Resonance and The Reader’s Journey

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:

p. xiii

“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.”

p. xiv

“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.”

p. xv

“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

p. xxvii

“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.”

p. xxix

“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…”

p. xxxii

“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.

p. 167-168

“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:

  1. Do you agree with the proposed theory?
  2. Or, what theory do you have for structure and resonance?
  3. What life events would you correlate with other milestones?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?”

Write Awesomely

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

JSB, Grand Canyon

In last week’s post I mentioned I would be driving all day, and that was quite true. Mrs. B and I needed to get out, get away, do something different. Cindy suggested we motor to the Grand Canyon, just to spend a day looking at something big, majestic, unsullied and quiet.

Turns out my wife’s instinct was right on the money. Scientific research suggests that several benefits flow from the experience of awe—“from happiness and health to perhaps more unexpected benefits such as generosity, humility, and critical thinking.”

In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams emphasizes the need to get away from anthrophone. This refers to the soundscapes created by things like cities, cars, planes, machines, lawn mowers, sirens, neighbors with a teenager who is taking up the drums, and such like. The thing is, that noise goes into our brains and triggers our “fight or flight” receptors. Over time this can create chronic stress, a very real danger to our collective health and well-being.

On the other hand, natural sounds like a gentle breeze, flowing water, and singing birds are interpreted by our brains as relaxing and rejuvenating. In this state we are more creative and less hostile toward other human beings (hmmm…maybe people should only be allowed to tweet when in a forest).

Photo by JSB

The Grand Canyon is something to behold. If you’ve never been there, put it on your bucket list. Plan to spend at least four hours just looking at it. You can drive to various viewpoints, or take a shuttle bus tour, a helicopter flight, or even ride a mule for an overnight stay at the bottom. We opted for the viewpoints.

Grand Canyon = Awesome. Good for the soul.

Writing awesomely = Good for the reader.

What does it mean to write awesomely? At the very least, it means giving your readers more than a by-the-numbers story. Help them feel something beyond numbers. Tap into the inspirational. After all, that’s what the great myths were for. A hero overcomes tremendous odds so that we, the audience, might exhibit the same courage on our own journey through life.

Heracles kills the Hydra. He does so with a mixture of courage, strength and thought. Since cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads means two more heads replace it, Heracles has his nephew, Iolas, put a torch to each cut to cauterize it. And thus he dispatches the monster. Hey, maybe you can do the same when it seems your bills are like Hydra’s heads.

Or maybe you face a seemingly insoluble problem. If you approach it wisely, like Theseus in the Labyrinth, you can kill your personal Minotaur and find a way back to the world.

In our modern storytelling, we have mythic heroes of various stripes teaching us valuable lessons. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in Now, Voyager, shows us that inner strength and beauty can be developed even under the worst of circumstances. Atticus Finch teaches us that sometimes a losing battle is morally imperative. Heck, even Dirty Harry Callahan shows us that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to save the innocent—especially a busload of children in the grip of a mad killer. Do you believe that? “Well do ya, punk?”

Driving home with Elixir in the trunk.

So one of the ways to be awesome is to be intentional about the meaning of your story. In my book, The Last Fifty Pages, I talk about the idea of a “life lesson learned.” My friend Chris Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, calls this the “Return With the Elixir.” It’s what takes a story from tale to myth, from entertainment to exaltation. Why not go for it, every time out?

To prepare, take a little time each day to get away from the anthrophone. There are abundant apps and sites with nature sights and sounds. A fifteen-minute break every now and then seems almost a health mandate these days. So get quiet, forget about Twitter, and maybe the boys in the basement will mix you some elixir.

What is awesome to you? What natural sites have lifted your soul? 

What works of fiction have elevated you, given you a takeaway that is more than entertainment?

Using the Argument Against Transformation to Strengthen Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s post is for structure fans. If you’re a dedicated pantser for whom any thought of form and function causes you to break out in hives, you have my permission to go play Candy Crush, for we are about to take a deep dive into the skeletal framework of storytelling.

This post was prompted by an email from a reader of Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. The gist of the email is below, reproduced with the sender’s permission:

I’m planning a book that is plot-driven rather than character-driven, so as I look at developing my “Mirror Moment,” I know it’s going to be more about digging deep and finding the strength to face physical and/or psychological death (like in The Fugitive), rather than a specific need to change. I wondered how the twin plot points of “Argument Against Transformation” and “Transformation” worked in that case (since there isn’t an actual transformation)? Are those beats skipped in a plot-driven story?

This is a very intelligent question, and told me immediately that my correspondent has a real grasp of structure and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

He rightly points out there are two kinds of arcs for a main character: 1) he becomes a better version of himself; or 2) he remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger through the ordeal. (Note: both of these arcs can be reversed, resulting in tragedy).

In books or movies of the first kind, such as Casablanca, you’ll often find a compelling beat, which I call “the argument against transformation.” It’s a setup move which defines the MC’s journey and pays off nicely at the end, with actual transformation.

Thus Rick, at the end of Casablanca, has transformed from a loner who has withdrawn from the community into a self-sacrificing member of the war effort. Remember at the  airport, when he’s explaining to Ilsa why they can’t go off together? “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do you can’t be any part of.”

And two minutes later Rick proves his transformation by shooting Major Strasser right in front of Louis, the French police captain.

Early in Act 1, we have Rick’s argument against such a transformation. That is, he states something that is the opposite of what he will come to believe—and be—at the end. He says it two times, in fact: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Another example: At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has learned, “There’s no place like home.” But early in Act I, she argues against that notion. She tells Toto there’s got to be a place they can go where there’s no trouble, a place you can’t get to by a boat or a train. A place “behind the moon … beyond the rain …” (cue music).

That’s the first kind of transformation. But my correspondent was asking about the second kind, where the character does not change inside. Here’s what I wrote in response:

In the kind of story you describe, there is a transformation—from weaker to stronger. The hero is forced to survive in the dark world, and must become more resilient. So at the end he is not fundamentally a different person, but is a stronger, more resourceful version of himself.

In thinking about your question, it seems to me that the “argument against transformation” in a “getting stronger” story corresponds to what my friend Chris Vogler labels “Refusal of the Call” (in his book The Writer’s Journey). One example Chris uses is Rocky. When Rocky Balboa is first offered the chance to fight Apollo Creed, he says no. “Well, it’s just that, you see, uh…I fight in clubs, you know. I’m a ham-and-egger. This guy… he’s the best, and, uh, it wouldn’t be such a good fight. But thank you very much, you know.”

Implicit in that refusal is his belief that he’s not strong enough.

The transformation beat comes at the conclusion of the final battle, usually in the form of some visual that shows the stronger self. In Rocky, he’s got Adrian in his arms and adulation from the fans.

In The Fugitive, the argument against transformation is shown cinematically. After Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on the scene of the train derailment, we cut to Kimble running through the woods, his face etched with fear. In a book, you could put in Kimble’s inner thoughts about it. I know an operating chamber, not the streets! How am I going to survive?

The Mirror Moment is what holds these two ends of the spectrum together, which is why it is perfectly situated in the middle of a book. The protagonist has a moment when he’s forced to look at his situation, as if in a mirror (sometimes there’s an actual mirror in the scene!). He either thinks, Who am I? What have I become? Will I stay this way? (Casablanca); or, There is no possible way I can survive this…I’m probably going to die! (The Fugitive).

Now, if you pantsers have made it this far without your heads exploding, I congratulate you, and offer this word of comfort: you don’t have to think about structure before you start a project, or while you’re writing it. Go ahead, be as wild and free as you like!

But when the time comes (and it always does) when you need to revise and figure out why something isn’t working—and what you can do to make it work—structure will be there to help you figure it out.

Because story and structure are in love, and there’s no argument against that!

***

Gilstrap Watch: John reports that the surgery “went great.” He feels, naturally, like he “took a beating,” but expects to be “fine in a week or two.” Huzzah! (For those who don’t know what this is about, see John’s post from last Wednesday.)