In storytelling, the idea of resonance is a new one to me, but thanks to someone who left a comment on this blog, I found out about it and did some research. Basically, it’s when a writer pulls out familiar elements from other books, movies, TV shows, plays, etc and incorporates the elements into their story. But–and this is the key–the writer makes their own unique spin on it. So these elements, while familiar, are not used to retell another story; they are used to tell a new one.
I’m betting we do this a lot more than we realize. Things in our subconscious mind help to form our stories, and often we’re not aware of where we’re getting these ideas from. I’m betting a lot of these ideas are pulled out of what we’ve read, seen, or heard in our day to day living.
The thing is, this is also at play with readers. Ever hear a reader express disappointment because the book didn’t go in the direction they expected? That’s probably because they read or saw something similar that ended differently, and they were hoping this book would do the same thing. For example, usually in a disaster movie, we get a cataclysmic event that will destroy the entire earth unless someone comes in and saves the day. (ex. Deep Impact, Armageddon) For most of the movie, things look hopeless. The human race, or most of it, is going to be wiped out. But there’s a group of people who manage to save the day at the last minute. This set up has also been the object of an alien invasion movie (ex. Independence Day, Signs, War of the Worlds)
So all of these movies resonate closely with each other in that there’s a very real threat to planet Earth, and people have to somehow figure out a way to overcome it or they’ll die. That’s what resonance is. But if you’ve seen these movies, you will know each one had its own unique spin that makes the story different. However, notice all of them have a happy ending. Earth is saved. The human race will survive. If any of those movies had ended with humans all dying out, would the movies have done as well in the box office as they did? I don’t think so. People who have watched these movies are used to the last-minute “we’re saved!” ending.
Likewise, in books, if you’re giving the majority of readers something they aren’t expecting or hoping for, you will disappoint them. For example, romance readers want a happy ending. If you don’t give them a happy ending, you will upset a great majority of them. Why? Because romance readers are looking for that emotional resonance of love prevailing against all odds. That is why knowing your audience and what your audience wants is so important when telling a story.
This resonance can easily cross over from TV shows/movies to books. I haven’t read zombie books, but I have seen the movie World War Z and the TV shows The Walking Dead and Z Nation. I imagine, though, if I picked up a book, I would see parallels between what I’ve seen on TV and what I’ll read in the books. First, the earth has been devastated by something that is making people turn into zombies. Second, there might be some survivors who might be struggling to find a cure. Third, these survivors have to learn to live in a world pretty much void of the modern conveniences. Four, these survivors are going to have to kill a lot of zombies if they don’t want to die. Five, some of the characters we get to love will end up dying at some point. Those are five elements I now expect whenever I see a zombie movie or show or read a book with this subject.
So to me, resonance is knowing what your readers expect and delivering it to them. But you will deliver it in a way that is fresh and unique enough to be your own story. You’re not telling the same story that has been done over and over. What you’re doing is taking elements that are popular and using them to tell an original story. You do this through the characters you choose, by modifying circumstances these characters are in, and things that happen along their journey.
In the genre you write, think of the elements that best resonant with your readers and think of how you can best use them in your story.