Tuesday I explained a little bit about how the term “resonance” is used in literature. In music we use it to describe how one melody draws power from what came before, and in literature we do the same.
Thus, when you read a book that affects you powerfully–whether it be Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, so long as you found the story to be satisfying, if you hear of another that reminds you of it, you will be more likely to buy it.
In fact, most purchases that most active readers make are based upon the fact that the book resonates with other works that they have enjoyed. The readers almost never make a conscious connection, but it is there.
As I mentioned the other day, we choose the category of fiction that we do because we are looking for a certain type of controlling emotion in our work. The word “genre” doesn’t really explain what we’re doing when we choose our fiction. Instead, the sections in the bookstores ought to be titled “Wonder, Romance, Drama, Intrigue,” and so on.
Sometimes the resonance comes in the title. For example, when I was young I mentioned that I loved the book the Swiss Family Robinson. But something bothered me about that book, even at the age of twelve. Why was a Swiss family named “Robinson”? The appendage “son” is commonly used by the English and the Danes, not the Swiss. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that the writer was trying to use resonance to draw upon another book about a famous castaway, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. As what is often regarded as the first novel in the English language, reading it would have been a must for every English schoolboy in the 1800s. The name Robinson had resonance. In fact, I recently read that when Wyss wrote the book (in German), the family was not named Robinson. The title Der Schweizerische Robinson actually translates to “The Swiss Robinson,” implying that it is a Swiss “Robinson Crusoe” story. English publishers later gave the family the surname.
Sometimes the resonance that induces us to buy a book comes from the cover. My own fantasy novels have covers by Darrell Sweet. Sweet, of course, is famous for doing the covers for Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan, two of our best-sellers of all time. So when readers look at my novels, they are immediately reminded of books by those authors. Now, do I write like them? Not much. I write epic fantasy in a medieval setting, but I don’t have a lot of the Tokienesque trappings that Brooks and Jordan have. But readers who like their work are far more likely to pick up my books based upon the covers alone.
The resonance of course can relate to the major conflicts or settings in a novel. Thus we have romance readers who may like to read books set only within a certain period of the Napoleonic Wars.
Many times the resonance is based upon only a certain motif–the use of dragons or ghosts.
Maybe the story carries resonance because of its characters. Mystery writers, for example, often use the same character as a detective over and over. Thus, if you loved Sherlock Holmes in one novel, you may be eager to read about him in another. The same applies to Tarzan, Conan, and many other types of characters, though with romances, once a couple falls in love, you can’t really re-tell their love story successfully. In short, a novel or a series of novels may have what we call “internal resonance,” where parts of the story resonate with the writer’s own work.
Sometimes the resonance in a novel comes in the shared life experiences of the author and the purchaser. For example, if you’re writing romances set in New England, a reader might find your books to be more potent, simply because you’re creating fantasies in a setting that she’s familiar with.
But most of the time, as a writer, in any given paragraph you are loading your work with so much resonance, touching so many strings of human experience that it becomes difficult to untangle them all. Your readers of course are almost always unconscious of this. I’ve taught hundreds of students in various writing classes over the years, and as part of my lecture I always asked them why they think that they read the fiction stories that they do. In twenty years I have never had a student give the right answer, “Resonance.”
So I think that I should take some time to give some examples of how a great writer attracts and audience using resonance, and I’d like to use as an example J.R.R. Tolkien. There are a couple of reason why I’ll use him. First, I’m a fantasy writer who became converted to the genre by reading his work, so I’ve read him enough, and studied him enough, so that I understand what he did. Second, nearly everyone on my list that I know of is either writing fantasy or science fiction, and so you’re likely to be familiar with him.
But there is one other reason that I would like to use him as an example. A few months ago I was at a conference where a renowned writer dismissed Tolkien’s work as a “literary trick.” I’ve heard other critics occasionally take swipes at him, claiming that his work is juvenile and has little merit. Now, I’m not going to claim that he was the world’s greatest stylist, and I can certainly see weaknesses in it, but I believe that such comments are unfair.
Often when we talk about a writer who is a great stylist, we say that he has “fine literary sensibilities.” In other words, he recognizes what is good and what is bad, and writes well. Of course by saying that, it suggests that few writers have fine sensibilities. But the truth is that most of us have fine taste in given areas. Orson Scott Card has a phenomenal ear for dialogue. Another might write metaphors that leave you breathless. A third might have an unfailing sense of pacing. I have heard Steven King praised for being a modern Shakespeare when it comes to imitating the voice of the common man.
Here is the point that I’m going to make about Tolkien: when it comes to an understanding of and the use of resonance, he may not have had an equal in all of literature. He not only used resonance in all of the ways that I spoke about above–he discovered new methods that perhaps no one else had ever considered. His personal sensibilities were acutely focused on how a work resonated.
Notes: I will be speaking at Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium at the Provo, Utah Marriott. It will be from 9 am to 5 pm on Wednesday, February 13th. Lunch is not provided. You can register here. My masterclass, “As The Plot Thickens,” will take place at the Hampton Inn in Provo, Utah from March 7-9. I only have a few seats left so click here if you would like to attend. My YouTube video issues have been solved. You can watch the first one by clicking here. Would you like the chance to win $1,000 with your writing? Do you have a friend who is an excellent photographer? Combine your talents and enter the People of Earth Contest by clicking here. You have until February 15th to enter. In January, I will be releasing my latest book, Casting Your Novel which helps with character development. I also have had my Serpent Catch series bundled which you can find by clicking on this link.