Monday, 2 December 2013
It's Sensitive to Context
Oh, sorry, I suppose you must be wondering why. After all, that doesn't make all that much sense on its own, does it? It's the answer to a question that hasn't been asked, really; so unless you're some kind of psychic, that doesn't make much sense. To put it in the layman's vernacular, you don't understand what I'm talking about. This is something that really bugs me about writing, is that a lot of people don't understand the importance of letting their audience know what they're talking about. So, what am I talking about?
The Word of the Day is: 'CONTEXT'
Context /kontekst/ n. 1. The parts of a sentence, paragraph or writing which come before or after a given passage or word: to quote in context. 2. The circumstances or facts that surround a particular situation, event, etc.
I'm talking about context, because so often - especially with amateur writers - I am thrown into a story with none of it, and it's starting to annoy me. Of course, not everything is important in the beginning of a story. Before the plot kicks off, I don't need to know what planet we're on; the system of government; the laws of magic; the name of the protagonist's cat or what he does for a living - unless that's what the story is about - I'll pick a lot of that up as the story progresses. But I do need to know a bit about what's happening, especially around the main character. I need to have some context.
Have you ever had someone tell you a "funny" story about something that happened to them, and then when you don't laugh they say: "Well, I guess you just had to be there . . ."?
The fact is, these stories probably would have made you laugh if the teller had given you the right context. So often, the reason it's not amusing is because you don't know the teller's friends as well as they do; you aren't in the same mindset as the teller or you don't understand the relevance of the event. You don't have enough context.
In general, this kind of thing can't be helped. The atmosphere of these kinds of events are often a part of the problem and it's nostalgia that makes it funny - these kinds of stories are better left unsaid. But in fiction, if I'm reading your story, then I am there. I'm experiencing it as happens within the story, so there is no excuse to leave me wanting for context, atmosphere or relevance to the people involved.
Writers can give me everything I need to be fully enveloped by a story, which is why I am so frustrated by stories that don't draw me in with the right amount of atmosphere and context.
The idea for this post came to me when I was having a discussion with my girlfriend about in medias res. That's a Latin term that means "in the midst of things", and in the context of story it's when you start a story in the middle of the action. There's a couple of ways to do this:
How We Got Here - This is when the story starts near the Third Act of the timeline, then goes to the beginning (often with a flash-back and character narration) to explain how the scene came to happen. [e.g. Captain America or Daredevil]
X Hours Earlier . . . - This is when a story takes an action beat from the Second (or First) act of a story and plays it at the start to keep people interested before returning to the actual beginning (often with a "3 Days Earlier" subtitle, just to annoy me). When the movie catches up to that scene, it then sort of 'skips over' it before playing the rest of the movie properly. [e.g. Iron Man or Thor]
Cut to the Chase - This is when a story starts with an action scene with little to no preamble, then letting the audience "pick it up as you go along". In this instance, there's no tricks with time or flashbacks, the action is the beginning of the movie, but the difference is that visual storytelling is used to explain the movie and keep the audience interested, rather than exposition or editting tricks. [e.g. Constantine or every James Bond movie, ever.]
Anyway, in our discussion, I was basically saying that I hated in medias res, because it doesn't give the audience time to identify with the character and it so often feels like Executive Meddling. Rather than start off the story organically, we're thrown in the middle of an action scene because it seems like the director is thinking:
"The Audience are all Morons! They can't sit through a scene of two people talking for the first fifteen minutes, they'll get bored; so let's give them some guns and explosions at the beginning to tide them over while plot happens."
I know it's a cynical view, but that's how I feel when I watch movies or read books that begin in medias res. Sometimes it just feels like the editor accidentally click-and-dragged a scene from the middle of the movie into the beginning (e.g. Skyline) for fear the audience would get up and leave the cinema if they didn't see any action in the first few seconds of film.
However, my Beloved helped me to understand that this was not the fault of the trope in medias res, but the fault of implementing it poorly; without context. We need to understand the characters before we care about them.
Allow me to explain . . .
If my mother broke her thumb, I would be sad for her and care a lot. Not only because I love my mother, but also because I know how much she doesn't like breaking her thumb (to put it mildly). To boil it down to its simplest element, one might even say that I have context for my mother, so I care about what happens to her.
However, if the manager of my local pizza delivery joint got hit by a bus, I wouldn't really care. Sure, I might worry about not getting pizza any time soon, but it wouldn't matter to me because I don't have any emotional investment in him (or her, equal opportunity and all that) as I know nothing about my local pizza delivery joint manager. I have no context to draw from, no emotional investment.
By the same principle, if the first sentence of your story starts with an original character getting hit by a bus, I might be a bit shocked - literature is quite an intimate medium after all - but I won't care very much. At least, not as much as I could. As a writer, you will become very well acquainted with your main characters, so to you it may mean a lot to have a character die in the first sentence - but for your reader it isn't. For them, your main character is as unimportant to them as the local pizza delivery join manager is to me.
If I don't know who the character is; if I don't know what relevance it has to me or if I don't care about what's happening, then I won't be able to enjoy your story very much. The key to good character drama is giving your reader context for your characters and giving them something to care about.
Of course it all is based on what you want from your story. If you want your reader to feel a little lost in the opening scene - and not care much about the characters - then this is a good way to do it. Just so long as you're aware of what you're doing and have a purpose for doing so, which isn't alienating the audience from your protagonist.
See, I'm not saying that you have to start every story with a paragraph of exposition or character description just to clue us in, that's not necessary; but if you want me to care about your characters then you have to give me enough information to go on, even if you're trying to drop me in the midst of the action.
Beginning a story with little to no context is most prevalent in bad fanfiction. Because it's written by fans for fans, so these so-called writers assume that the audience already knows who Nancy Drew; Jack O'Neill or Sakura is, and therefore don't feel the need to elaborate.
That practice is just despicable. I have attempted to read fanfiction on several occasions, and more often than not I find myself stopping because the writer hasn't put in the effort to draw me in, so I just don't care. Even for fanfiction based on stories where I know the context, like Doctor Who or How To Train Your Dragon, I still feel like authors are ignoring me. It feels like I'm at a party I haven't been invited to. Yes, I know about the other partygoers, but I still don't have enough context.
You can't just assume that all of your readers have read the original work, and even if they had, it's just lazy storytelling to rely on the reader to have read or watched the original. If your story has prerequisite texts just for me to understand who the protagonist is - and your story isn't a sequel - then you are a bad writer, it's that simple.
Even if this stuff seems obvious to you, you still need to stop for a moment and explain who these people are and give descriptions of what they look like. After all, if your readers are true fans, they should know who your character is by description alone, without you stating their name by rote.
As for starting with action scenes or in medias res, you don't have to stop in the middle of the action just to give enough context. Action scenes are often complicated things but they're happening for simple reasons, just give your reader some of the basics context like motivation and consequence.
If your first scene is a car chase and your hero is chasing after the bad-guy in a car, I don't need to know your hero's birthday or dress size, I want to know: Who is the bad-guy, from the hero's perspective? Why is the hero chasing them? What are they gonna do if we catch them?
If your first scene is a duel between two wizards - I'd be asking: Who is the hero's opponent, from their perspective? Why do they feel compelled to fight? What happens if someone loses?
If your first scene is a surgery in a hospital and the hero is being operated on, I'd be wondering: How does the character feel about being operated on? What lead to this, are they hurt or is it something worse? What will the surgery do?
Letting us know at least one of these will bring us into the story more; and often you can answer all three of these questions with a single sentence or piece of dialogue, because this isn't a huge piece of information. All of these are answering the same, single question:
Why should I care?
Character description is good, but if you're writing an action scene then don't feel bogged down by it. Only mention stuff that is rlevant to the character in the moment and, most importantly, mention the stuff that differentiates between the characters in the scene. Action scenes can be messy, so make sure that I can tell who is hitting who; who is shooting the fireballs & who's in the lead during the car chase.
More often than not a name alone doesn't cut it, we need more than that, just mention something that stands out so that we can keep track of the characters throughout the scene.
After all, if a car goes speeding past you, what do you see? Usually, colour, shape and size. You can't tell the make and weight; size of the tires or read the numbers on the license plate until the car is parked (or slowed down).
So while your story is racing ahead, don't worry about the finer details, just tell us enough to keep it moving. After all, I don't need to know everything, I just need a little bit of context.
These are just a few examples of how to provide context and each has their pros and cons but, to quote something my Dad often says:
"There are a lot of right ways and there are a lot of wrong ways. Just make sure you pick one of the right ways."
Until next time, I'm the Absurd Word Nerd and I really need to stop reading bad fanfiction.