Context Is King

Desert Wilderness

Desert Wilderness

Twitter is a delightful invention that makes a hash of context. Limited to 140 characters, most of the context must be implied or inferred. You get more words than the famous six-word-story challenges, but 140 still isn’t much to offer. Sometimes that means something is lost in the communication.

I was out driving (riding as my hubby had the wheel) and saw something a friend might enjoy. I didn’t want to forget, so tweeted the following:

On the back of a full-size truck…I’m not lost, I’m geocaching.

Now that’s only 66 words, but my phone doesn’t do a Twitter count. I’ve gone too long before so I tried to keep it short and yet clear. All the right pieces are there, the what, the where/who. The when is irrelevant.

I pointed my friend to the tweet, but she didn’t respond as I’d expected. She didn’t find it cool at all. She said, in fact, “Reading that tweet makes no sense???”

We chatted a bit about this and I learned she saw in her head a guy standing on the back of a large truck telling this to everyone who passed, something beyond bizarre but not that amusing.

In fact, it was a bumper sticker playing on the whole “Guys won’t ask for directions even when lost” cultural myth. I’d left out the context of the bumper sticker, thinking it obvious. However, it wasn’t obvious to my friend.

What makes this even more pointed is that a cry for context is usually my line whether someone starts a conversation assuming I recognize a random first name, or when critiquing a story where I can see the characters think something is important, but I lack the markers to share in that experience.

Communication, and especially writing, is all about context no matter how short or long. Whether you’re taking the reader down a familiar street or through a pixie-infested swamp on another world, the reader/listener’s experience is 100% dependent on your ability to provide the context surrounding the events. Often when readers or critiquers complain about description or say they are lost, the problem is not the place or the story so much as lacking the context to click into what is happening at that exact moment.

Even worse, you don’t give the reader enough context, and they will fill something in, even something improbable. This is often what happens when discussing a shared experience raises the question of whether you even read the same book, saw the same movie, or were in the same conversation.

Desert Suburbia

Desert Wilderness…in Suburbia

I’ve had critiquers/editors complain about things in my stories that weren’t there. When I go back and try and follow their train of thought, I can almost always trace it back to a key moment or junction where I didn’t provide enough context and so they zigged when I was expecting a zag, which lead them to build a whole different story in the place of the one I was telling…a story which disappointed because it lacked resolution or failed expectations. That’s the reader experience, but it’s a door I left open for them to get lost going through.

It’s the context that gives words power.

To use a phrase that has become part of the common vernacular: Luke, I am your father.

In the cultural context, many (may I even guess most?) of you saw a wheezing figure in a large black helmet to the background of humming laser swords. Even more, you get the ultimate betrayal, the lies built on lies, that has become Luke’s life in that single moment. Everyone he has ever trusted kept this critical fact from him, failing to prepare him for the moment when he must defeat his greatest enemy, only to find it’s the man he’d thought lost to him forever.

That’s a lot of weight carried in five simple words, but the weight is not in the words themselves but rather the context that surrounds them. The words, without context, can have a wide variety of meanings, not all of which would aid the story.

Take the phrase out of the Star Wars context and what does it tell us?

A father could be admonishing his son to obey.

A father could be donating a kidney and this is the explanation why, an emotional tie.

It could still be a betrayal in that this is a birth father who has denied paternity since Luke was born.

It could mean anything.

The role of the writer is to bring the reader into the context of that story, to take words that could refer to anything and give them a single, fixed meaning. I played with this concept in a creativity exercise a while back, exploring the variety of images the word “flower” brought to mind. The same is true with any real words used because the reader defaults to their own context when one is not provided.

It’s not a wardrobe; it is the wardrobe that Lucy hid in so she could discover Narnia. It’s not a highway; it’s Route 66, one of the first to run almost the length of the United States. It’s not a car; it’s a gull-winged DeLorean equipped with a fusion reactor that allows for time travel. It’s not boy meets girl, but boy who falls for the daughter of his family’s rival, condemning them both but teaching the families what’s valuable only after it’s lost.

Whether you are creating the mythology or building on it, context is what takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary.

Context can be something as simple as a sentence, transforming an ordinary wineglass into a disaster in the making as it rests near the edge of the table on a pristine white cloth when the fight breaks out, or a whole novel where piece by piece the context comes together until the only solution is for the character we all know and love to sacrifice everything.

As writers, as communicators of any sort, our job is to keep an eye on the context and make sure we’re bringing our audience along on the journey, providing the surrounding to change an irritated father’s voice into the ultimate betrayal or a simple car into a miraculous time machine.

Can you think of any examples when context failed you? Or how about a time when you failed to provide the context? The results can be hilarious or tragic depending, but the lesson is always the same. Communication requires context.

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2 Responses to Context Is King

  1. Dar says:

    That was fun. I think I’ll share this on my blog. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Context Is King | Tales to Tide You Over | Darswords

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