31 August 2012

Context is King

I live halfway up (or down) a hill, it's a little like a bowl with houses on the far side. Stick with me for a moment, as I promise you this is relevant.

One evening about a year ago I was on the phone talking to a friend while looking out of the window. It was winter and dark so I couldn’t see much other than house lights. Suddenly flames shot up from a house on the far side of the hill.

My words were along the lines of, 'Oh my goodness it's a fire.' You can see how restrained I was! My friend, at the other end of the phone, had no idea of the context of my words. Did I have a kitchen fire? Was my house suddenly a raging inferno?

Context is everything when we write. We don't live in a void and neither do our characters. Non-fiction writing also needs context. A prospective reader will want to know why they should buy this particular book. In learning and development terms this is generally referred to as WIIFM - What's in it for me? If I'm going to invest my money, and more importantly my time, then there has to be a good reason.

In my last post I mentioned the shoot-out at the beginning of the film. I didn't know any of the characters, or the reasons behind the gunfight so I didn't really care about the outcome.

We need to care about characters to invest emotion in them, and we need context as where something is happening and why.

It doesn't need to be pages of description; often a few words or a sentence is enough for readers to paint the picture themselves.

Context is most important in our beginnings - obviously the start of a book, and the start of sections or chapters to orient the reader, especially if we've moved the setting, time has elapsed, or we are now with different characters or a different POV.

We may be able to see the scene clearly in our minds, but if we haven't taken the reader with us, they'll be stumbling around in the fog wondering where they are.

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