Using un-resolution to make your writing catchy

Ever wondered why some songs are just – well – catchy?  There’s a lesson there for writers wanting to draw audiences.

Matthew 1988 recording session 2
This is me in during a recording session a (cough cough) while back, possibly playing the Secret Carlos Santana Chord Progression, or maybe just Louie Louie, on my Roland Alpha Juno-2.

One of the reasons is the old ‘unresolved chord progression’ trick. Richard Wagner used to use it a lot – stringing his audiences along for three or four days before resolving the musical tension in the last few seconds of his mammoth operas.

These days we’re luckier – it’s applied to songs that last a few minutes. The method works by exploiting a trick of expected chord progression. We are conditioned to expect the music to ‘resolve’ to a specific (and usually pleasing) chord. Until then the music seems to ‘hang’, demanding that resolution. One way to extend interest is to play all but the resolution and then – instead of that last one – jump to another incomplete progression. It includes variations such as a part-resolution – a single note of the ‘resolution’ chord ahead of the full thing, tantalising listeners. It also works in rock music where suspended chords are often used to create a sense of movement, and where the bass can ‘drive’ the resolution.

It’s true for writers too – fiction and non-fiction alike. Want to draw the reader? Do it by not resolving something until the right moment. It’s the twist-ending in a short story. It’s the moment of tension at the end of a chapter – unresolved – that drives readers to go to the next. And it makes the readers think, which is the essence of good writing.

The way to do it is identical to the ‘missing resolution’ technique in music. Give readers a tension that demands resolving. But don’t give them the information to resolve it until the last minute. Make them work for it.

That works at all sorts of scales – from the draw needed to bring readers to the end of the current paragraph, through to the draw needed to make them want to read a book down to the last page. The nature of the ‘un-resolution’ has to be adjusted to suit the scale – it can be as small as a detail in character conversation, or as large and over-arching as a plot issue. You can have all sorts of ‘unresolved’ issues floating at the same time.

All of them work together to draw the readers. The challenge is working them into the styling and getting the technique right – hitting the mark. That takes practise, and isn’t something that can necessarily be learned overnight. But it’s well worth trying.

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If you want to learn more about writing and some cool techniques for turning those perfect ideas in your head into the written word, check out my short book How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016