Dissonance and Consonance in Writing

Dissonance and consonance are terms used in music. Dissonance means “notes of unrest”–two notes that rub up against each other and cause tension. Consonance means “notes of rest”–notes that would normally “go together”.

When used correctly in a piece of music, dissonance is held to create tension, then released into a consonant chord, creating this amazing sound that could not be found in music created only with consonance. (This is an absolutely beautiful example of dissonance and consonance used together: Lux Aurumque, composed by Eric Whitacre.)

But have you ever heard a little kid pounding on a piano? It doesn’t sound like music at all–it’s made completely of dissonance. No one wants to listen to that. And in the same way, no one wants to read a story that’s made completely of conflict.

I went to a writing conference about a year ago, and there was one session I went to about writing dramatic scenes that happens to relate to this. Here’s some of the notes that I took:

You can’t write tension all the way through, otherwise, your reader will just be so, so worn out that they can’t stand it anymore. Sometimes you have to give your characters a little bit of hope, give them a breather, and then go back into the tension. There has to be a tension relief.

If the conflict of the story is regular and steady it registers less with us over time, and increasing the conflict can drum us senseless. Give audience time to breathe a little bit and distance yourself from the tension so you can be resensitized so it hurts even more this time. Constant pain stops hurting after a while, but if there’s pain, then calm, then more pain, then calm, it hurts more.

Just like with dissonance and consonance in music, you have to hold the tension, and then release it. Leaving the dissonance for too long–or having too much conflict placed on your characters–just seems wrong. When too many things happen to your character all at once, your story stops being beautiful and instead exhausts your reader, just as slamming random notes on a piano can annoy everyone.

I used to have a problem with this. When I was little, I would play imaginary games with my cousins and friends, and I always insisted on being the one who was hurt. Or I would pretend my stuffed animals had broken legs and I would wrap their leg up with paper towels colored with red marker. Something about the helplessness fascinated me, that they needed someone or something else to get through what they were going through. (This may have come from countless stories of “damsels in distress” and princesses rescuing princes, but I’m not sure.)

While helpless characters still interest me to no end, and I’d read about them all day long, I’ve become much better at limiting that from coming into my own writing and making sure to add consonance as well.

On the other side of the spectrum, however, you can’t have dissonance and then ignore it. When you have dissonance in your music, you have to sing and swell into it, otherwise it just sounds like a mistake.

Likewise, you can’t make a character always be able to defeat the conflicts that come their way, or at least not immediately. They have flaws and they’re imperfect, and sometimes the bad guy almost wins.

You can’t introduce a character to a conflict, or even the main conflict, and then whisk them away before they truly have a chance to get to know it. In the Hero’s Journey, the character has to travel through many steps until they reach the final, most excruciating step, where they face the main conflict, head on, and completely alone.

All the other steps have been building toward this point, just as a song slowly builds to its climax. While there are crescendos and decrescendos in between, they all lead up to a single moment. Without this conflict, there is no story at all.

Our writing should be like the ocean leading up to a storm. The waves slowly get larger and larger until they’re the size of houses , but between every wave, there’s always a lull, a time to breathe, before you dive in again.