Storytelling in Context to… What?

Everything we do in life is informed by context

Context is one of the greatest, most powerful words in any language. 

Life itself is nothing other than context.  The only things that exist in a vacuum are floating in outer space. 

And even they have context.

Too often our stories end up being described just that way.  But it’s avoidable… through a keen awareness and understanding – up to and including mastery – of the contextual forces that hover above the writer’s keyboard.

Context is like oxygen – invisible, essential, and taken for granted.  At least until something goes wrong.

Context is like gravity.  Ignore it, mishandle it, and you will most likely crack your head open.

Imagine a surgeon doing an operation without context. 

You can’t.  Because even someone stuck in a car stranded in the desert who has to remove the appendix of a screaming companion has to deal with context… and it isn’t pretty.

Nonetheless, as you consider this question you’ll quickly realize that multiple layers of context are in play – the context of the training received in medical school… the context of the nature of the ailment being attended to… the context of the patient’s age, state of health and medical history… even the context of available resources, insurance coverage and whatever is going on in the surgeon’s life that might be a distraction.

Context is what empowers success and derails the unprepared.

Context is a menu of variables taken into account by professionals and too often undervalued or ignored altogether – either through naivety or ignorance – by the neophyte.

So it is with storytelling.

At a recent workshop I asked the group a warm-up question: in what context are you writing your story?

A sea of blank stares spread before me. 

Not that upon reflection they didn’t have an answer, but rather, their initial take was that they’ve never thought about storytelling from that perspective.

I’m here to tell you, there is great value in doing so.

The experienced, enlightened writer understands the value of context to their story, and – like that surgeon – they comprehend it on multiple levels.  These contextual elements are folded into the mix of story planning and execution, informing the writer’s progress at every turn, twist and plot point.

Context is the stuff of great storytelling.  The more of it you see and feel and comprehend, the better writer you will be.

What is the storyteller’s contextual checklist?

At the most basic level, the contextual questions a writer must consider look like this:

Do you understand the fundamentals of basic dramatic theory?  If so, what is the nature and evolution of the core conflict of your story?  It’s inherent tension?  The arc of your character?  The thematic landscape?  The structural architecture?

If not… well, in that case you won’t know what went wrong until someone tells you.  And rest assured, they will. 

Do you understand the contextual demands of the genre you are writing in?  How it differs from other genres, and how it puts a fence around your creative options?

Do you understand the context of the six core competencies of storytelling, to an extent that you cover each base with equal emphasis and have considered the inherent criteria defined under each?

What is the context of your story’s essence – its time and place, its voice, its sub-text, its inherent appeal?

Every story has context. 

It’s a qualitative issue, a matter of degree and art.  If you don’t manage context, it will manage you.

Are you aware of the context in the marketplace that will color your story’s chances of publication?  A published writer works under a completely different context than that of a new writer, and a writer jumping genres works under a fresh context from the last project.

Are you keenly sensitive to your own limitations?  Your exposure to the nuances of what you are attempting to achieve within your story?  Your ability to keep your story on track, to manage the dramatic tension and pace required?

Part of understanding context is finding any answers that you know in your heart are missing from your storytelling palette.

The best answers of all come from understanding the questions.

These questions are always at hand.

And yet, rare is the writer that inventories them prior to launch.

I’m not selling pre-draft story planning over organic story development via drafting.  At least that isn’t my primary point today.

What I am suggesting is that, however you discover your story, an awareness of the various levels of context that surround you – indeed, that define all that will unfold as you work – is perhaps the most empowering aspect of the storytelling craft.

Like a pilot planning a trip, a surgeon cutting into a patient, a chef gathering ingredients for a feast, or a mother shopping at Costco, success depends on your grasp of context.

Always has, always will. 

Because context is always part of the story.  In life, and on the page.

Check out my new ebook, “Get Your Bad Self Published” here.  It’s all about context, both before and after your book has been finished.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

5 Responses to Storytelling in Context to… What?

  1. So, in terms of writing a novel and success hinging on context, what does that specifically look like? What is that you must be aware of, while writing, in order to succeed? Or is it purely surrounding the writing? Things like markets and such.

  2. Very nice. A lot of the writing competancies and art deal with communicating those contexts to the reader without slapping them in the face with it.

    Even better is showing enough context so the reader can contribute his own imagination to it. His view/imagination of the scene and story may differ greatly from someone else’s — and that’s a good thing. As writers and storytellers, we have not only permit this contribution but also subtly insist on it.

  3. @Meredith – you ask a great but loaded question. In terms of selling a novel or a screenplay, the context comes on multiple levels that include the market in general, what’s hot now (which isn’t what you should be writing, because it won’t be hot a year later when your book comes out, and publishers know it), what might be hot, what the publisher just bought, what their list looks like… and then, the whole long list of contextual factors that pertain to the writing. This is why I wrote the “Get Published” ebook, because there are so many factors that effect and drive a publishable story. Great stories that don’t align with them often don’t find a home, despite their quality. Hope this helps.

  4. Mike Lawrence

    Mr. Brooks,

    Except for your reference to dramatic theory, core conflict, tension arc and thematic landscape, I have no idea what you’re talking about here. (I don’t really understand what you mean by thematic landscape, either.)

    Can you hang this on a literary example?

  5. @Mike — “thematic landscape” is simply a purple way of hanging a nametag on a story’s theme, or its thematic intentions.

    Sometimes theme unfolds within an “arena” (say, a legal or a medical thriller), in which we see the politics and payoffs and unfairness amidst the work. The story isn’t really about how broken the legal arena is, but we see the plot unfold on this legal “landscape” and thus get the gist. Sometimes stories are more on-the-nose in terms of themes, such as “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving, or even “The DaVinci Code,” which take a definate bias, theme-wise.

    But there are other contexts in play. In “The DaVinci Code,” for example, the four-part structure is very much evident, and the writer developed the story in context to that model and expectation. Structure is something we must write our stories in context to. So is genre… the rules and expectations for a mystery are different than those of a thriller, and different yet than those of a romance novel. We must write in context to the paradigms of our chosen genre, in addition to a handful of other contexts.

    My point here is that too many writers don’t think about any of this, they just sit down, open MS Word and go. Some of this context becomes a subconsious and instinctual influence in the writer’s approach (for example, a mystery writer probably wouldn’t reveal the bad guy early on; that’s instinctual context at work), but without knowing the other various contexts that are in play — especially story structure — the writer is vulnerable to making the mistakes of a rookie.

    Hope this clarifies.