Emotional Resonance

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’ve been reading a great book on writing for children and YA called ‘Writing Irresistible KidLit‘ by Mary Kole and, apart from wishing I’d read it a little earlier (for it encapsulates all the elements that make any novel great), I was particularly interested in the comments surrounding the need for emotional resonance. Kole writes that when she puts down most manuscripts or submissions she’s left wondering “And? So what?” She notes that all too often a book fails to create sufficient emotional resonance to make the reader care – and all too often this is because the writer hasn’t built in enough conflict.

Just a few weeks ago I experienced the exact thing Kole was writing about. I was only a couple of chapters into the final instalment in a very popular YA trilogy when I put down the book and thought “So what?” The story had totally lost any kind of emotional resonance for me.There was no longer any conflict that I cared about between the characters, and (as a result) I couldn’t be bothered continuing to read. To be fair, I did keep reading but I found myself skimming the pages until the end hoping that there would be a point at which I became reinvested in the story. 
There wasn’t.

Often when we talk about the craft of writing we focus on elements such as characterisation, setting, style, plot and structure. Embedded within all of these are the need to establish a strong voice and the need to make a reader care enough to keep turning the pages. However the issue of emotional resonance can be just as tricky to explain as the concept of ‘voice’ in some one’s writing. You know it when you see it, just as you know when it’s not there – but it can be a pretty difficult concept to wrangle to the ground.

So, mulling over this rather slippery concept of emotional resonance, I thought of a few key elements, namely:

  • High stakes for characters that have believable motivations and emotions;
  • High conflict between these characters, who face life changing events that a reader cannot help but become invested in; and
  • A greater (‘bigger’) question that touches upon core emotional needs that readers identify can with…

Central to all of these is conflict (both between and within the characters) – which is exactly what was missing from the book I just tried to finish. As I grapple with final edits to a current WIP, I have the issue of emotional resonance now firmly in my mind. I don’t want my agent or an editor finishing it, putting it down, and saying “And? So what?”(!)

So fellow TKZers, how would you characterise emotional resonance? How do you try to achieve it in your own writing? And have you ever put down a book because (like me) you found yourself saying “So what?”…

16 thoughts on “Emotional Resonance

  1. Great points, as always.

    Could you elaborate on this a bit:

    “•A greater (‘bigger’) question that touches upon core emotional needs that readers identify can with…”


    • I do think it’s a question of something that goes to the heart of the human condition…and yet it can’t be cliched (so it really is a tricky concept). I know it, when in the midst of reading, a phrase or scene strikes me so deeply it brings tears to my eyes. I remember feeling it reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (in a depressing rather than uplifting way). Let me muse some more on this and see if I can give more specific examples…

  2. A greater (‘bigger’) question that touches upon core emotional needs that readers identify can with…

    You’ve hit on it, Clare. In one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s notebooks he jotted the following reminders:

    Work on every plot until you have:

    1. Unusual opening incident
    2. Complete character conflicts
    3. Some emotional appeal
    4. Some unusual slant of characters and situation
    5. All stock situations eliminated

    JSB: Gardner would work and work on all of these elements before he started writing, which he would do really fast once the plot was figured out. But he knew early on that he wanted to appeal to a large public, and that required that he find, as you put it, some “core emotional need.”

  3. This is a rich topic…and a slippery one. When we talk about the reader’s “emotional needs” do we mean the satisfaction of closure in a plot? (Does the hero triumph? Is evil vanquished? Is the mystery solved?) Those are easy concepts perhaps and maybe too limited (we all know that good fiction don’t need to supply a “happy” ending and the best books are often ambiguous at end). Or are we talking about the characters and how they present their emotional lives to the readers? Then we have to talk about whether the reader should empathize with the character’s journey…and the old question: Must a character be “likable” to be satisfying to a reader? I always wonder about that last one because I have read some compelling books in which not one character was likeable. (“Gone Girl” comes to mind). Or are we talking about that special alchemy created when plot and character development so perfectly dovetail that the reader is feeling the character’s pain, joy — whatever the emotions the writer is trying to evoke. I can only go by my own experience…with every book, we try to find a way to relate the crime to the hero’s personal journey. It MEANS something to him, and thus might elicit a deeper response from the reader. Joseph Wambaugh put it best, for me: It is not how the dectective works the case, it is how the case works on the detective.

    We could do a whole day’s panel on this topic!

    • We could! It’s like opening Pandora’s box:) But still it’s important to think about – on all these levels. In Kole’s book she says the story must be both a mirror and a window. I kind of like that image.

    • This is really superb stuff and it does deserve a special panel. Heart of the matter, indeed. I know it’s working when I feel like I’m twisting something inside into knots. “Feel” being the operative word here.

  4. I’ll start with the easy one first. I put down books all the time, including Doctorow’s Little Brother, much to my daughter’s dismay.

    I’m not sure that I understand precisely what you mean when you mention emotional resonance. As PJ said, that can be a very slippery slope.

    Do I try to use it in my own work? Yes, quite deliberately. I’m not trying to impress anyone with my skillful wordsmithing or amazing imagination. Instead, I’m trying to invite readers into my world and help them feel what I feel.

    If I don’t have strong emotions about what I am writing, the writing is . . . challenging. But when I find that core, what Hemingway would call that “one true sentence,” then I have something I can work with, to build around, to feel.

    If you’re not comfortable walking down Main Street naked, it’s not a writing style for you.

  5. “High stakes for characters that have believable motivations and emotions;
    High conflict between these characters, who face life changing events that a reader cannot help but become invested in”

    For me, the above is a pretty succinct summary of what creates emotional resonance. As a reader, if you don’t care about the characters or their challenges, there is no resonance. As a writer, your job is to create fascinating characters, give them a big ass challenge, put lots of road blocks in their path (create conflict), and take them on an amazing journey that leaves you (and will leave your readers) breathless. And have a satisfying ending.

  6. I often put down books because i don’t care about them. Like the rich lawyer who left his beautiful wife for another woman because he was bored and his wife didn’t understand him. Oh, and another lawyer got killed. Why should I pay $25 for some guy’s mid-life crisis?
    For me, engaging characters have to have emotional vulnerability — they’re going to lose their lives, their livelihood, their loved ones.

  7. The greatest way to create resonance is to give the main character a worthy goal for the book. If that goal is emotionally important to the character and the reader, emotional resonance will be achieved.

    In other words, if the main character must save his daughter from a horrific fate, then the reader is invested emotionally. If the main character is just doing his job and the results aren’t important, no one will give a damn.

  8. I had an ah-ha moment today in my writing regarding this. I finished a scene wherein my heroine, going through a very rough time, discovers something very emotional and important to her sense of self. And when I re-read the scene today I REACTED to it and felt for her. I have been struggling mightily with this character but I knew with this one little scene I finally got it. I reacted as reader to her pain and joy. It was eye-opening for me, the writer.

  9. I put down books for exactly this reason. I need to feel that story investment right in the pit of my stomach. Oddly, the first few pages telegraph the authors “moves” or the lack of them. It’s like “reading” a person within the first few seconds of meeting them. Just what might he or she do if a fire breaks out or somebody starts shooting? Would I want this person in the hole with me? Would you want this person in the car (talking nonsense and twitching) during a road trip? Applies to stories, too.

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