Narrative resonance

Narratives resonate when the work makes a reader feel emotions. Some readers may go on to recommend the work to their friends. Others might never mention that they’ve read your work, but the experience of crying over a story may be something they keep very close to their heart.

Note that narrative resonance connotes a positive and/or cathartic response to your work, one that rings true. A narrative can ring false to someone if it creates an unintended side effect of anger, frustration, or disappointment. You cannot control the fact that your story may ring false for someone. All you can do is make your best effort to tell a story that rings true.

As a writer, you can create narrative resonance by not only trusting your own voice, but also perfecting your timing.

Every writer’s sense of timing is different. Punctuation conventions help to standardize how readers pause throughout the story, but they are only guidelines. In the absence of being able to read aloud your story to others, you can use your tool kit of punctuation and breaks at different levels of granularity (line, stanza, paragraph, page, section, chapters, parts) to replicate how you want your story to be read.

Timing also involves where you emphasize, or add stress to, a word or idea. Typically, people use bold and italics to represent emphasis. You don’t need to use emphasis throughout your stories, and some readers may find it jarring to add too much emphasis. Then again, readers of 1960s-era USA comics tolerate a lot more emphasis, as seen in the frequent use of bold, italics, and word art (all images courtesy of Marvel comics):

Figure 2. Multiple emphases in narration and dialogue in a Black Widow comic strip.
Figure 3. Black Widow comic cover with emphasis in both italics and word art, as well as through the use of a jagged speech bubble.
Figure 4. Moonstone comic strip using emphasis for both unfamiliar terms in the narration and linguistic stress in the speech bubbles.

To demonstrate how punctuation and line breaks create different moods, here’s William Carlos Williams’ famous “This Is Just To Say” in poetry form:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Now, here are a few potential prose variations:

  1. I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox, and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet, and so cold.
  2. I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were (probably) saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious! So sweet, and so cold!
  3. I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox. And which you were probably saving. (For breakfast?) Forgive me. They were delicious… So sweet! And so cold.

You can also manipulate syntax, or word order, to convey informational timing. For example, jokes, opening lines, and closing lines often benefit from the most important word being at the end of the sentence.

The timing equivalent to a voice is a time signature. You’ve no doubt heard the saying “march to the beat of your own drum.” When you have confidence in your own voice and time signature, your work will attract others who sync with you, whether through enjoying your voice, timing, or both. Rather than following you for concepts or specific stories you’ve told, readers who identify your voice and time signature are typically the ones who remember your work longest. To create impactful stories, you must master both voice and timing.

Reading comprehension exercises

  1. Explain what it means for a narrative to ring true or false.
  2. Name three tools you can use to manipulate narrative timing.
  3. Provide an example of a text that doesn’t use emphasis and a text that does.
    1. Explicate whether either text would benefit from adding or removing emphasis.
  4. Find a poem you like.
    1. Rewrite the poem into prose in three different ways, changing only punctuation, line breaks, and emphasis each time.
  5. Freewrite for 10 minutes.
    1. Cut your freewriting piece to 50% of its length.
      • Add punctuation, whitespace, and emphasis as needed to keep the passage legible.
      • Wherever possible, condense lengthy descriptions into a single evocative phrase.
    2. Reflect on the choices you had to make while compressing your piece. What was effective? What ended up taking away from the meaning you were trying to convey?