Having trouble understanding the role of context in your manuscript? There are any number of different ways to wrap your head around it, but I’d suggest that one of the best ways to understand context is by taking a look at baseball.
Because baseball is really, really weird.
Think about it. A bunch of guys in caps stand around in a field and watch their friend throw balls at a guy holding an oddly phallic stick. When the guy with the stick hits the ball, some people cheer; when the guy with the stick doesn’t hit the ball, other people cheer. Sometimes guys drop those sticks to run around in a circle, unless the same ball that was thrown at him is now used to touch him. And if he does manage to complete the circle, people cheer, even though, off the field, people who run around in circles are rarely so celebrated.
Weird music appears that somehow causes everybody in the audience to clap on rhythm. Apparently hypnotized, many of these same people wear colors that are similar to the colors of at least half the people on the field. And at the end of the game, around half of the people watching are sad, even though their own lives have not been impacted in any way.
By any realistic context, this should be bizarre. But it doesn’t feel bizarre.
And that’s because we know the rules.
Show, Don’t Tell
In baseball, the rules are written down somewhere or other and usually taught to us during our childhood. In fiction, the rules are established in the early chapters, not by telling but by showing. And those rules allow some pretty amazing things.
Suppose your main character is a talking aardvark. By showing his conversations with other animals early in your novel, you establish a world in which animals have human-like intelligence and the ability to speak with one another. By showing him not talking with humans, you establish that he can only speak with other animals in what may be an otherwise real world. You show the reader the rules, and then tell a story within the context you’ve defined.
But then you need to stand by those rules, unless breaking them is a specific part of the story. If our aardvark has only previously spoken with other animals, but then two thirds of the way through has a casual conversation with a human, and if the human does not react as if this is out of the ordinary, then your scene will hit readers as impossible within your established rules.
That makes the rules inconsistent. And without consistency, it’s difficult for readers to invest in your story, because they no longer know what the rules are.
It’s like a linebacker sacking the pitcher in our baseball game. Objectively, it would be no stranger than anything else we see in baseball, but a linebacker, despite falling into the general category of sports, isn’t part of the rules of baseball. So his appearance strikes us as wrong.
The Importance of Context
Context is an easily missed element of writing, but it’s also an extraordinarily powerful secret weapon. It’s context that makes the possible, possible, and the impossible, impossible. Given effective context, you can make readers believe anything, whether it’s the world’s largest trampoline, talking almonds, or an intergalactic space war.
Or even baseball!
Wield this secret weapon wisely and your world will feel as authentic to your readers as you’ve imagined it to be.
Developmental editor Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing and along the way has worked on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in middle-grade, young adult, and adult manuscripts in categories as diverse as science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, and memoir, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe. He is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012).