Friday, December 3, 2010

Write Club -- Context

So I was checking on my fanfiction online, and I was having a talk with one of the reviewers about context. Y'know, people talk about context a lot, but I'm not sure everyone really knows specifically what it is.

Let's look at the dictionary. "The parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect".
"The set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc".

Do those help you out? They sound pretty good, don't they? I dunno, to me "context" seems like something deeper -- or maybe I'm just pretentious. I dunno, those definitions work well.

In any case, context can of course have a huge effect on your stories. Let's look at some examples. First, think of a wedding dress. If you're getting married in an old Roman Catholic cathedral, a ballgown is appropriate. On the beach, something breezy and light is more fitting. If you're getting married in Vegas, there's not too much need for overly ornate dresses, but you can try something funkier and possibly not even floor length. They're all wedding dresses, but they each have different purposes depending on their environment.

Also, say if you're trying to dress for a specific formal occasion (not a wedding) and you want to look good, your body is your context. Skin color, body shape, hair color and texture, and even eye color can affect what looks good on you.

Sorry for the girly references. I've been watching a show on child pageants, so I'm thinking about dresses right at the moment. If you're a guy trying to pick out a suit, the same process applies, it's just a lot simpler because guys aren't as complicated. In any case, when it comes to clothing, you are your own context.
Okay, so let's work on writing context. Let's start with the sentence "she went to the door". Look at the difference between these two passages.

---- 1
Pluck, pluck, pluck....there went the stray eyelashes. Ramona put her tweezers down on the sink and picked up her washcloth. Why did she always have to feel this way before going on dates? It wasn't as if she didn't know Bruce liked her. That didn't stop her from worrying about it even the night before as she scrubbed her pale face as if she could wipe away the freckles. But those wouldn't be going away, nor would the curly red hair she hated so much. Other people seemed to like it so she couldn't complain too much, but it still annoyed her.

Ramona stretched out, leaning side to side as she gave each arm an extra pull. Lowering her arms with a slap to her sides, she went to the door. Her mother's bathroom was good enough for getting ready for bed, but the ducky theme incorporated in the shower curtain and rug was hardly mature. Ramona had to wonder about her parentage sometimes.

---- 2
She tapped her hands on the book. For a while, Lacey pretended to actually be reading it, but it now sat on the couch beside her serving as nothing more than the instrument her fingers rapped against. The thunky, almost wooden sound was the only noise in the dark living room. Other than the small lamp Lacey had been reading by, the room was shadow. If only she wasn't too scared to turn on the light. She rummaged through her thoughts, trying to convince herself that it was better to leave them off. To her the thought of leaving that couch was the second most frightening thing. The first was the person coming to the apartment at that very moment.

Lacey's breaths were coming quickly; she forced herself to pull in more air. She had to remain calm, she told herself. It was the only way that she was going to be able to handle what lay ahead. But he would be coming, and there was no changing that. The thought of him sent her right hand to her lap. She lovingly stroked the handle of the 357 Magnum laying there. It surely was more reliable than any man. The only trouble was that she would have to use it herself.

"Don't shake on me..." she pulled her hands to her lips, whispering to them. "Be strong for me."

She could hear a car pull up outside. Lacey knew it was him. She didn't dare go to the window and look, but she knew who it was. The sound of his rickety old car was perfectly unique. She had heard it many times. If all went well, this would be the last.

She went to the door.

Okay, so obviously one phrase can mean two completely different things in context. For the first passage you might barely notice the "she went to the door", and in the second it was the emphasis of the passage. Try this exercise yourself. You can try one of these sentences down here. Try to write two different different genres.

You can put the sentence anywhere you want in the passage, emphasized or not. You can also add more to them by using a comma, colon, or semi colon. As long as the sentence is intact, then you're good. If you want, you can make it an exclamation or a question. You can even make it dialogue. Pick your favorite and go with it.

"He didn't like what it said."
"If only it wasn't so hot."
"It made them happy."
"You couldn't tell what it was supposed to be."
"It was fantastic and definitely clean."
"The room smelled of old fish."

One of the things you need to realize about context is that it applies to characters. Think about the people you're addressing. You see, when we write books or articles, we're speaking to a certain set of people. This is called our audience. Maybe you want to appeal to bikers, or the urban market, or farmers, or a specific ethnicity.

This same concept applies to characters within a given story. Whenever your character is trying to get across an idea to a specific person or specific sort of person, they should try to speak in a way that the people they're speaking to will get the idea. It's not even a matter of mere understanding; for example, I prefer writing that's a bit more logical and observational rather than quick and emotional when I read books. Others prefer just to be spoken to casually with tone similar to normal conversation. Other people are all about wit and sarcasm. When you speak the way a person feels most comfortable, they'll be willing to listen to you. In this circumstance, speaking in context means to speak for the group or environment you're in.

I recently got into a debate with someone on the internet (sounds pathetic, don't it?), but from this I got an idea of how to explain perspective and how it relates to context. Think of a fictitious world. Let's take Shakespeare for example. I know some people say it wasn't Shakespeare that wrote all those plays, but for the sake of this illustration let's just say he did. Imagine two different circumstances. Let's say that someone from Shakespeare's time came up to him and asked him why Hamlet was written so dark -- why do all the main characters die? Can't some of them live? Also then imagine that Shakespeare entered the world of Hamlet, and if one of the servants in the castle, knowing that Shakespeare wrote everything, asked him why everything was so dark. Why does everyone die? Can't some of them live?

You might realize that both of these people are asking why the story is the way it is. The context, or the circumstances of the question, are two different things, despite the fact that two different people are asking what amounts to the same question. Shakespeare would of course tell his contemporary that he made it dark to reach an audience that likes darker stories and to be sure to draw a crowd to the show with his dramatic tale. Can you imagine what it would be like if he gave this explanation to Hamlet's servant? The servant would be mad, accusing Shakespeare of torturing people for the entertainment of others, simply not understanding that he and everyone he's ever known is completely fake.

I'm not really sure how Shakespeare would answer this question if he had to. Well, how would you explain to your characters that you wanted to kill them or have bad things happen to them simply for the sake of others' entertainment?

Well, the point remains that even when people ask the same question, you can't always give them the same answer. There's a few reasons for this.

1. Their heritage/life experience gives them a different perspective.
Sometimes you have to explain cultural things. For example, Japanese high schoolers have these things called culture fests where they dress up the rooms like different things -- haunted houses, cafes, takoyaki stands -- basically anything that illustrates Japanese culture. Not everybody knows about that. You have to realize when certain people aren't aware of certain things.

2. They can't understand or you're for some reason not able to tell them the whole truth.
Sometimes you're talking to someone, like a child, you just can't go all out explaining something. Or maybe you don't want to tell someone a bad thing their recently deceased loved one did. Maybe you know a person is argumentative and you just don't want to deal with it. This affects how you speak to them.

3. You are trying to convince the listener of something.
Any story or speech is about 40% fact or circumstance, and 60% editing. It's all about presentation. This can involve lying, but you don't necessarily have to lie to convince the person you're speaking to that you are right. For example, if I'm selling a radio to a person, I can make them more interested by describing the features of the radio, or perhaps mentioning that it comes in different colors. If I keep talking about how expensive it is, then this will make the person not want to buy. It's true that the radio comes in different colors, and it's true that the price is high, I just have to make sure that they buyer knows that it's worth it.

4. You have to make your statement relevant to what the listener wants to find out or to their lives.
People really want to listen to things that feel important to their lives. They don't want to listen to you rant and rave about your life, unless you're famous or their friend. For example, if you're this really rough guy that got in trouble at a young age and turned your life around, you can speak well to younger people facing the same temptations. Teens will want to hear about all the dangerous things you did and what made you change, because these things are relatable. They aren't as interested in the things you did once your life was settled down.

In the Bible, apostle Paul gave his testimony three or four times throughout the New Testament, each a little different and emphasizing different parts of his story (which is told in full in Acts). He does this to refer to his audience and emphasize a specific point to them. Also, people doing a research paper will want to know specific things, so you have to answer their questions in a way that will help them have enough information.

So yeah, context is really important. Before you come to conclusions about a scene, think about how the words your characters say affect others, and so too think about your own words when you speak to others.
Think about how you would answer the question to these specific people.

"What's the best way to get a girl to like me?"
- a ten year old
- a well-off business man
- a guy who works at Walmart.

"How can I improve my grades?"
- a football player
- a woman returning to college after waiting five years
- someone with a short attention span.

"Why is life so hard?"
- a character in a book someone else wrote
- your young cousin
- an older person.

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