So you’ve mastered show not tell, motivational reaction units and kicked the passive voice to the kerb. You understand structure, have an interesting protagonist and strong conflict, but still it all feels – meh. With this in mind, I have recently been thinking about emotional resonance, what it is and how to accomplish it.
Editor, Jessica Morrell, says resonance takes place when a story evokes a ‘responsive chord’ in a reader and that writers must place ‘stimuli’ in the story to trigger this response. The key to achieving this is creating characters readers can identify with and care about.
The other week I watched Sleepless In Seattle, a film I have always enjoyed. But this time around I was watching as an aspiring writer with a more critical eye and a plot issue with the story immediately jumped out at me. When 8-year-old Jonah takes a flight to New York by himself, no-one contacts the airlines, police or Empire State Building staff to alert them that an unaccompanied minor child is headed their way. Instead, his father, Sam, hops on the next flight to NYC to search for Jonah by himself.
Yet I found I was willing to overlook the issue because by then I cared about Sam and Jonah. We had witnessed Sam struggling as a single dad and grieving the loss of his wife. I was desperate for him to get together with Annie so Jonah could have a new mum.
The film generally received positive reviews. Vincent Canby of The New York Times said: “Not since Love Story has there been a movie that so shrewdly and predictably manipulated the emotions for such entertaining effect.”
How, then, do we go about creating these emotions in our audience? The answer lies in the protagonist’s struggle. Author, KM Weiland, says the struggle and the stakes have to be personal. “How much and why will he suffer if he loses the fight? And for the bonus round question, ask yourself: How much and why will he suffer even if he wins?”
In Sleepless in Seattle, Sam’s struggle couldn’t get more personal. He’s lost the wife he loved to cancer and has to bring up his adorable 8-year-old son by himself. He doesn’t believe true love happens more than once in a lifetime and plans never to remarry. In winning the chance to love again with Annie, Sam is forced to abandon the belief that his first wife was his one and only true love.
Emotional resonance is what gives a story the ‘X Factor’. In fact, writing teacher, Lindsey Barrett recommends looking to TV reality shows for inspiration. The contestants we root for, she tells us, are those who have overcome adversity to get there.
Nothing encapsulates the hero’s journey more than the struggles of an Olympic athlete. A stand-out moment for me at the 2016 Paralympic Games was when Will Bayley won gold in table tennis having overcome cancer, arthrogryposis and many reconstruction operations. Over-joyed, he jumped onto the table to celebrate. When a stern-faced official marched over to present him with a yellow card for a code violation, he ignored the card and, still beaming from ear to ear, hugged her.
“I have given everything,” he said afterwards, “training six hours a day. People don’t realise what I have achieved. I have done mission impossible.”
And it is these emotive moments we need to re-create in our writing; the longing, the need, the fear, the joy, the elation and sheer desperation.
No pressure then!
Lizzie Hermanson is a wife, mother and talented procrastinator. She writes contemporary romance when her cat isn’t hogging the keyboard and loves Happy Ever Afters. Find her @lizziehermanson