Sunday, June 12

Wait...What? Putting Things in the Proper Context

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.


  1. I couldn't agree more. Great post, Janice.

  2. First: Bruce Willis is cooler than Ben Affleck, any day. And I'm 29. :)

    Second: I love the tattoo analogy. It certainly is something to think about, especially when foreshadowing.

    Great post!

  3. Hahaha. I was about 20 when that movie came out, and I still preferred Bruce Willis over Ben Affleck.

    It's funny on another level. I was just talking the other night about whether to keep tea time as a social ritual in a story even though most people these days would think British Empire rather than Mediterranean/Mid Eastern type region. But if I lay enough other clues, it should still work. Context changes a lot.

  4. This was very helpful for me. I hate it when this happens when I'm reading a book, and I'm sure it's in my writing. Thanks!

  5. Now I will never be able to think about context without picturing Bruce Willis. haha.

  6. Good point. And something I hadn't thought of quite this way. Thank you.

  7. Vicky: Thanks!

    Jaleh: Ah, a woman of taste (grin). Tea is a perfect example. If I saw tea and nothing else, I'd totally think England.

    Brittany: I find more things to check in my own work from reading other people's work. It's easy to see things when it's not your own words. That's one of the things I like about doing crits. It's like a mini refreshing course.

    Barbara: Most welcome!

  8. I'd take Bruce over Ben any day, but then I'm a guy. Excellent points Janice. A great piece of advice I heard once is to write up a short piece about the "average reader" you expect to have. Once this is done, it becomes easier to step out of our own preconceptions to avoid things such as, tattoo philosophy confusion.

  9. Great story--we all make assumptions based on our perspective and experiences. Reminds me of when I saw Mamma Mia with my daughter. The youngsters were swooning, and it dawned on me that they were flipping out over Colin Firth. Sure, he's cute, but did they not see Pierce Brosnan standing RIGHT THERE?

  10. Thanks all, for the reminders. I got a criticism from a RWA contest judge, because in a section told from my hero's POV, he glanced at the heroine's sister's breasts. The judge asked if he wanted a threesome and said she didn't like him at all. I talked about it with my husband of 23 years who said if I'd had a sister, he would have looked at her breasts, sorry. I did add a sentence that the hero was aware he would have to be more discrete, since he wouldn't want a misunderstanding, but I am more aware of my most likely audience and the context of my scenes now.

  11. Gene: That's because you are a man with taste (grin). Good tip. Understanding (or identifying) your reader does make things easier I think. You can't be all things to all people.

    Ruth: Oh I'm so with you there. Love Pierce Brosnan. Been a fan since his Remington Steele days.

    Julee: Wow, what a thing to think. Maybe that judge was also reading the erotica submissions? (grin) Great example though. Even stuff that seems out of left field happens. You never know what a reader might take away from your words.

  12. Oh my gosh. SUCH a huge difference between Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis. One makes me say Huh? while the other makes me go Hmmm... (in a purringly interested kind of way). Respectively.

    Thanks for this post, Janet. Context is really important and you're absolutely right--it's our job as authors to make sure we make things clear for the reader. Great tips!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  13. Great post! I think this is one of the hardest things for a writer to get right, because we know all the details in our head. It's so easy for us to forget to put them all on the page, because when we read the words, it's all there.

    That's where good critique readers and editors come in!