The Single Difference Between Cinematic Drama and Melodrama
What's the difference between drama and melodrama in features and television?
This is one of the most highly-debated subjects in screenwriting — drama versus melodrama.
When you search for the core definition of those two words, the debate only intensifies.
Here we explore the definitions of each term and offer a single, core difference between them.
Drama can be best defined as a state, situation, or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces. While other definitions can be found, this is best applied to the cinematic context of film and television. Screenplays and teleplays focus on situations or series of events that involve interesting conflict — with the best kind of drama containing conflict that is intense and cathartic. Conflict is everything in film and television. Without it, there is no story to tell. Nothing is interesting about a character that doesn't struggle in some way, shape, or form.
Drama is also recognized as a specific genre of storytelling, featuring realistic characters forced to deal with true-to-life issues and conflicts. Yes, there is drama found within superhero movies, spy thrillers, and suspenseful horror stories. However, a drama — as defined by genre definitions — is a story that is embedded explicitly within reality, often involving characters that audiences can identify with because the conflicts they face are every-day struggles.
Melodrama can be best defined as a story characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization. You see, melodrama is an offshoot of drama. It involves the same elements necessary to create drama — conflict, situations or a series of events, and characters dealing with the conflict at hand within the story. However, melodrama is an enhanced version of drama, taking interesting and intense conflicts and accentuating them for effect.
Melodrama is also a specific sub-genre of the drama genre of storytelling. Just as you can make a sub-genre out of the comedy genre by adding romance (Romantic Comedy), action (Action Comedy), or character types (Buddy Comedy), you can also create a sub-genre of the drama genre by enhancing the dramatic elements and portraying them with extravagant and often highly-exaggerated character and plot types.
When you look at daytime television soap operas, the drama is enhanced to a certain degree that ceases to become realistic, and instead focuses on extravagant situations and series of events with characters that are usually extremely rich, evil, pure, or exaggerated. Primetime soap operas of the 1970s and 1980s, like Dallas, were melodramas as well, focusing on those same elevated versions of realistic drama.
And you could say that contemporary primetime series and streaming shows like Desperate Housewives, Succession, Grey's Anatomy, Big Little Lies, and Empire fall under that sub-genre banner as well.
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The Single Difference Between Cinematic Drama and Melodrama?
So we now understand the fundamental differences between drama and melodrama. We know that melodrama is a byproduct of drama when a writer decides to focus on the extravagant and exaggerated versions of not just dramatic characters, but especially dramatic situations and series of events. And we also know that melodrama is a sub-genre of drama within the context of storytelling genres of film and television.
Drama is reality-based and usually focuses on realistic portrayals of real characters dealing with real situations and series of events commonly found within real life.
Movies like Kramer vs. Kramer, The Big Chill, Roma, and The Pursuit of Happyness are mistakenly referred to as melodramas when they are actually better-defined as drama. Why? Because they deal with realistic characters facing realistic situations and series of events.
Kramer vs. Kramer tells the story of a father dealing with his divorce while facing the challenges of becoming a single parent.
The Big Chill focuses on former college friends dealing with the death of one of their own by suicide. They gather together after the funeral to reminisce and try to make sense of their friend's death, as well as the current state of their lives and relationships.
Roma centers on a character inspired by the real-life childhood maid of the writer and director as she struggles to balance her own life with that of the family she takes care of as a maid and nanny.
The Pursuit of Happyness is the true story of a father's struggle with homelessness while in custody of his son as he struggles to attain a dream business position to better their lives.
All of these films are very intense with dramatic conflict and emotion, but they are, by definition, drama — not melodrama. The drama is real. The characters represent realistic and every-day people. The situations and series of events are relatable and embedded within common reality. In contrast, melodramas are overly-enhanced, overly-exaggerated, and often overly-sentimental and overly-emotional in the delivery of plot elements and character reactions.
And here is where we can define the single difference between drama and melodrama best — taken from the words of award-winning television writer and producer Morgan Gendel.
Gendel has written for such television shows as Drop Dead Diva, Nash Bridges, Law & Order, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Wiseguy, and 21 Jump Street. He is best known for winning a Hugo Award for The Inner Light, one of the most popular and lauded episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. According to someone that attended one of his writing seminars, Gendel said that when character drives the plot, it's called drama — and when the plot drives the character, it's called melodrama.
Despite breaking down the definitions of both terms and placing them into the context of film and television genres and sub-genres, these words from Gendel offer the core difference between the two. Drama is character-based. Yes, plot serves an essential purpose to place those characters within conflicts that create drama, but the focus is on the character's reaction to those elements. Melodrama is driven by how the plot drives the characters. And when you review the definitions of melodrama that we've covered, you know that those plots are extravagant and exaggerated. And the focus is on how those types of plots create extravagant and exaggerated reactions from the characters that inhabit them.
And that is the single, core difference between drama and melodrama, elaborated.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies