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The Twin Demons: Sentimentality (Fiction Skills Series)

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn\’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

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Sentimentality is best defined as emotion which has not been earned by the scene. Unsophisticated writers live off sentimentality. It thrives in everything from bestsellers to movies, and audiences eat it up. So why avoid it? Because, like so many other things, sentimentality is the exclusive domain of cliché. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • A character dies, but not croaking out a few words of wisdom and love, and possibly reconciliation.
  • After said character dies, his family sobs uncontrollably for a long time.
  • A story centers on a dysfunctional household in which people scream at each other more or less constantly.
  • A sappy love scene in which the characters repeatedly proclaim their feelings for each other.
  • Pretty much any instance of a character howling “NOOOOO!”

Sentimentality occurs when characters’ reactions to a situation are predictable and at least somewhat exaggerated. It’s difficult to depict emotions in a nuanced, realistic way, so many writers compensate by turning the emotional “volume control” as high as it will go. This makes it easier for the writer to describe the emotions, and for the audience to understand them, but comes at the expense of credibility. In real life, people who emote on the level of sentimentality are the so-called “drama queens,” who are generally considered to be highly annoying. If your writing is sentimental, that means that you’ve effectively made all your characters emote like hormonal teenagers, and I shouldn’t need to explain why that’s a problem.

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The Twin Demons: Melodrama (Fiction Skills Series)

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn\’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

“I don’t think melodrama is a good thing, [but] I believe books need to risk sentimentality and to risk melodrama.”
– novelist Naeem Murr

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Which of the following situations are melodramatic?

  • Joe is walking home one day when a ton of bricks falls on him, killing him instantly.
  • Lillian is on her way to jump off a bridge when she finds a winning lottery ticket, bringing her financial woes to an end.
  • Count Evilstein fails to destroy the world because he has a heart attack just moments before he would have activated his space laser.

The answer is that all three of these situations represent different manifestations of melodrama. Many people seem to think that melodrama only refers to situations in which bad things happen for no reason, but this is only partially true. A more accurate definition of melodrama is things which happen to the characters for reasons unrelated to their actions. It doesn’t matter whether the outcome is favorable or not, if things happen for no reason, they’re melodramatic. It’s also worth noting that this definition of melodrama is as exclusive as it is inclusive: a character who has been established to be a repeat drunk driver can get into an accident without invoking melodrama, regardless of the consequences of the crash. (This can, however, lead to sentimentality, as we will see.)

An understanding of melodrama is important because it’s directly related to the concept of plot as a chain of causality, which is perhaps the most important concept in storytelling.

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Game Over: The Failings of Season Four

Game of Thrones is starting to grow soft. No, not soft on brutal violence and the wholesale incorporation of dark themes; all that stuff is still in there. Rather, the show’s writing has begun to take a very by-the-numbers approach to its story, delivering more or less exactly what viewers have come to expect without doing anything really surprising. It goes through the motions, and that’s all it does. No more really needs to be said, but there’s no limit to my ability to carry on about things that irritate me, so let’s take an in-depth look at why Season 4 failed to live up to the example of preceding seasons.

The Season Four experience captured in one thrilling image

Lack of Direction

All the season’s problems eventually fold into one larger problem: that there is no singular direction in this season, no one overarching plot that all the other storylines play into. The other seasons used the leadup, climax, and end of the war as a sort of “meta-story” unifies the more personal storylines into the context of a larger arc. This technique worked brilliantly to explore the concept of how individuals’ actions affect events on a global scale.

So, with the war more or less over, what’s left to do? Well, not a whole lot, as it turns out. The Lannisters have more or less total control of the country, leaving them with nothing else to conquer. Most of the Starks are dead. Neither Stannis nor Daenerys are in a position to begin their invasions, so their activities are largely quotidian. The Greyjoys don’t do much of anything. The Wildlings eventually attack Castle Black but we don’t see much of their preparations for it. The Tyrells are nonentities. The White Walkers are hardly in evidence. With no particular goals to aspire to, much of the action consists of little more than characters shuttling back and forth between different locations, sometimes with minor skirmishes thrown in. Never do we get the impression that we’re witnessing a defining moment in this world’s history; it’s by and large a story of mundanities, and even some of the more interesting predicaments the characters face prove to be more pedestrian than they have in the past.

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