Context is the Life of a Story

            When writing a short story we are inclined at times to think of chipping away at a slab of marble. Michelangelo’s David is hidden somewhere in there, and it is just a matter of discarding what does not belong. Of course, this is what we are supposed to do to some extent with subsequent drafts of our manuscript. Revision is often more about eliminating than it is adding or altering.

            The problem is that, if too focused on “getting to all the action” before hitting an arbitrary word count ceiling, we can sacrifice the context that really allows our literary version of “David” to come alive. Michelangelo’s famous statue is indeed a masterpiece not just because it is beautifully sculpted, but also because it seems in our imagination to be about to move and to speak. To the viewer, it feels on the cusp of life. It is inhabiting a larger contextualized world in the mind in which this “David” is “real” to us at the moment.

It is context that inspires this work of the imagination. It provides the larger imagined world in which the action on the page takes place. If an author focuses on “getting to all the action” without providing sufficient context, then even if the action is well conceived and described, it does not resonate nearly as well with the reader. This is analogous to reducing “David” to a two-dimensional print passed around on cheap paper. We can see what “David” is, but we hardly sense what makes the statue so vital when viewed in person.

            Context is what brings the reader into the museum, and allows him or her to stand as close as possible to the three-dimensional statue. It is so much more than a description of the time or the place. It is really about conveying the sensations of the time and the place. Recently, I wrote a tale about a boy in the 1950s who encounters a monster on his television set screen. Apart from writing that the television set is a “Zenith with rabbit ears,” I never write specifically that this takes place in the 1950s. Instead, I write about how the boy’s grandpa denounces the television as a “Commie Box” that will never replace radio. Grandpa urges the boy to read literature he gives him from “Brother John Birch.” Obviously, these are historical references specific to that time, but more so these little details convey the cultural paranoia bordering on hysteria in a decade marked by A bomb tests and UFO sightings. The action involves a boy and a television monster, but the context is a suburban family life that is calm and conventional outwardly but anxious beneath the surface.

            Grandpa’s acerbic comments about television may seem ancillary to the story and, therefore, something to be edited out with the rest of the useless marble. If held to a strict word count, then almost invariably some good material will need to be set aside. What I am recommending here is if confronted with the choice of editing out a bit of the action or an equally well-written bit of the context, then seriously consider throwing out the action. How a story makes us feel resonates much longer than any one plot point. Good stories invite readers into the underlying sensibilities of a time and a place so that, once informed by that context, the readers either can root for or be repulsed by characters who seem to come alive.

Ideally, context should flow seamlessly with the action, rather than to stand apart in a paragraph of its own as if an author’s separate commentary on the scene. The reader should not even notice that it is contextual information as opposed to being part of the action itself. For example, when grandpa snarls that the Zenith TV set is a “Commie Box,” he does so in the form of a memory that the boy has while first confronting the monster on the television screen. The contextual detail (i.e. the Zenith TV set is a “Commie Box”) also describes the boy’s state of mind while pivotal action takes place. Since his altered state of mind at that moment is integral to the action of the scene, the context and the action flow together. In this case, the context does not distract the reader from the action, while at the same time it contextualizes the action. 

My advice is to write out the action within a scene or a chapter first without thinking about context. What happens? Who is involved? How do each of the characters change as a result of what has happened? If only focused upon the action, then at this point the scene or the chapter may be bare bones.

Then, as a way of adding more meat to those bones, perhaps add what one or more of the characters recalls, or hears in the background, or smells wafting in from the kitchen, at a pivotal moment in the action. This mental or sensual detail can be contextual by highlighting the time or the place of the action. If the character hears “Howdy Doody” on the television set in the other room at that pivotal moment, then the reader deduces the action is taking place in the 1950s. At the same time, the fact that a character hears “Howdy Doody” from another room at that moment tells the readers something about the internal reaction of that character to that action. Perhaps, if the character is an adult, he overhears “Howdy Doody” at that moment because the action taking place does not interest him. He is bored, and unable to see how pivotal it it. Perhaps, if the character is a little child, she overhears “Howdy Doody” at that moment because the action taking place frightens her. She focuses in on the television show theme song as a way of escaping mentally from what is happening. The contextual detail is also a character reaction detail. 

When polishing the manuscript towards the end of the writing process, try as much as possible to make the contextual details seem indistinguishable from a character’s response to the action or even the action itself. When context and action are fully integrated into one another, then the action will read like it is taking place in a more fully conceived world. The author is luring the reader into his or her imagination, and in the end this is the real purpose of context.

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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