Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 14•11

Writing that, because of its elegance or verve, commands not only attention but a place in the reader’s memory. Writing that, because of its unique approach to subject matter, brings an emotional melding with the reader. Resonance is responsiveness. Resonance is communion. Resonance brings a writer/reader atonement—a harmony intellectually, or emotionally, or both. Peter Jacobi

Writing fiction requires stirring a reader’s emotions by involving him or her in the protagonist’s plight. The delight in reading fiction is that we feel emotions that we don’t normally feel in our normal, sometimes mundane lives. Thus fiction often has more peril or thrills than the ordinary world, but it’s also created on a word-by-word basis. Emotions are also stirred by creating prose that resonates and lingers.  Resonance is writing that is layered and evocative and musical. Resonant writing touches the many layers in the reader. When writing has resonance it has depth, richness, associations, and echoes.

Resonate comes from French and Latin for resound and echo. In sound, resonance is prolonged and elongated and causes vibrations. When sound reverberates, it’s resonating within a confined space, as from within the graceful body of a cello or violin. Or a voice resonates coming out of the singer’s chest. Or there is the reverberation of a cavity filled with air such as a drum or hollow log. Resonance is heard and felt by the listener. A Georgian chant has resonance,so does the hum of a beehive, the far-off lonely call of a loon, thunder and gunshot.

Gregorian chantInterestingly, resonance is a principle or common thread weaving through many branches of physics.  Resonance causes an object to move or sway back and forth or up and down. This type of motion, oscillation, can be seen when you pluck the strings of a cello or guitar and the string vibrates, or in the motion of a swing, hammock, or teeter totter. However, sometimes this movement cannot be seen without measuring instruments and when too much oscillation happens it can shatter an object like glass shatters under duress.file7161249664179

Resonance in writing contains significance and potency beyond the words on the page.  Resonance can be symphonic, harmonious, lustrous, or, harsh, tense, and terse. That means a whole orchestra isn’t required to achieve certain effects, nor do you need to pile on words. And I’m certainly not advocating the use of purple prose, because writing can be spare and yet still resonate. Instead, I suggest that you play with the length and complexity of your sentences, the sound and impact of words, the emotional tone, all vibrating, reverberating in the reader’s inner ear.

Farewell to ArmsHere’s an example from Hemingway, the maestro of brevity and hard, flashing sentences, the unapologetic resonance of a masculine voice. He limits description to the most necessary and uses staccato rhythms for effect.  It is the opening of A Farewell to Arms:IN the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

Now, on the face of it, these are simple, unadorned sentences. The voice feels detached, but the attention to significant details brings out the underlying emotions indirectly. Thus resonance sometimes happens when the words and images suggest meaning, because mentioning troop movements and dust to open a novel creates expectations in the reader. Resonance is something that is experienced on several levels, but it’s not a technique that shrieks at the reader. Nevertheless, it exists bringing a story or essay into a deeper consciousness, creating a fuller emotional experience and understanding and a prolonged effect.

Without resonance writing might be flat, simplistic and lifeless on the page.  Like other writing techniques resonance can be learned by first recognizing it in the words of other writers and in real life speech. Once you recognize it you can begin to emulate it. I like to describe it as a stone being thrown into a pond and the deep and concentric circle of ripples that result. Or, the final, haunting notes of a symphony or ballad that linger in the air; like sounds and vibrations that travel through the bottomless depths of ocean, like whale songs.pond

So thinking about resonance as reverberation and layers, how do you add resonance and when is there enough or too much? You’re working on many levels—using language, imagery, and structure that carefully create vibrations and echoes. To use language with resonance takes practice because you’re choosing the perfect word for each sentence and deciding when to amp up to create emotions or tension in your reader, when to pause for significance, when to march ahead. You’ve got a whole paintbox of techniques to work with: figurative language, onomatopoeia, understatement, high-intensity verbs, sound bursts, repetition, and inventive word combinations.

Translating words into themes or events that linger in the reader’s imagination isn’t easy. But when you deliberately write to create resonance, stirred with lyrical language and tension and underlain with emotion, the results will be worth it. Resonance shows a thoughtful writer at work and requires that each word and concept is fully explored. Work at your style by tinkering, exploring, sticking it out so that an idea or moment can fully emerge.

James CrumleyHere’s another example of resonance from James Crumley in his short story Hostages. This opening sets up the inciting incident, introduces the reader to a time and place, but does so much more: It echoes with the despair of the era. “Between the hammer of the midwestern sun and the relentless sweep of the bone-dry wind, the small town of Wheatshocker seemed crushed flat and just about to blow across the plains. Long billows of dust filled the empty streets like strings of fog. Male dogs learned to squat or leaned against withered fence posts so the wind wouldn’t blow them over when they lifted their legs to pee. The piss dried instantly on the sere dirt, then blew away before the dogs finished. Shadows as black as tar huddled protectively in the shallow dunes that lined the few buildings left on the main street. Most of the windowfronts were as empty as a fool’s laugh, while those with glass were etched in formless shapes by the sharp, ghostly wind. The red bricks of the Farmers Band and Trust had faded to a pallid pink, held in place by desiccated, crumbling mortar. A ‘32 Ford sedan idled in the bank’s alley, as dusty as the rest of the heaps parked in front of the bank. A humpbacked man as small as a child sat behind the wheel, smoking a ready-roll. Only a pro would have noticed the low chortle of the reground cam in his engine. Nothing moved down the street but a mismatched team of mules slowly pulling a wagon with a large Negro in overalls and a canvas-covered bed.”

Whew. He’s clearly creating a world of unease. Tension is palpable, right? Anything can happen.

Postscript: It’s now part of literary lore that Hemingway confessed to rewriting the final sentence of A Farewell to Arms more than 39 times. Something to think about….


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  1. Olivia says:

    I’m so glad you’re back Jessica. I really enjoy reading your articles 🙂

  2. jessicap says:

    Thanks Olivia–We’re settling in and I’ve been recovering from a bad sprain, but am better and will be adding more content.

  3. Nancy says:

    Thanks for the share!

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