Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

A Few More Thoughts on Resonance

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 13•12

I keep circling back to the idea of resonance in writing, especially lately since it’s going to be one of the techniques explored during  my upcoming Summer in Words Conference. For years now I’ve been trying to puzzle out exactly how writers achieve resonance in their stories. By resonance I mean the many layers of storytelling and how it effects us. It’s part afterburn, part emotional tangle, part word tango, and part lingering potency.

The best stories change the way we look at the world. They teach us something about what it means to be human; to hurt and hope and carry on. The best stories effect our psyches on many levels.  Writers can pen a narrative aimed  at our conscious,using simple daytime language, and can aim the same tale at our unconscious achieving a form of meta-communication (or offering different meanings on various levels). I call it emotional resonance.

The first technique you can use  to create resonance is mood, tone, or atmosphere. Some people use these terms interchangeably, but it  seems to  me that tone is the overall feel of a story–such as suspense or horror or romance. Tone can be comic or serious or romantic. Mood, which should pervade the most important scenes and moments, is especially important in genre fiction such as fantasy or horror and because mood  will induce the sensory-overloaded reader to buy the book.

I tend to relate  mood to color and music–such as when a story is dark or bleak or a song can fill you with longing. Mood can change from scene to scene adding shades as the story progresses, often mirroring the viewpoint character’s situation or emotions.  I’m thinking of the colorless, pitiless landscape and grey ash of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the smothering parlors and forced gaiety tossed in with desperation in Jane Austen’s stories.  I recently saw The Hunger Games film and the mood was so grim and suspenseful that my neck was sore by the time I left the theater. And the  garish pinks and blues  and strange pastels worn by society created such a jarring note of unreality. Of course tension wasn’t only caused by  the mood, since the twists were many, the stakes were high, the situation insane, but the mood added to it all.

Theme and language are entwined as graceful dancers to create resonance. Always pay attention to the connotation of each word. A romance might use softer language while a noir story will have a grittier vocabulary.

Motifs, extended metaphors and symbols are all powerful techniques. In The Hunger Games, the natural world and green, twittering forests should be places of safety, but instead they’re teeming with danger and traps when the Game is underway. There are references to the mockingjay, plants, and herbs. In fact, one of the main characters is named Rue.  Rue’s death and burial are the turning point in the story. After this Katniss is not only trying to survive, but is facing a larger fight for freedom and humanity.  Since these devices are so potent, use them throughout for consistency and also save them for something crucial that you want to convey, preferably a high point in your story or the emotional life of your character. Rue’s burial when she’s covered with flowers is an example. Search always for words and images of rare coinage.

Give readers archetypes and themes that they relate to. Desire. Family. Sex. Betrayal. Heartache. Survival. Childbirth. Rivalry.  Redemption. Injustice. Children. Guilt. Death. War. Racism.  Bring the topics to life with intimate moments and changes in the characters as Mark Twain does when Huckleberry Finn and Jim escape on a raft and become true friends.

Along with themes, create a plot where the character must confront or face important emotional truths. In The Hunger Games, we find the main characters facing horrible realities about their world and the people in power and also what they’re willing to do to survive amid this madness and tyranny. In other words, inner change and recognition create emotional resonance. Resonance means the reader will ponder, remember, and miss your story and characters long after she turns the last page.

Look for updates on Summer in Words 2012 here.



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