Context gives us clues to the meaning of an unfamiliar word, the emotion behind a friend’s reaction, the point of a political slogan.
- The word “flag” can call several images to mind. But even if we’ve never used it this way ourselves, we can sense the meaning through context of a sentence like, “My energy level flags at the end of the day.”
- When everyone else cheers for your child’s successful stage debut, you completely understand the context of your friend’s tears –her budding actress daughter just died of leukemia.
- Without context, you might be confused by a cartoon I saw recently that put a Stephen King byline on “The Path to Prosperity” (the congressional budget).
World-building, or context, makes a plot richer, characters more complex, and setting more accessible. It makes the fictional story world believable.
Common sources for story context
- Your characters’ backgrounds (backstory that often explains motivations and desires)
- Their social setting (friends or the lack of them, marriage, courtship, and the activities associated with sustaining relationships)
- The work/school part of their lives (jobs, classes, employers, coworkers, competitors, worry/anxiety)
- The sociopolitical milieu (what’s happening in the world, near and far, that impacts your characters)
How to use these sources to create rich story context
Look around you, this very minute. Is there a photo of a family member or friend visible? Do you love or hate the room you’re in? Do you enjoy/fear/anticipate/loathe the activity you are supposed to be doing right now? Are you comfortable, hot, or cold? Is the lighting too bright or too dim? Have you just learned that people you know are in danger somewhere in the world? Are you ill or in pain? Have you just won the lottery or learned you’re pregnant?
This is your immediate context, the background that gives meaning to the next thing you do or say. Now you absolutely don’t want to write a scene in which the reader knows the answer to every one of those questions, but you do want the reader to know enough to understand the emotional and physical state you are in when you say or do that next thing.
A main character who gets surly after a couple of drinks and pours a beer on another man at a bar, may be assumed to be uncouth, a drunk, or a bully. But a main character who is fearful and anxious about being sent off to fight a war is understandably unsympathetic to a bar patron who complains his beer isn’t cold enough. How do you “show” the character’s fear and anxiety so the reader isn’t turned off by the character’s scorn? You reveal the context of the immediate situation. Look around the character; look around his world. Is he wearing fatigues? Does he fidget with dogtags? Is he glued to a TV in the bar showing scenes of the war? Does he have three empty bottles in front of him already? Does he fail to notice someone bump into him, or call his name? Does he drum on the table incessantly?
Take this same care to reveal context whenever you want your reader to understand a character’s actions. You don’t always have to use description, though. Conversation and interior thoughts can be just as revealing. Does the guy at the bar mutter curses at what he sees on the TV? Does he answer abruptly, or with a grunt, when someone asks if he’s in the army? While he watches the screen, is he thinking about his fiancée? Is he remembering a friend who returned home with only one leg?
Many writers who are just learning the craft will create detailed biographies of their characters, and then write a story that doesn’t use any of that material. Others cram pages of backstory into their early chapters, slowing the story down to a crawl. Character backgrounds are invaluable sources of context, helping readers understand the actions/reactions of characters. But an info-dump isn’t entertaining. Ease into context by leaving clues. Not too many, just enough.
How to ease into context
Mentioning, once, that a character’s bedroom is lined with shelves of shabby, second-hand books speaks volumes (no pun intended) about the character’s intellectual life and economic status. You don’t have to beat the subject to death by having the character wish they could afford new bestsellers, and gaze longingly in the window of a bookstore, and sigh about the lack of money for luxuries… dribbling the context into chapter after chapter. If you provide the context, and then always have the character act consistently within that context, your reader will understand the motivations that arise from it.
Historical context requires a bit more frequent maintenance. The reader needs to stay firmly in the period, so most scenes will need to have some reminder of the milieu. This could be as simple as a phrase that period-specific, a description of a hairdo or ornament, a reference to a familiar person living during that time, or a social custom. But you don’t want to slow the pace of the story with lengthy descriptions of room contents, architecture, or obscure language. If the hero is fighting the villain, a quick sentence about ripping off a cravat might do to remind the reader he shouldn’t expect a modern forensics team to clean up the scene.
Fantasy and science fiction share a common perception that their worlds are “made up.” But within the context of both, the world needs to have consistency and familiarity. Creating worlds in which nothing is familiar will slow down the reader who has to adapt to every single new thing. Again, look around your “made up” world and really see it, feel it, taste and smell it. What is the same? What is almost the same? What has the same function but a different name, and what has the same name but an enhanced function? You can ground (pun intended this time) a weightless or flying scene by having a familiar stationary landscape, or characters who are as clumsy in the air as they are on the ground, or a feeling of nausea that is similar to what a character experienced after eating bad fish. The reader who can identify with part of the scene can be carried along to the unfamiliar parts.