Context has the ability to change the meaning of a story and how we view its characters — but what is context? We’re going to answer that question by looking at examples from The Office, In Cold Blood and more. We’ll also look at some tips and tricks for how you can effectively implement context in your own stories. By the end, you’ll know why context is so important and how to apply it in a variety of different ways. But before we jump into our context examples, let’s define context.

WHAT IS context?

First, let’s define context

Whether we realize it or not, context is all around us. Context is the fundamental way we come to understand people, situations and ideas. Everything that we think, say, see, hear and do is a response to the external stimuli of the world -- and how we regard that stimuli is largely in response to the context it’s presented to us in. For more on this idea, check out the video from the University of Auckland below.

What is Context?

So you’re probably thinking, “okay that’s fine and good and all, but what is context? Surely the meaning of context can’t be so vague.” Well, it is and it isn’t. But by understanding the essential aspects of the term, we’re better prepared to apply it in meaningful ways. So without further ado, let’s dive into a formal context definition.

CONTEXT DEFINITION

What is [a] context?

[A] context is the facets of a situation, fictional or non-fictional, that inspire feelings, thoughts and beliefs of groups and individuals. Context is the background information that allows people to make informed decisions. Most of the time, the view of a person on a subject will be made in response to the presented context.

Characteristics of Context:

  • Information that’s presented to us
  • Used in an argumentative sense
  • Biased/subjective form of education

context in storytelling

Two kinds of context

In terms of storytelling, there are only two kinds of context: narrative context and non-narrative context. The former gives us information on the story and the latter gives us information on everything outside of the story.

Narrative context includes: 

  • Character context
  • Plot context
  • Setting context

Narrative context is everything that explains “what’s going on” in a story. Take a comedy series like The Office for example: there are a lot of moments in the show that wouldn’t make sense without context -- and there just so happens to be a video that explores The Office “out of context.”

The Office Out of Context

Even the most ardent fans of The Office may find themselves asking “what in the world is going on?” when presented with these clips out of context. On social media channels, moments from film and television are often presented out of context -- like this screengrab from The Good Place:

Out of Context Examples

Out of Context Examples

In a sense, out of context moments have become a type of humor in and of themselves. But it’s important that we also consider how information outside of the narrative may influence our feelings on the story.

Non-narrative context includes:

  • Historical context
  • Authorial context
  • Critical context

Non-narrative context is everything outside the story that influences our thoughts and opinions on the subject matter. Take Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for example: when we learn of the circumstances outside of the subject matter, it’s impossible for us to feel the same way about the story.

In Cold Blood is an investigative novel about the murder of a family of four in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote started writing about the murders in earnest before expanding his research into a full-fledged novel -- the end result speaks for itself -- not only is Capote’s prose considered some of the greatest of all-time, but it also pioneered true-crime writing.

But when In Cold Blood is viewed through the context of the man who wrote it, the setting it took place in, and the precedence of its writing, the meaning is liable to change. The two convicted murderers in the novel, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, were interviewed by Capote through the writing process. Their testimony is admitted in the novel, but filtered by Capote. So for us to say their testimonies are veracious would be irresponsible, considering the context through which it was written.

Elsewhere, critics argue that we can only judge a piece of art based on the merit of the art itself, not the context it was created in. French literary theorist Roland Barthes said that “text” can only speak for itself and that the thoughts and feelings of the author should have no impact on its merit. For more on this “The Death of the Author”  theory, watch the video below.

Lindsay Ellis ‘The Death of the Author’

In recent years, many fans have criticized J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books in light of her political views. Some critics argue that her views change the meaning of the novels; others argue that her views should have no impact. Alas, there’s no “right” answer, but it’s important to consider how context, both inside and outside of a story, can influence readers.

how to incorporate context?

Tips for incorporating context

Context plays a huge role in guiding the attention and emotional attachment of the audience. Say a character does something really bad, like kill another character. Our natural inclination is to vilify them, but if their actions are given context, we might view their actions as heroic. Take Ridley Scott’s Gladiator for example: when Maximus kills Commodus, we view him as the hero. Let’s take a look at how this scene plays out:

Gladiator  •  Context Examples

In context, Maximus’ actions are justified. Commodus killed Maximus’ family and rigged the fight against him. As such, it makes sense that we root for his death. Here are some tips for how to incorporate context in your own works:

  1. Create empathy for your protagonist
  2. Vilify your antagonist
  3. Maximize conflict
  4. Develop themes
  5. Callback to prior events

By utilizing these strategies, you’ll create narrative continuity. Context relies on the impact of the past, so you should be mindful of character’s pasts at all times when writing. 

UP NEXT

What is a Plot?

Context may be what informs our understanding of a story’s events, but it would mean nothing if there weren’t events to be informed of. Plot refers to the events and actions that take place within a story -- and it’s an essential aspect of every narrative. In this next article, we look at how plot is used in Die Hard to connect narrative threads from beginning to end!

Up Next: Plot Definition and Examples →
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