Snow: An Exercise in Context

snow and treesWe’re into the second week of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNo), a 50,000-word challenge I’ve participated in every year since 2003, and I’m running almost a full day behind because I didn’t have time to do my normal preparation steps. I thought to share a smile with you today, something quick that required little effort, but then snow happened.

When I woke up this morning to the sight of real, thick snow on the ground in my backyard, I was delighted. Sure, I’d seen it before I went to bed, but it had been a light powdering that could have vanished by morning. This is enough to build with.

It struck me then how snow is the perfect example to explore the topic of context, something crucial in any communication, and especially in storytelling, but which can be overlooked.

I may have mentioned this before, but my older son took an acting class when he was little, and one of the exercises was to infuse an innocuous phrase with emotion, to provide context through tone of voice and body language. Imagine a stage full of pre-teens howling, crying, stoically facing each other, and performing other emotional reactions to the sound of “hobby goblin,” “here’s your pizza,” or “I have a car.” It was amazing, chaotic, and important.

Now with that image in your mind, I want you to hear the words: It’s snowing.

The words themselves have no emotion attached. They’re a simple statement of fact no different than “the grass is green,” or “the grocery store is open.”

It’s the context that imbues them with power. Without the context, two people could have a full conversation in which they think they understand each other but one is worried while the other is joyful.

Some examples of context for “it’s snowing” off the top of my head are:

1) Person with a long commute, including areas that get icy.
2) Student with a big test to study for.
3) A child experiencing their first snow.
4) A skier.
5) A farmer worried about the drought.
6) A traveler facing a mountain pass.

Can you see how each of them would perceive the picture above? What emotions would it inspire? What consequences does it indicate?

Since it’s NaNo and the focus should be on writing, take this as a writing prompt or exercise (do it in December if it isn’t compatible with your NaNo). Do one or all of the steps below:

1) Write a paragraph for each of the above characters revealing their reaction to the snow.

2) Come up with at least two more characters who would have a different reaction to the sight of snow.

3) *Bonus* Write a conversation between two of the characters I provided or you came up with in which they think the reaction to snow is the same until a final detail provides context and reveals the conflict.

Have fun with this, but remember it’s an important lesson too, and a life lesson as much as a writing lesson. Context is crucial.

Since context is something that I’ve mentioned before, I reviewed the previous posts and came up with one close to this exercise that works as an example using a different starting concept. If you’re having trouble with the exercise, hop over to Underlying Messages for a completed example, or Context Is King for a look at the importance of context.

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