Resonance and The Reader’s Journey
Why Does Good Story Structure Resonate?
by Steve Hooley
We discuss the importance of story structure frequently on this blog site. It is often said that good structure will keep the reader engaged and will allow the story to “resonate” with the reader. But how often do we discuss why the structure resonates? And is there anything to be learned for our writing from the answer to the “why” question?
Recently this question hit me and made me start looking for answers. I was watching the news about the Surfside Condo collapse in Miami-Dade County, specifically the ceremony that took place at the end of the rescue efforts and the beginning of the recovery phase. It struck me, at first, that this was a necessary step to prevent victim’s families from being upset that the rescue efforts were ending. But as I watched, I began to realize that people need ceremony.
- To memorialize significant events
- To aid in transitioning to the next stage in life
- To reflect on the past
- To plan for the future
Then the idea hit me that this is similar to story structure. Readers need structure, with all the signposts, pillars, and doorways along the way.
- For the story to resonate
- For the reader to be captured by the story
- For the reader to identify with the main character
- For the story arc to feel right
But that still didn’t answer the question: Why does the story structure resonate?
I began looking for answers in the psychological research literature. There are plenty of studies that show the benefits of routine and structure in making life more meaningful and more productive. We all know that. There are studies that shine light on the techniques (and hormones) that increase tension and empathy. But still, what is the connection between structure and resonance?
Let’s first look at resonance. It is defined as “the quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating.” And from Physics: “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by synchronous vibration of a neighboring object.” For example, in a stringed instrument, the walls of the instrument pick up the vibration of the string, multiplying and enriching the sound.
Thus, we are looking at a story touching something within the reader that is captured and begins to vibrate along with the story, magnifying and enriching the story. In other words, what is it within the reader that he/she identifies with the structure, that is similar in some way, and reverberates and resonates?
I offer the following theory for discussion. Agree, disagree, or give us your theory:
Story structure resonates with readers because it causes the reader to subconsciously identify their own life’s milestones, ceremonies, and arc, with the story structure (either as their life has been lived out, or as they wish it had been, or could be in the future). In other words, the reader hangs their life on the story structure (subconsciously), and hopes for a better outcome.
Here are some quotes from Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, about “the Hero’s Journey” (story structure based on patterns of mythology and the work of Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces):
The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler:
Preface, Second Edition:
“I came to believe that the Hero’s Journey is nothing less than a handbook for life, a complete instruction manual in the art of being human.”
“The Hero’s Journey is a pattern that seems to extend in many dimensions, describing more than one reality. It accurately describes, among other things, … the passage of a soul through life.”
“In the description of the Hero’s Journey they might have picked up some insight about their own lives, some useful metaphor or way of looking at things, some language or principle that defines their problem and suggests a way out of it.”
“…the pleasurable shock of recognition as the patterns resonate with what they’ve seen in stories and in their own lives.”
“…shared attitude about myths—that they are not abstract theories or the quaint beliefs of ancient peoples, but practical models for understanding how to live.”
“Joseph Campbell’s great accomplishment was to articulate clearly something that had been there all along—the life principles embedded in the structure of stories.”
Introduction, second edition
“Good stories make you feel you’ve been through a satisfying, complete experience. You’ve cried or laughed or both. You finish the story feeling you’ve learned something about life or about yourself.”
“The Hero’s Journey, I discovered, is more than just a description of the hidden patterns of mythology. It is a useful guide to life…”
“The Hero’s Journey has served storytellers and their listeners since the very first stories were told, and it shows no signs of wearing out. Let’s begin the Writer’s Journey together to explore these ideas. I hope you find them useful as magic keys to the world of story and the labyrinth of life.”
And from Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
Chapter 9, What Can Go Wrong, Must Go Wrong – And Then Some
Cognitive Secret: The brain uses stories to simulate how we might navigate difficult situations in the future.
Story Secret: A story’s job is to put the protagonist through tests that, even in her wildest dreams, she doesn’t think she can pass.
“What is the benefit, survival-wise, that led to the neural rush of enjoyment a good story unleashes, effectively disconnecting us from the otherwise incessant Sturm and Drang of daily life? The answer is clear: it lets us sit back and vicariously experience someone else suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the better to learn how to dodge those darts should they ever be aimed at us.”
And here are some ideas for life events and corresponding structure milestones:
- Birth Opening Disturbance
- Graduation Doorway of No Return #1
- Midlife crisis The Mirror Moment
- Retirement Doorway of No Return #2
- Recovery from life-threatening illness Final Battle
- Determination to make end-of-life meaningful Transformation
Please give us other ideas for life events and corresponding milestones. Could these be built into story structure?
And here are the questions:
- Do you agree with the proposed theory?
- Or, what theory do you have for structure and resonance?
- What life events would you correlate with other milestones?
- If this theory is correct, what can we build into our story structure milestones to better grab the reader and make him/her feel the resonance?
- Do you have any unique milestones that you build into your stories’ structure to grab the readers and make them feel like they have been through “a satisfying, complete experience?”