Sunday, June 12
Wait...What? Putting Things in the Proper Context
When the movie Armageddon came out in 1998, I went out right away to see it. After the movie, I was standing in line for the restroom behind a gaggle of girls around 13 or 14. Their conversation went something like this:
"Oh my God! He was so hot in that movie."
"He's never looked better."
"He was so totally hot."
I remember thinking, "Yeah, Bruce Willis did look pretty good. All rough and rumble, tough and tumble." Then they said something that made me realize they were talking about Ben Affleck. Aside from making me feel old, (and I was just barely 30 at the time) it was an important writing lesson.
Context, folks, is everything.
If your readers don't get the full details, they'll just full in the blanks with what's relevant to them. And if those details aren't what you had in mind, you can run into trouble with how a reader sees and understands your story. They could guess wrong, and could even think the opposite of what you wanted. This can lead to some very unhappy readers when nothing makes sense or things happen out of the blue.
For example, the default setting for fantasy is medieval Europe, usually England. We've seen it a million times in books, TV shows, and movies. Unless you tell them otherwise, there's a good chance the fantasy reader is just going to assume this setting and put everything they read in that context. Lack of education, poor sanitation, bad food, a monarch- or feudal-type government, swords and knights, Merlin-type magicians, agrarian culture, etc.
But what if your story is set in an alternate world with declining technology? And what if nine pages into the book you mention electric lights?
Odds are, you've just wigged out your reader and jarred them from the story. Even though you've done nothing to say "this is a medieval Europe setting," the reader has assumed so and you're the one who appears wrong. Once they fill in those missing details, it's hard to get them to rethink their thinking. They've put it into a context they find familiar and judged the story on those merits.
An easy way to prevent this is to make it clear in the first few pages that this isn't your default fantasy setting (or whatever your setting may be). Show what's unique to your world and use details that break preconceptions, allowing readers to put what they read into the proper context. I throw palm trees and crocodiles into my novel right away so readers can see that this world isn't medieval Europe. I reinforce that with other details in the first chapter that don't fit that default fantasy setting. And I keep it up throughout the story so readers continue to put things in proper context.
But wait -- non-genre folks, you're not off the hook because this isn't just a genre problem. You non-genre writers have it just as hard (if not harder), because your world is intimately known to the reader. They live in it after all. So readers will take whatever details you give them and put it into context with what they know. Sometimes this works to your advantage, as you won't have to go out of your way to describe something, but other times, you can mean X and your reader thinks Y.
Let's say you grew up in a very small conservative town in the Midwest. Tattoos are pretty scandalous there, and those who get them are usually the kinds of folks you steer clear of. So when you want to add a shady character to your story and foreshadow them being up to no good, you give them a few tattoos. But because in your experience (context), tattoos are such a bad thing, you don't mention all the other details needed to show this is a shifty person up to no good. For you, tattoos = danger.
Your reader is from a liberal big city where tattoos are common and almost everyone has them, even the local minister. They read your story, see the tattooed person and think nothing of it, because in their experience, this is normal. To them, tattoos = someone likes tattoos.
A few pages later, the tattooed person grabs a bank teller and points a gun to her head. The reader had no clue that this was coming, and suddenly feels like they missed a page. You think the scene reads fine, because you know that someone shifty (a person with a tattoo) going into a bank means something bad is going to happen. There's a reader-author disconnect here, because you're both working off a different set of rules.
And before you say "Well, I can't help it if the reader misunderstood," remember that it's your job as an author to paint the right picture for your reader. You want to make sure everything is in the proper context with enough details, so even if it's something utterly foreign to them (like pain shifting) they can understand how it works and how it fits into the world they're reading about. It needs to fit within the context of the story, not just the author's view of it. The reader may have a totally different view, and you don't want them thinking the wrong thing.
Because there's a big difference between Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck.