Resonance: Taking the Familiar and Building Upon It With Your Own Twist

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.

18 Comments

  1. In some of the shows I watch–Grimm and Once Upon a Time especially–you get that a lot, the familiar old story changed and twisted around, made new. It’s usually pretty good and I like stories like that. I wish there were more movies or TV shows or books like that.

    1. I love both shows. It’s fun seeing what spin they can make on the familiar stories. I think that’s part of why they’re so good.

      1. I wonder what they’re going to do with Once when it comes back next month. We’ll probably find out that someone’s related to someone else and we had no idea about it.

        1. I keep waiting for Rumple to be Regina’s father since Cora slept with him right before she had a kid after marrying into royalty. We’ll see if that guess is right.

          1. I don’t think that’s likely to happen, seeing as that child would belong to Rumple by the rules of the contract they established. He would know if a child of his was around.

            Personally I want to know what Henry does when he’s not with his family and/or saving the town. What’s his school life like, and has he met his true love yet? All relevant questions and all with possible answers (especially the latter now that he’s somewhere between 13 and 15 in the series).

            1. I often wondered since the town was frozen for 26 years what he thought as he aged but no one else did. How could Regina think she could pull that one on him, unless perhaps she did a spell so he wouldn’t be aware he was the only one aging. But I would like to see how his school life is. That would be interesting.

  2. ronfritsch says:

    I agree with you, Ruth, every story has already been told, and we all use things we’ve read in a novel or seen and heard in a film or television program. And we do that even when we don’t realize we’re doing it. As a reader or viewer, though, I’m looking for the “unique spin on it.” Far too much fiction I attempt to read or view is the same old thing. That’s why I love your conclusion: “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.” A “fresh and unique” story. Thank you again, Ruth, for an excellent post.

    1. Often I don’t realize I have done it until I’m editing the book. 🙂

      I think something new to add to something familiar does a lot to make the story memorable and comfortable to the reader. Like you, I have seen the same or read the same thing enough where I stop reading or watching it as soon as I realize it. Life’s too short to rehash the same thing.

  3. Truly, all stories are a variation on a theme already out there. I like to take what the reader might expect and give it a little twist – turn it just a bit on its ear – not so much that I disappoint or anger because a writer goes down that path at their own peril. Enough to make the reader go – aha – that’s something different to think about it.

    1. Yep! Exactly. That’s the perfect balance. 🙂

  4. When I came up with the idea of Guardian Vampire a few years ago, it started with a book I’d read. I was thinking things like “What if I took this idea and did this and this with it?” So, even though it started with the basic idea of what I had read, it was a totally different story.

    All those Sci-Fi movies you mentioned about saving the world…they are some of my favorites!

    1. They’re some of mine, too. I love stuff like that. I don’t know why I write romance. It seems my interests go in such an extreme in another direction. Maybe that’s why I watch and read so many other genres. I get my fill when I write romance. 🙂

      I’ve done the same thing with quite a few of my books. I’ll be watching or reading something and think, “What if this happened instead?” So many times, you never even recognize the storyline that inspired the book.

      One thing I like is how you can give a room full of writes a plot idea and come up with a different story from every single person.

      1. I had a writer friend tell me I should only write what I read. If I did that, I would be writing in so many genres, it would confuse my readers. LOL. I think you’re right about needing something else to read when you’re writing so much romance. Romance actually isn’t my favorite genre to read. That’s why I wrote a couple of light horrors with a little romance as a side story. I might do more of that when an idea hits me. 🙂

        1. I love writing romance more than any other genre. I have written other genres and enjoyed it, but my heart is definitely in romance. As a reader and TV/movie viewer, though, I prefer sci-fi thrillers that keep me on the edge of my seat. I think that’s why natural disaster flicks and the zombie stuff interests me as much as it does. I don’t like hard core horror since that’s usually gore. The thrillers tend to be more psychological or action, and the sci-fi element takes into account all kinds of scenarios (viruses, disasters, parallel universes, cloning, etc). The range is wide where there’s no limit to the imagination.

          I couldn’t read what I write, but I think we actually do better when we have a wider source of input coming in.

  5. I based my Children of The Dragon series of vampire novels on a variety of science fiction and vampire novels, television series, and also research into vampirism and history. But I never tried to match what I saw or read. Now, there are a lot of novels which seem to mimic each other. It has become “formula” to write the same types of novels the same way. If that is resonance then we ought to redefine the word. Resonance occurs when everyone who has read the novels recognize the standard elements and finds value in them, but they use the elements to write an original piece.

    I should put in a kudos to “The Musketeers” (BBC America) for the way history is handled. Even if the affairs of King Louis XIII are really unknowable, the writers have woven in real history with a fictionally inaccurate account. What we are seeing is a visual representation of the Secret Service in action, and the Dumas novels are after all the progenitor of some of the best spy novels of the 20th century. And the series does not inject modern motifs into the plot. There is muck and blood and uncleanliness, elements we did not see in other versions. People will do anything to survive, which is the truth. As a result, the series just keeps getting better and better, instead of collapsing after the first 3 episodes.

    As for a “happy” ending, it may be fun to buck tradition and write a grey one instead, or leave the reader hanging without a resolution. But the reader is looking for an end note, a bow on the package. A good novel presents some kind of result (epilogue) beyond the climax, but many novelists don’t end their stories there. I have been disappointed by some really good movies which end at the climax and there is no way to know what happens to the protagonists after that.

    For example, I have just seen “Mazerunner” which comes off as “Lord of The Flies” meets “Theseus and The Minotaur”. Even when it is revealed that it is some kind of sociological experiment, the ending leaves the viewer hanging. It is a disappointing end to what is actually a fairly good science fiction film.

    1. I think the basis of resonance lies in with an element being familiar with the reader. I agree to have it become a formula where everything is going to play out a certain way would be boring. I’ve read or seen some that were pretty much carbon copies of others and lost interest.

      I haven’t seen “The Musketeers”, but I have seen “Mazerunner” and was also disappointed with the ending. I think they intend to do another movie or two. I think just like with books, the trend in movies might be going to series where it takes three or four to tell the entire story. I’m not thrilled with this trend in books. Had I know Mazerunner was going to end like that, I would have held off until the whole plot was complete before starting it.

      I loved “Lord of the Flies”. That was one of the best movies ever made, in my opinion.

  6. lornafaith says:

    Thanks for writing about resonance Ruth. Your thoughts on it, did help clear it up more for me. I’ve seen movies where they’ve “mirrored’ something from another popular movie and it has resonated with me because of that. But like you said – it is really important to still be original even when we add resonance from other popular books or movies. I like what francisguenette said about give the story and unexpected twist. I love reading books that surprise me in some way too 🙂

    Thanks again Ruth for sharing your thoughts on this – it’s been a big help !

    1. I’m glad you brought this to my attention. 🙂

      I hadn’t heard the term before, but it was so much fun to learn about it and gain new insight into another way to think of stories as I write them. I also realized as a reader, I tend to lean toward certain books based on ones I enjoyed in the past. I don’t want the same story, but a variation of it. I agree. The twist on the familiar can definitely make all the difference.

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