When you write a story, any story, you write within the context of the whole of literature, of everything that has gone before. The choice of words that you use will provide little clues to the story that your readers will often absorb almost instantly as they read. The reader might not consciously recognize an allusion to another major work, but it will happen subconsciously.
For example, if I put an allusion to the bible into a tale and my reader hasn’t read the bible, he or she might not recognize that allusion. But the chances are excellent that the reader has read other stories that draw upon the same word choices or images, and so it will still have some effect on the reader.
One author who pioneered the idea that a story is but part of a greater conversation in literature, a conversation that spans centuries and crosses continents, was T. S. Eliot. If you read a poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or “The Wasteland,” you need to recognize that he pulls lines from a large number of works in order to create greater depth.
For example, “Prufrock” opens with lines from Dante’s “Inferno.”
S`io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocchè giammai di questo fondo
Non tornò vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.
One translation of these lines, from the Dante Project, is:
"If I but thought that my response were made
to one perhaps returning to the world,
this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.
But since, up from these depths, no one has yet
returned alive, if what I hear is true,
I answer without fear of being shamed."
In context, the epigraph refers to a meeting between Dante and Guido da Montefeltro, who was condemned to the eighth circle of Hell for providing counsel to Pope Boniface VIII, who wished to use Guido's advice for a nefarious undertaking. According to one critic, the epigraph serves to cast ironic light on Prufrock's intent. Like Guido, Prufrock had intended his story never be told, and so by quoting Guido, Eliot reveals his view of Prufrock's love song. In short, it’s a poem about a sinful man being perfectly honest about his failings.
So Eliot used a number of devices—the quoting of lines from other poets, and the mention of titles of books, from the canon of literature such as Hesiod’s “Works and Days,”—within his poem to grant it power and depth.
Doing this is called using “resonance,” leaning upon what has gone before in literature to give your story power.
Every genre of literature has its great works, and as an author you should be conversant with these, and you need to recognize that your audience may be conversant with them, as well. So you may use this to your advantage.
Of course, it isn’t just literature that provides resonance, is it? In popular culture, we have songs, movies, video games, television shows, commercials—all providing a framework for the tale that we hope to convey. You can’t write a YA tale about children going to a school for wizards without being compared to Rowling. We’re writing in her shadow. Yet, we can also use that to our benefit.
As a fantasy writer, I’m well aware of the works of authors like Tolkien. If you look at the images that Tolkien draws upon, you can find many of them—Gandalf, the costumes for his elves, and so on—among the works of the pre-Raphaelite painters. If you study his language, you can find bits of it in old Norse literature, in plays like Macbeth, and in the poetry of Yeats. Tolkien was using resonance to weave his tale together, drawing images and language from sources that he loved.
Yet a fantasy writer today needs to be “literate” in all mediums that provide resonance. Have you seen the movie How to Train Your Dragon, or how about The Hunger Games, or the latest Star Wars? Your teenage audience has. Going to such movies is research. So is playing World of Warcraft, or any of a dozen other games. So is watching television—especially the television series that are streaming on cable. In short, you can’t just read books anymore.
Thus, especially at the beginning of a tale, you can use “resonators”—words, images, dialogue and so on—to better tie into your audience's subconscious.
"Resonators" are often words that identify your piece as belonging to a particular genre, such as fantasy, romance, or horror. They are part of the secret language that is used within a particular genre to give the writing more power by referring to previous works written in that genre.
Thus, in romance, a resonator might be the word "grey," as in "Heathcliffe's grey eyes bored into hers, stripping her naked and piercing her soul."
But a resonator may also be a word that carries strong resonance with real-life. Have you ever read a story and felt that you and the author had lived through the same experience as you. You might say, “Wow, she really understands the rage that you feel when you get dumped by the person you love.” We all go through similar experiences. So you as a writer need to tap into that vast pool of shared experiences that when you create your scenes.
Every story resonates with every other tale. None stands alone. None is completely unique. In fact, if you try to be utterly unique, you’ll end up writing a tale that people can’t understand or relate to at all. So you need to focus on how you might better make your tale fit within the conversation that is literature, and consider how you will draw your reader into that conversation by using images, phrases, and language that arouses a sense of allure in your readers.
(For more information on this topic, see David Farland’s short book, Drawing Upon the Power of Resonance in Writing. It’s available as an e-book, or can also be found in his book Writing Wonder.)
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It's a way of understanding it.”
This week on Apex we will be hearing from fantasy author Julie Czerneda (Tues. at 7:00 pm) and producer Mauli "Junior Bonner (Saturday at 8:00 MST).
Dec. 1: Tor editor Beth Meacham.
Dec. 5: Stacy Dymalski
Dec. 8: Traci Hainsworth