds like reasonable advice to me but I normally shoot for over the top and beyond the pale.

sage said...

I like your musings on writing and find them helpful to ponder. Thanks!

Charles Gramlich said...

Rick, thankee

Ivan, sounds like you need to get that "pariapatetic" thing looked at. Could be a problem, man.

Ty Johnstone, I don't do it consciously either, though I did for my example. For me in reading, it makes a difference only in the first few paragraphs/pages, when I'm easing into the story. After that, I'm like you.

David Cranmer, I'm a big critic of Lit actually. I think it's way overrated by some, at the expense of genre.

Mark, then you have already mastered the secret. ;)

Sage, it's kind of fun to think about anyway.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Such an interesting post, Charles. It seems to me the final sentence was what made me want to read more.

Aimless Writer said...

Melodrama is in the eye of the beholder. I never thought of wondering if what I wrote was too over the top or not.
I think too much makes me want to turn the page but in the right place and time in the story sometimes it works.
I liked the piece on depression. Anyone who's ever had an issue with that would read your passages and go, "Yes! That's it exactly."

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, I think it just came too soon in the tone. and was overly strong. Toned down slightly it could have worked.

Aimless, I guess it makes my point, it's hard to tell when something goves over the top or not.

cloudia charters said...

While I admire REAL writers who critique and know stuff like this, I must retain a certain silence on these matters the better to listen to the voices in my head that dictate stories, poems & devices that I could not otherwise hope to achieve.

Evidence (your interesting comments)that my posts
contain something of value to someone of your talent, smarts, and humanity is a constant source of inexplicable daily joy to me, Charles.
[BTW I managed to maintain a 4.0 gpa when I returned to university to complete my BA in my 40's]

Thanks for the free therapy!


Aloha from Waikiki,
Comfort Spiral
> < } } ( ° >

SzélsőFa said...

coherence is the key, it seems.
i'm so glad i popped in (again) for this useful post.
it also draws my attention to some tiny, but important aspect of writing notes on someone else's writing, which i frequently do, on a friendly basis.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, I occassionally have older students in my classes and they almost always knock the top off of the grades because they know how to learn

Szelsofa, glad you enjoyed.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

I never thought of the difference between the two that way and it makes complete sense. Thanks!

Erik Donald France said...

Couldn't agree more.

I take an eclectic approach and never care if something is deemed "literary" or "genre" -- it's all writing. Consistency in a work (in whatever form) is appreciated, certainly, unless clearly telegraphed as a morph-in-progress.

Erik Donald France said...

Couldn't agree more.

I take an eclectic approach and never care if something is deemed "literary" or "genre" -- it's all writing. Consistency in a work (in whatever form) is appreciated, certainly, unless clearly telegraphed as a morph-in-progress.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rachel, I'm glad it does. I wasn't sure it would. :)

Erik, Yeah, I've seen the morphing happen and done well. It's cool when it works. hard, though, I imagine.

Jess * Jessie * Jessy said...

Wonderful post! I'm with Chris--headache.

jodi said...

Never one for restraint, personally I don't mind when a certain line stands out. It can catch you off guard, and I like that!

Chris Benjamin said...

Great advice, Charles. Your example cracked me up - definitely comes at the reader from no where in that paragraph. I think literary fiction could use a little more over the top though - a little more freewheeling.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jess, take a martini and call me in the morning!

Jodi, I'm not a big fan of restraint either, at least in writing.

Chris, I suspect it's coming, although slowly.

Mimi Lenox said...

Excellent explanation! At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I will say no more.

Sidney said...

I love "Something Wicked This Way Comes," which achieves on so many levels, as a genre novel, as a contemplation on life and aging and in a poetic way. There was a New Yorker, I think, article the other day about the lines blurring more and more, and it's certainly true. Chandler and Lovecraft are in Library Of America editions and Bradbury will be.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mimi, a little melodrama never hurt!

Sidney, hard to believe Bradbury isn't already. that's kind of ridiculous that he's not. but there is still something of a bias against fantasy.

Shauna Roberts said...

Great post, Charles. Thanks.

I don't think anyone else has mentioned this, but your rule of thumb applies to scenes. You can get away in literary fiction with a boring scene in which people sit around the kitchen table and drink coffee, but in genre fiction the scenes, too, get dialed up. That coffee better be poisoned, or some of the people better be aliens, or a meteorite needs to crash through the kitchen ceiling killing someone, or better yet, the scene could take place somewhere else while the people are doing something exciting, and all of the above complications occur.