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Monday, April 19, 2021

Annoyance vs. Resonance--One Small Difference

Audiences dislike story elements that are annoying. They love story elements that resonate. Surprisingly, annoyance and resonance are like two sides of the same coin. They usually appear for the same reasons, but one induces eye rolls while the other invites frisson. Let's look at these experiences in more depth, so we can bring more resonance into our stories, without annoying audiences. 

What Makes Something Annoying

Author and writing instructor David Farland does a good job explaining annoyance and resonance. In a blog post of his (that is now apparently lost to cyberspace), he compares writing a book to playing a song. While the writer hits different "notes," there is an overall melody--an overall theme. But if the writer repeatedly hits the same exact note over and over and over and over . . . it can become annoying. 

This is true of almost anything. The first time something happens, we may not think too much of it. It may be an inconvenience if we don't like it, but it's not that big of a deal. If the exact same thing keeps happening over and over and over again, we get annoyed. 

It's like when your little sibling repeatedly pokes you during a long car ride. You dislike it the first time. But after the fifteenth, you're about ready to throw him out of the vehicle. 

Too much repetition, without proper variation, gets annoying. 

This isn't to say this is the only way annoyance may happen--for example, many audiences find being preached at annoying. Preaching usually happens when the text doesn't handle theme properly or fairly. When a text over exaggerates or over understates (😆 pretty sure that phrasing is inaccurate, but it works for now), it can become annoying as well. Though, to be fair, if these things happen briefly, the audience is probably not going to feel like they are suffering for it. If they happen repeatedly or for a long enough duration, they'll become annoying.

Usually, annoyance comes from repetition.

We almost never want to annoy the audience--unless of course, that's the point, in which case, you now know that what you need to do is repeat the same thing over and over and over again. 

And if you find your protagonist in a situation where he or she has to deal with the annoying, it's usually a good idea to validate to the reader that the situation is annoying . . . should the reader's emotional experience be similar to the protagonist's. 

. . . But most often in such situations, the reader's experience is deviated from the protagonist's, so that what the protagonist finds annoying, the audience finds entertaining or endearing. 

And it's always worth mentioning that what may seem annoying to one person may not always be annoying to someone else. Nonetheless, I think we can agree that some things are generally annoying to most people.

What Makes Something Resonant

We've probably all experienced resonating stories, even if we didn't put that word to them. It may be a story that hits us right in the hearts and changed our perspectives, changed our lifestyles. It may be a passage that was reminiscent of another famous work. Or it may be a line of dialogue at a climax that calls back to an opening scene.

Resonance makes a text feel more meaningful, more intentional, more tied together. It might give the audience chills or a sense of rightness. Where annoyance is well . . . annoying. Resonance is pleasing. Maybe even a little magical. 

Resonance can happen on a few different levels. 

First, a story may resonate with a particular audience, because of a shared experience or perspective. For example, a story about owning a dog would resonate with me because I've been around dogs pretty much my whole life. Some subjects may resonate with a broader audience--everyone has to grow up, so a coming-of-age story is more likely to resonate with more people. (However, if the theme of the dog story is more universal and executed well, it can resonate with a more general audience, too.)

Second, a story may resonate with other stories that are similar. In some sense, one might argue this is why genres exist. If I like a paranormal romance book, I might want to read another paranormal romance book. Now, if the paranormal romance books are too similar to each other, they may start to get annoying.

Third, a story may resonate with itself. Motifs and callbacks are recurring concepts in a text. When Jack Sparrow asks, "Why is the rum always gone?" it ties back to an earlier moment where he said something similar. Likewise, when we see the totem spinning at the end of Inception, it ties back to earlier scenes that involve the spinning totem. Motifs and callbacks are probably, in most ways, two terms for the same concept, but I tend to see "motif" used more often in relation to theme and "callback" used in relation to dialogue.

In order for resonance to happen, something needs to repeat--it needs to resound, to echo. Maybe it echoes our own human experiences, other works, or itself, but it does echo.

And anyone who has played around with echoes, knows that they don't sound the exact same. The echo usually sounds a little different, and it certainly doesn't hit at the same volume. 

This is what makes something resonate, without being annoying. 

If I were to read a book that was the exact same as my life, ironically, it probably wouldn't resonate with me. It would be boring or annoying. 

If I picked up another paranormal romance book that was the exact same as the first, it probably wouldn't be a great experience--especially if it's meant to be a different book.

If I had a character retell the same joke over and over again, it likely wouldn't be funny--it'd be annoying. 

Resonance isn't a copy. It's a variation. 

It will either vary within itself or it will vary in context. 

For example, in Marley and Me, Marley is referred to as the "worst dog in the world." But at the end of the story, this is switched to the "best dog in the world." This provides a new perspective on Marley.

And in Mockingjay, the lyrics to "The Hanging Tree" stay exactly the same. But the meaning changes as the context shifts.

This is variation.

Variation helps create resonance. 


I hope you realize by now that in writing, there are always exceptions. In some rare cases, exact repetition is the point. In The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya repeats, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die" to the point of being a mantra. 

The repetition is the point. (However, one may argue that the context of even that line changes slightly.)

Repetition is also sometimes needed to remind the reader of information they may have forgotten. And it can be useful with new or unusual information, like with worldbuilding. 

But, the rule of thumb is this:

Exact repetition = More likely to be annoying

Repetition with variation = More likely to be resonant

If you want to learn more about variations that help create resonance, check out my article on callbacks and my article on motifs


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