Drama vs. Melodrama

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

What is the difference between “dramatic” and “melodramatic” in common usage, such as “Don’t be so dramatic” or “Don’t be so melodramatic”?

In common usage, both words are used interchangeably to mean something like “don’t make such a fuss.” A similar negative use of the noun drama is seen in the expression “without the drama.” For example:

With Cars.com, you get what you need without the drama.

Michael Corleone might not have been able to leave the family, but luckily your friends at Foxtel let you leave without the drama.

The tagline “disinfects without the drama” differentiates Betadine from other brands.

Thanks to advertising, “without the drama” has leaked into general usage as shorthand for “without difficulty,” “without complication,” “without upset,” “without injured feelings,” “without tantrums,” etc. Here are examples from various non-advertising contexts:

Sort out school fees without the drama

5 Picks to Keep Your Kids Active Without the Drama

Merging the Stepfamilies Without the Drama

Ever wondered what software development could be like without the drama?

The expression “drama queen” has become popular to describe a self-centered person— man or woman—who makes an issue of trivial matters of comfort and personal indulgence.

The conventional meaning of the word drama is “a composition in prose or verse, adapted to be acted upon a stage, in which a story is related by means of dialogue and action, and is represented with accompanying gesture, costume, and scenery, as in real life.

A melodrama is a drama characterized by exaggeration and sensationalism. The acting style appropriate to a drama is realistic, whereas the acting in a melodrama is bombastic or excessively sentimental.

Movies known as “tear-jerkers” are melodramas. Examples are Sophie’s Choice, Kramer vs Kramer, Love Story, Dead Poets Society, Steel Magnolias, and Ghost. Movies with super heroes and super villains, like the Batman films, are also melodramas.

The words melodrama and melodramatic are more precise choices than drama and dramatic to describe an excessive display of emotion.

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6 Responses to “Drama vs. Melodrama”

  • John

    “Movies with super heroes and super villains, like the Batman films, are also melodramas.”
    Really?

  • Fokke Hoekstra

    Hi there,
    A simple way I use to illustrate difference:
    A man comes home and finds his wife in bed with another man.
    He grabs a gun from the bedroom dresser and shoots them both.
    That’s drama.

    A man comes home and finds his wife in bed with another man.
    He grabs a gun from the bedroom dresser and aims at them. He then falls to his knees, breaks down and cries “how could you do this to me”.
    That’s melodrama.

  • Roberta B.

    @John Are you missing a “sarc-mark” or interrobang?

  • Maeve

    John,
    I don’t know what else you’d call all that scenery-chewing.

  • venqax

    I can’t speak for John, but I seriously wondered the same thing. I think of Batman as a cartoon, in its sense of “a simplified or exaggerated version or interpretation of something”. When I think of a melodrama, like the plays that were popular in the Old West theaters and are still features at some tourist attractions, (e.g. “Today’s melodrama at the Engine House Theater is Little Nell.”) I think of productions that were broadly and purposely overacted and usually employed some audience participation, but as I recall did not employ fantasy characters like Batman, etc. Nickpicking, perhaps.

  • Marilynn Byerly

    I can’t say that I agree with your examples of melodrama. SOPHIE’S CHOICE, for example. A woman is given a choice between which of her two children is to be murdered, and she’s screwed up for life. Who wouldn’t be screwed up for life after that?

    I would define the difference between drama and melodrama as earned and unearned emotion. Earned emotion in a drama is when description, situation, and character create genuine emotion in the reader. The book is also very well-written, and the movie stars Meryl Streep who is wonderful in the role.

    Unearned emotion is where the description, situation, and character are weighted with highly emotional language that tries to force the reader into an unnatural emotional reaction.

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