What are dissonance and consonance?

Instead of seeing stories in term of battles that are won or lost, I like to conceptualize stories in music theory terms of dissonance and consonance.

A narrative is in a state of dissonance if there is narrative tension that has not yet been resolved. The story feels unstable. The instability often drives the narrative to keep searching for resolution and/or compromise, but you can also end a story on a dissonant note. Horror often does this to leave a possible resolution hanging in the air at the end: an implication that’s not fully rendered.

Meanwhile, a narrative is consonant when there is a sense of stability and resolution. While writers often like to resolve a story’s dissonance to consonance at the end of the narrative—the biggest example being the happily ever after ending—consonance can also appear throughout the narrative, providing rest points that are poignant along the duration of the narrative.

Think of consonance and dissonance as the musical score to your narrative. Where do you let readers linger? Where do you make the reader sit with their discomfort? Mastery of consonance and dissonance gives you insight into the moments in a narrative where you can tug on a reader’s heartstrings and have them tear up over your words. You can manipulate the cues of your narrative to play your readers’ emotions like a fiddle.

Reading comprehension exercises

  1. Read a short story. Pay attention to where you feel comfort and discomfort.
  2. Watch a movie or TV show. Pay attention to where you want to rewind or fast forward.
  3. Play a game with interactive dialogue and/or cut scenes. Pay attention to where you want to skip ahead and where you felt like you should have picked a different dialogue option.