Stories repeatedly raise and resolve tension

Tags: Writing Story Structure

According to George Saunders, the fundamental unit of story is a kind of call and response. A story introduces an expectation or question and then responds to it. The reader continually notices details proffered by the author, and the author is obliged to deliver on the expectations that those details create.

This is familiar in written works in which a character has some unmet need or goal and tries but fails to reach it in repeated "try-fail" cycles culminating in the story's climax. But it is also a feature of music as well in which a note that sounds dissonant resolves to a note in the chord or where a syncopated rhythm builds tension before collapsing back into the beat.

I suspect that a lot of "corporate art" (stock photos, hold music) is unmemorable because it is designed to be anodyne, contrary to this principle. It avoids creating tension and is therefore ignorable.


Saunders 2020 Stein 2014