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Monday, June 21, 2021

How Character Creates Context



I've been reading Dwight V. Swain's famous book, Techniques of the Selling Writer; published in 1965, it's kind of considered a classic in the writing world, and so far, I've been impressed with how his advice has held up. This book is most famous for Swain's approach to scene structure ("scene" and "sequel"--if you've heard of that) as well as what he calls motivation reaction units (or MRUs). But it covers plenty of other topics as well, one of which is context. 

Now, when I talk about context, I'm not talking about the year a story is written, who it is written by, or the climate of that time. Context in a story is all the information the audience needs to accurately interpret, understand, and assign value to, what is happening. It includes all the grounding and guiding information the audience may need, such as who the characters are or where it takes place, as well as any pertinent worldbuilding information, such as taboos of the time period or the rules of a magic system. This enables the audience to derive meaning from what is happening

When the audience lacks context, the story becomes very vague, which is a problem for several reasons. (See my post on vague vs. ambiguous for further reading.) If there is no context, there is almost no investment in the story, because the audience doesn't have access to the meaning of any of it. If they don't have access to any clear meaning, they are unable to care about what happens. Perhaps the only time where a lack of context works well is when writing teasers (which must always be short strictly because they lack context). An audience will not sit through a lack of context for very long.

Context will usually be supplied through the viewpoint character or narrator (and in most stories, these will be essentially the same, and usually be the protagonist). Whoever is telling the story, will convey the setup of a scene and slide in any important information--such as the laws of a dystopian society or why the Smith family who lives down the street matters. One thing newer writers need to be careful of, is to not make the context into subtext. Context = what the audience needs, to understand what is happening in the text itself. Subtext = additional information that is implied from the text. Context allows us to understand the text, which then allows us access to subtext.

In his book, Swain talks specifically about how character creates context, which is what I'd like to share with everyone today. 

As events unfold in a story, the reader needs to be able to assign value to whether what happened was good or bad. Say that a big rainstorm comes in the story, is that good or bad (or irrelevant)? What about a bombing raid? Good or bad?

As readers, we might bring some of our own experiences and opinions to the text, but in order to properly experience a story, we need to be able to assign value to events in the story. Some of that value will come from the potential consequences (stakes) of the event. But a lot of that value will come from the characters. 

If the character is suffering a drought, then a big rainstorm will be a blessing. If a character has her clothes hanging out to dry, then a big rainstorm will be a curse. 

"A thing matters only insofar as it relates to and affects and is judged by people. . . . We decide how significant a thing is by the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance." - Dwight V. Swain. 

Without someone to orient us as to whether something is good or bad, we are just reading about events

Meaning and significance only take real effect when we know about the characters. As an audience, what we have to gain or lose from an event in a story, will be based on what the characters have to gain or lose and who we are rooting for. What the character wants (goal), what the character has to lose (stakes), and how the character feels about events (reaction) help readers assign meaning and interpretation to what happens (plot). Otherwise, it's just stuff happening. (And trust me, I've read passages of "just stuff happening" and it's not very interesting.)

Let's look at an example. Last week I saw the musical Annie. Early in the play, Annie tries and manages to escape from the orphanage . . .

Event: Sneaking out of the orphanage.

Protagonist: Annie

Goal: Escape the orphanage, so she can find her parents

Stakes: If she finds her parents, she can be part of a loving family. If she doesn't find her parents, she'll live the next several years as an orphan under the mean Miss Hannigan (and probably never have a loving family). 

Reaction: Glad (and optimistic) to have escaped and to be looking for her parents

The event itself, "sneaking out of the orphanage," could be interpreted as a good thing or a bad thing. But it's Annie who equips us to properly identify it as a good thing. 

Because Annie is who we care about, and (furthermore) because we know her goal and the stakes tied to it, we view the fact she sneaks out of the orphanage as something successful, as something good. Her reaction strengthens that. Running away from the orphanage is progress

However, in contrast, if Miss Hannigan was the focal character, then the same event would be interpreted as something bad. Miss Hannigan's goal is to keep Annie from leaving. If Annie leaves, Miss Hannigan could get in trouble with the law. Annie sneaking out is a setback.


This is all in general, of course, because like all writing things, there are exceptions. It is possible to deviate the audience's experience from the protagonist's experience. After all, in A Christmas Carol, the audience isn't meant to share Scrooge's views on Christmas in the beginning. The narrator, tone, promises made, and simply our own cultural understandings may provide a context that is the exact opposite of the protagonist's experience. However, one may argue, that in some sense, we are being provided more than one "context" or interpretation of events. Scrooge's and our own. 

Also, if you have multiple viewpoint characters throughout your story, it may be that the protagonist of the story, may not be the "protagonist" of a particular scene. You may have a viewpoint character who acts as the focal character for the scene. 

So this can all get pretty messy, pretty fast. 

But notice in these examples, the audience is essentially being given multiple interpretations of the story's events. This creates ambiguity. Ambiguity happens when something has multiple interpretations. Vagueness happens when something has no clear interpretation. Ambiguity is fine and is often a great tool to use. Vagueness is often problematic, as it makes the text inaccessible to the audience. 

So having multiple entities create context for the audience is okay.  Having no entity create clear context is problematic--because the audience can't care about what happens, if they can't interpret it.

As you work on your writing this week, maybe make sure your scene has these things: 

A clear focal character

with a goal

that has stakes.

An event related to that goal

and the focal character's reaction to that event.

This will help draw your audience in, because they'll have context, which allows them to make meaningful interpretations. 


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