The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Harmonics and Correspondence

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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.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

23 Comments

  1. So is that why you play the drum? So you can beat the meaning out of the poor thing? 🙂

  2. Very nice sir.

    I do have to admit your comparison to harmonics on guitar, made me pause, put down your blog, pick up my guitar, and chord book to see if i could find alternate chord fingering for a song that while ok could be better musically before i came back and finished reading your stellar explanation

    Ps i decided the standard fingerings where sufficient, ( mostly because my skill level is still amateurish when it comes to bar chords) but i was able to developed a rhythm strumming pattern that will enhance the songs lead fingerpicking pattern.

    Once again you opened my mind in unintentional ways. TY

  3. I thought about this when I read “In our own day, we have come to recognize as barbarism such activities, whatever the motives with which they are carried out, and so in our present day all such have been forbidden except when carried out against Teckla, who do not feel pain as gentlemen do.” There are countless ways to make this point about Paarfi, but wow, what resonance. Simultaneously calling attention to his place in his universe, and smacking the reader in the face with the subjectivity of the narrator, putting every other description or narration in the light of this information. Powerful stuff.

  4. skzb

    Yebor: Yeah, me too.

    Fabritsiocarso: Cool, thanks.

  5. I like!

    For some reason, it reminds me of an anecdote a friend told me:

    Some months before, a friend of his came up to him and she said “Chronology” and walked off, to which he responded primarily by being perplexed.

    Several weeks later, she came up to him and asked: “What’s that thing where you make sense of the plot by ordering events in time?”.

  6. Actually, I found the first six paragraphs so abstract I struggled to understand them. The seventh was concrete enough for me that I started to get your point. I like the music analogy. Really good poetry does this as well and in fewer words. Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred “prose” Astaire.

  7. Regarding alternate voicing of guitar chords: Unlike piano, where every song is laid out in front of you on a line of 88 keys, on the guitar, a song is hidden in those six strings and 20+ frets. Find where it’s hiding, and you’ve got the song. Sometimes it’s a matter of putting the capo up a couple frets, sometimes it’s a different voicing to make getting from one chord to the next simpler (rule #1 of guitar riffs: laziness is the source of all creativity — if it isn’t easy, it won’t become a riff). Last week I was trying to figure out Marcus King’s “One Day She’s Here” and the evil ultimate-guitar.com page suggested a truly awful version of the F#7 (xx4320). The next voicing (242322) is (a) easier to get to (although it’s a bar chord), (b) contributes to the bass riff, and (c) sounds right.

  8. I am having a bit of trouble wrapping my head around the scope implied by “every scene is a chord, every sentence is a string”.

    I interpret a chord and a string as very small things – a chord on even something as fancy as a harp or a zither really only uses a small set of strings.

    I think of a scene as covering multiple paragraphs, each of which would have multiple sentences. So these are comparatively larger things than strings or chords.

    I’m not saying that the simile is bad, or misleading or poorly worded…

    I guess I’m just saying that it doesn’t resonate with me.

  9. skzb

    A scene is also a very small thing.

  10. Wait wait wait. Doctor Strange was good? No one told me. I am off to watch it…

  11. This raises a question I sometimes have. Do you deliberately plant the Easter egg for later discovery, or do you discover it later and then go back in time to plant the device? Or do you just get lucky that it was there?

  12. I too am having trouble parsing this, but I’m fascinated and wish to know more.

  13. skzb

    David: I’ve done both, depending on circumstances. The accidental discovery is more fun for me, but there’s a joy in planting time bombs as well, especially if I’m not sure they’ll ever go off. Or maybe land mines would be a better metaphor.

    In my current WIP I’m having an interesting experience with that. I always, when drafting, put a lot of guns on a lot of mantelpieces to see which ones will end up needing to go off, so I can remove the others; this book I’m removing a surprising number of them–all sorts of sub plot I’m discovering fizzle out and go nowhere and so get scrapped. I mean, that always happens, but in this book it’s happening a lot, which is interesting.

  14. But the time bombs or land mines do not even need to go off in the same book. They can go off years or books later. For example, you threw in an exasperated line from Sethra about Zungeron in Issola when she was explaining to Vlad about Great Weapons, and in Dzur we discovered what she was on about.

    I guess I am writing in favor of continuing to plant them.

  15. skzb

    Different sort of thing, though. I mean, yeah, I love planting those–and those are the sorts of things I’m talking about in this post. But there are other things where, if they don’t payoff in that story, it clangs. It has to do with a) how much weight they’re given, and, b) the degree to which they can stand purely on their own as a bit of business.

  16. Are you saying that planting literary landmines is more art than science? I can readily accept that premise. And I plan to tread carefully when I am reading (or, more likely, re-reading) your books.

  17. skzb

    I’d say it partakes of both, like so much of human activity. If it were only science, we’d have a formula for it; if it were only art, there’d be no point in my efforts to analyze it.

  18. First thing I thought of was ye olde French poesie: La nature est un temple, ou de vivants piliers, etc

  19. On some stringed instruments, normally the finger presses the string with enough pressure to push the string all the way down to the board. But the musician can keep the finger in the exact same position, but instead resting lightly, barely touching, the string. When the note is played in that position, a faint sound several octives higher results. The smoothness, consistency, and duration of the harmonic note is much more difficult to sustain, but it sounds really cool.

    I think I am beginning to understand that a harmonic in writing could be compared to that process. A word, or a phrase, or a concept occupies a space on the page or within a sentence or within a chapter. It does the mechanical job of telling the story and keeping the ideas progressing forward, as a stringed note played with the usual full pressure.

    But if words or phrases that take on expanded meaning in the context of the work are placed with special skill and precision, the writer can do more than just write a sentence and the reader can get more out of reading it. And when that process happens subconsciously because of who the author is, how he or she thinks, and what he or she knows, it start to resemble magic.

  20. skzb

    Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.

  21. And of course there is also the orchestration in Ravel’s Bolero, which has a four part harmony on specific instruments that sets up a resonance to create a fifth “ghost” part floating above the instruments.

    And if you’re after the complicated explanation, read this: http://theidiomaticorchestra.net/parallel-dobling/

    and I have no idea why they spelt doubling wrong in the URL.

  22. RonJB–

    I tried to read the article in your link but my head almost asploded. Too late in the evening, I deem. Perhaps I will take another crack at it tomorrow. The idea of a fifth instrument that does not physically exist but can heard because of the combination of harmonics of the other four is just really very cool. It is something a Vallista might especially love.

  23. The general term for these is, emergent properties. Basically, it is the emergence of more complexities out of a number of smaller parts; none of which themselves exhibit the emerging property.

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