QUESTION: What is emotional resonance, and how do I create it in my story?
Emotional resonance in fiction is the emotion shared between the reader and the character or characters in the story. At its best, the reader not only feels the character’s emotions, those emotions and goals matter to the reader, not just in the moment of the scene, but through the book and beyond.
To give a scene resonance, you must offer visual and emotional cues in the use of your words and images as well as the five senses of the viewpoint character. Vivid sights, sounds, and other senses are described which put the reader firmly in the character’s head and world.
You can also use archetypal images or metaphors which have a strong emotional resonance for humankind. The archetypal image can raise the hackles (absolute darkness), slow the heartbeat (a babbling brook), or turn the stomach (maggots on a rabbit's carcass). The archetypal image can help push the reader's emotional buttons so you can make them feel what you want them to feel.
Horror writers, for example, use the fear archetype to great effect. Stephen King can go for the archetypal jugular vein with relentless certainty. It is his greatest strength as a writer. His layering of images provokes an emotional response greater than mere words.
The archetypal image can also express changing emotions. In an unpublished novel of mine, the hero and innocent heroine end up in bed. Afterwards, the hero sends her a dozen white roses, the symbol of pure love and innocence.
As the days pass and the hero doesn't get back in touch, the heroine watches the roses fade as her hopes fade. When she finally realizes that the roses that meant “forever” to her mean “thanks for the great sex and good-bye” to him, she smashes the vase.
Her innocence and love have faded completely; her heart is as crushed as the roses on the floor.
To create emotional resonance through the book you must give the main character a worthy goal for the book. If that goal is emotionally important to the character and the reader, emotional resonance will be achieved.
In other words, if the main character must save his daughter from a horrific fate, then the reader is invested emotionally. If the main character is just doing his job and the results aren't important, no one will give an emotional damn.
That goal must remain the focus through every scene, or the reader will lose that investment in the outcome. The character must also actively work toward that goal, despite outside interference from the antagonist and interior emotional interference. He must overcome his enemy and his own weaknesses.
To create the strongest emotional resonance, the hero must also lose something of great value to win.