The Fine Art of Story Resonance

I have seen the word “story resonance” defined in different ways. Some people use it to indicate how a story resonates with you personally—you enjoyed Harry Potter because you know what’s it like to be ignored by your family. Under this definition, a book’s resonance is very subjective. I’ve also heard story resonance used in reference to how different subplots weave together for deep, complex, echoing plot.

That’s the definition I prefer—the latter. When I refer to a book’s resonance, I’m referring to how the layers of a story interact. I find that my favorite books have lovely little subplots and main plots and side plots and internal plots that all wrap around and intertwine until you’re left with this giant symphony of story.

And so, if you’re looking to add resonance to your story, I suggest you start by adding story layers.

You see, every story can benefit from a subplot—even just a few tiny threads that twine together and meet up at the end.  In fact, you don’t need to add much—one little layer will add MAJOR depth to your story.

Think back on those really satisfying endings. Those “AHA!” moments in a story when the final twist is revealed and the carefully laid—yet hidden!—clues are suddenly so obvious. All those connections you had missed were right before your nose the whole time!

You smack your head, smiling wide, and say, “I so should have seen that coming! But I didn’t! HOW COOL.”

Or perhaps you’ve just read a murder mystery. You reach the whodunit-unmasking, and you finally realize how obvious the killer was all along.

Or maybe you’ve just finished a romance, and in that last chapter, you finally see how blind the heroine was being–and how obvious the hero’s true feelings were all along (Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, anyone?).

Keep in mind, though: your resonating moment doesn’t have to be at the end. It can be a betrayal mid-novel, the sudden return of a thought-to-be-dead character in book 7, or even the simple realization that all that queasiness in your MC’s gut was actually the result of her one night stand on page 1 (oops!).

Consider when Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth in the middle of Pride & Prejudice, and we suddenly see all of his seemingly rude actions from a completely different angle.

A scene will resonate when it reveals the final, critical piece in a picture.

The jigsaw puzzle is now complete, and that last piece is what makes the image discernible.

One of my ALL TIME FAVORITE resonating moments comes from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. There’s a prophecy introduced at the book’s start, and this prophecy is constantly brought up throughout the rest of the book’s 1000+ pages. You assume, like the characters, that the prophecy isn’t that important and refers to the obvious XYZ, but then…KAPOW. The climax and ending occur, leaving you breathless and in awe of how unexpected (yet obvious!) the prophecy’s true meaning is.

Now, not all subplots (or layers) connect tightly with the main plot. A thread won’t always overlap and then finally weave together at the end. BUT, in order to enhance your story (rather than hurt it), the subplot must at least relate to the primary story.

For example, you don’t want a subplot about the MC being the fastest pizza delivery boy if your novel is about the zombie apocalypse…UNLESS that fast delivery is what saves the MC from a horde of zombies in the climax. Make sense?

So now it’s your turn. If you’ve ever been told your story just didn’t have the needed depth or was missing…something… Then, I challenge you to pull out your WIP (or an old shelved story) and find a place to add something more.

Here are some ways to enhance your story’s resonance:

  1. Connect your characters.
    • Perhaps your MC and the villain aren’t just middle school rivals–maybe you can add in a new layer: they’re parents are also rivals.
    • Or maybe two secondary characters have a secret connection that’s hinted at throughout…but not revealed until the book’s end.
    • REMEMBER: Whatever connection you have, it needs to have consequences. If you find out that the MC’s mom used to date the bad guy (a lá Veronica Mars), then we need to know why that matters.
  2. Add in a tiny new plot thread or build layers onto the external plot you already have.
    • Make that “throwaway” line on page 12–the random song lyric on the radio or speaker on TV–become a critical clue in the mystery. Add in a few more things like this.
    • Or make a curious/odd thing—like all the how-to books in his car that the MC interprets as proof he’s an alien from outer space—a misleading addition. (Nope, it turns out he isn’t an alien, he’s just hoping to get be an Eagle Scout.)
  3. Bring things full circle.
    • End the story where you start it—physically speaking. Like, if the book opens in a church, end it there.
    • Make the enemy the friend or vice versa. Let the character’s attitudes toward someone make a complete switch…and then, if you want to get really sneaky, bring them right back to their starting point.

In Something Strange and Deadly, I added layers by connecting every single character. Secret histories, shady pasts, nurtured hatreds–these are all there, drawing invisible lines between each person.

When the book opens, the MC doesn’t know that all the people in her life have nasty secrets, but by the end, she figures out the connections…and is able to discovers the villain’s true identity because of it.

The key is to leave the story just a wee bit foggy until the very end (or whenever you want the “reveal” moment to occur).

You tell me: How do you add resonance to your story? Or what kind of layers do you suggest building?


11 Responses to The Fine Art of Story Resonance

  1. Erin Bowman Nov 20 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    SOOZ. I love this post. I think this sort of layered, woven “resonance” is important in all stories, but especially in contemps. Because we already know the world–we live in it, after all–I find that its these small details that help the story come to life for me most. The song lyric I hear within the text, the way characters’ parents’ lives overlaps as much as theirs, some object the MC owns that has deep meaning or sentimental value. It’s these things that make me truly by that the characters are as real as my neighbors. (I think these things are all important in speculative fiction as well, but for some reason they always seem to leave me a bit more breathless when done expertly in contemps! Who knows what that says about my reading preferences.)

    Anyway, the point of this rambling comment is: GREAT POST. <3

  2. Emmy Neal Nov 20 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    I LOVE THIS!!! I adore layered novels more than ANYTHING. They’re what keep old plots fresh and unique to a story.

    Reading this just reminded me of Horcruxes in Harry Potter–some of them were there the whole time and we never knew it! I love reading in moments like that 🙂 Really great post!

  3. Sorcha Nov 20 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    The idea of subplots as layers makes so much more sense to me than the intimidating idea that everything needs to be running along at the same time, because OF COURSE you can go back and layer more things on during rewrites.

    (Also, VERONICA MARS. Might be the first time I’ve ever seen someone use it as an example and it warms my cold, dead heart.)

  4. Alyssa Nov 20 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Subplots are one of the biggest things I’ve worried about with my novel. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have enough extra stuff to add to the main plot (i.e. too much ice cream, not enough toppings), but at the same time I don’t want my subplots to take away from the main action or make it more difficult to keep up with.

    Thinking of subplots as layers makes them seem more enriching and much less intimidating. I can go back and look at all of my layers during revision and add more layers if I need to, and I’m sure at that point it will be easier to see the big picture and how everything ties together. Right now, I feel like I’m so wrapped up in each scene that sometimes it’s hard to step back and look at the whole, but that’s what revision is for, right?

  5. Carrie-Anne Nov 20 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    My Russian historical novels are full of this, subplots and secondary characters that all ultimately link up with the main characters and storyline. Sometimes I find it hard to believe I wrote the first one between the ages of 13-21 and managed to create all those subplots with the various orphanage girls and make them connected, in various ways, to the main characters. I’m still doing it now in the third book, with the various characters still in the Soviet Union. My contemporary historical Bildungsroman (1959-74) also has a bunch of different story threads in it.

  6. Alexa (Loves Books) Nov 22 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    I absolutely love this post, because I completely agree. For me, stories with layers are infinitely more interesting/desirable/easy to love than stories without them! I just like how complex it makes everything seem…

  7. Joanne Nov 27 2012 at 7:27 am #

    You finished “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”? Kudos, madam!

    A great article, too, by the way.

  8. Claudia McCarron Nov 27 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Thanks! I was recently worrying about my WIP, wondering how many details was too much. This post has really given me a better perspective.
    In terms of my preferences for story resonance, I love the different ways characters can be connected… something generic like “she likes charcter X” can take on a much richer meaning when it becomes “she him but a relationship would never work out because he would be comepletely dominated by her”. Then it’s loads of fun to see how their relationship progresses and how it affects the plot.

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  10. Steve Mar 11 2014 at 2:02 pm #

    I enjoyed and benefited from this post–thanks. I have a short story with a flat taste that needs something. Layering some subplot and creating resonance might be just the right shot of hot sauce. I’ll give it a try.

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