Context Is All

When I run creative writing workshops I sound like a broken record, even to myself. Dialogue is my specialism but before we get onto writing dialogue itself, the what, there are important questions we’ve got to consider: Who? Where?

Not a workshop has ever gone by where I haven’t mentioned these and not a day goes by I don’t think of them myself. I could wax lyrical on the subject if I were so inclined but if you read my other articles you likely gathered I don’t go in for pretentious malarkey. The simple point is that who is speaking and where they are when they say it influences what is being said as much as that other important question: Why?

If you think about it the spy who’s being tortured for information is an entirely different situation to the best friend being grilled over their first date. Yet what do we get sometimes? Nothing. No context, not even a ‘he said’, sometimes I find myself going back and counting lines to work out who the heck is talking.

Am I immune to this? Obviously not. Sometimes I go back over a story, whether a short or a novel, and I think: ‘Who the bloody hell said that?’ At which point it’s time for some editing.

Now, it’s important to observe that I don’t mean you need huge long paragraphs telling us all about the coffee shop where Ms Friend is being grilled and the exact shade of her lovely blonde hair. The odd detail here and there is enough. Perhaps Ms Friend’s name is Abi and she has a habit of sitting by the window to people watch, you don’t need to say that’s what she’s doing but maybe in that inevitable awkward pause she sees a small child doing something weird, which is the definition of ‘small child’. Or perhaps Abi or her interrogator have hearing loss and when the coffee machine is foaming milk there’s a break in conversation. Hey, you’ve just told me two things at once, I’m impressed.

While I’m not going to say there’s a right or a wrong way to write fiction, there is of course only your way, there’s economics to consider I always think. Why have three thousand words where a thousand will do? Why explain in long paragraphs where interesting things might be inferred?

Perhaps Abi’s interrogator isn’t another woman but a man who secretly wants to find out that Abi’s date messed up because he fancies her but is too shy to say. Call it a cliché if you will but there’s always the characters’ motivations to consider and with that one you just told me why they’re having the conversation without telling me why they’re having the conversation. Hark at you, Hemmingway had better watch out.

A visual medium might make this clearer so I’ll offer a SPOILER ALERT for anyone who hasn’t seen Sleepy Hollow Season One.

Say what you will about the later series of Sleepy Hollow I liked the reveal at the end of the first season when we discover that Henry Parrish (played by John Noble) is in fact the Horseman of War and not the sweet old guy we all thought he was. If you go through the series and watch John Noble’s performance before you have this information everything his character says and does seems to say he is working against the villain, Moloch. However, having seen the last episode and armed with this new knowledge if you watch back Noble’s performance suddenly it becomes quite sinister and you can see that he was working for Moloch all along. Has Noble’s performance changed? Obviously not, it is the context that has changed and thus changed the audience’s perception of his character.

It is the same when a writer is constructing a scene in prose. In terms of where I have tried this trick myself I could refer to my two very short plays, When Shall We Dance Again? and Chance Meetings.


 Originally when I wrote them it was for a creative writing class where we had to write a scene then for the following class we had to write ‘the twist in the tale’. So in the first play it appears to be about a man and a woman, Sebastian and Emma, having an affair and Sebastian feels guilty about cheating on his wife. Then in the second part it is revealed that Emma has actually been hired by his wife who is bored of him but, for reasons unrevealed, doesn’t simply divorce him. Hopefully after you’ve read the second part of the play the context of the first changes, and so do the motivations of the woman. Whether or not this is successful is once again for you to decide. Theoretically, if you’d had this information at the start of the first play then your interpretation of their conversation would have changed.

To sum up when writing a scene you need to consider the context of that scene, both the scene itself and the whole if you’re writing an extended piece, rather than simply leaving your readers to divine what’s happening through a collection of speech marks. However, don’t worry if you feel you haven’t hit all the right notes first time or there’s more you can do with a scene. First all you need to do is get down what is happening and then develop through editing (articles on editing to come). By the time you get to the end of your piece you might discover a twist in the tale you hadn’t realised was coming yourself and it might change the context of individual scenes.

So, don’t panic. The context is important but it can be developed through re-drafting, don’t get yourself tied up on a first draft worrying exactly how it all fits together. All you need to remember is that in your final draft your reader needs certain information to be there to orientate them, or think their orientated depending on how you want to play it. If you leave too much context out it makes it harder for the reader to read and you may lose them before your reveal which isn’t what you want.

Context is all because it’s not simply about letting people know who’s speaking but also about keeping them reading.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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