Some time ago I distilled some of what I’ve figured out about writing into the phrase, “The art of writing reduces itself to the craft of manipulating correspondence; the craft of writing reduces itself to the art of finding the right word.” I’ve been letting that float around in my head for a while now, to see if I could explain it in terms that might be useful to someone. The tricky part is that word, “correspondence,” and what it means and how I’m using it about writing.
I’ve just been re-watching “Doctor Strange,” and going to school with the script. I was noticing some bits with Wong: having a single name (“like Adele….or Aristotle,”) and whether he ever laughs, and how the writer (C. Robert Cargill) used that, returned to it—the exact moments in the film when those came up again, the release of tension, the sense of a callback, the completion of something we weren’t aware needed completing. That last is a lovely thing to pull off. Season 6 of Game of Thrones did a lot of it: paying off things we didn’t even expect to pay off (“Hodor!”).
When I talk about correspondence in writing, that’s the sort of thing I mean. Cargill uses it, as I said, to relieve some tension, to control the pacing, to amuse us, and simultaneously add a bit of depth to a character. But look at the setup for it: we’re at the point where our protagonist is trying to come to terms with his new environment, and the interaction with Wong tells us a great deal both about Strange and about that environment and how far he is from anything familiar. That is all it needed to do. That it then turns around and unexpectedly pays off is a special kind of elegance.
But here’s the thing: that technique can work with amusing bits, and with powerful thematic statements; with word play, and with subtext; with trivialities, and with profundities. In all cases, it is establishing a correspondence between disparate elements or moments. It is how symbols—images in which extra meaning is concentrated—can tell their own story simultaneously with the one being told “on top” if you will. Done badly, it is why that symbolic story gets in the way and makes us feel we’re at a lecture rather than reading a story; done well, the symbolic story reinforces, comments on, corresponds with, the incidents.
Now set all of that aside for a moment, because I want to talk about music.
On the guitar, there are things called “voicings” that are important to better musicians than I am. That is, there are numerous ways to play the same chord, all of which will work with the melody, but each of which is different. For me, if I can find a way to play a chord that’s good enough to not sound horrible, I’m satisfied; but a good guitarist will be aware of the different overtones and harmonics* that each chord formation will have, and will use different voicings to add to the overall effect of the song. The unsophisticated listener (like me) will often be unaware of those choices, but it will nevertheless affect us; if done right, the music will be more fulfilling, more elegant, more lasting.
So now we get to the part of this that I’m struggling to express, because it is simultaneously the most abstract part, and the most practical. Let’s try it this way: Every scene is a chord, every sentence is a string. The string has a note that contributes to the chord, but it also has harmonics. These harmonics might be the exact metaphor used to express a thought, or the rhythm of the sentence, or the generation of a symbol by infusing an image with extra meaning, or the sound of the words, or a bit of semi-accidental worldbuilding, or a sensory detail, or an extra hint of characterization, or any number of other things.
When you’re aware of those harmonics, you can use them, so even as the melody resolves, you return to the harmonic, you can find correspondences and resonances that deepen the melody, provide a counterpoint to it, or suggest other melodies that are implied but never played. What I’m saying is that these harmonics are already in the sentence you’ve written. You just have to look for them.
Maybe this is something you look for in your second draft, maybe for you, you can find it as you’re creating, but it comes down to this: that sentence you’ve written that contributes to the scene, that in turn serves the story: look at it again, and see if maybe there are some harmonics there you can come back to.
* For you mathematicians, a harmonic is a sound wave that has a frequency that is an integer multiple of a fundamental tone. For the rest of us, a harmonic is a secondary tone generated by the vibration of a string that harmonizes with the dominant note.