It's All About Context

Earlier this month my hubby and I were at monster-sized garden center about 25 minutes from my house, out in the middle of the boondocks, when a young man approached me and said, "Hi, Margaret."

Stunned that anyone would a) recognize me, b) actually say hello, I simply said, "Oh, hi!" And slid away, wondering if I had a stalker that I didn't know about.

When I met back with the hubby I told him about his encounter, and he asked if it was someone from my old job at the hospital.

Hmm, it could be.

But I left nine years ago. People change in nine years. Plus they wear lab coats and scrubs. This young man was in jeans and a t-shirt wearing glasses. I had no clue who it could be as he didn't identify himself.

Or it could be one of the bikers I say hi to on my walks.

No clue because bikers wear skin-tight biker shorts and shirts along with a helmet, and sunglasses.

Or it could be someone in my Weight Watcher meeting . . .nah, it wasn't one of them.

So I had two people that it might be, but I still have no idea who this person was--because I didn't have context, an indicator as to who this person was or where I might know him from. This person saw me at a place I to go once or twice a year, but I had no idea where I knew him from since I saw him out of the context of how I knew this person.

The other side of the topic was when I saw a former neighbor at the grocery store. She had moved out of the neighborhood to a new build about a mile away.

This is how the conversation started:

ME: "Becky?"

Becky looks up from the bananas she just put in the cart. A slightly confused look on her face.

ME: "Hi! It's Margaret Golla."

Her face clears up as she puts the face to the name and we chit-chat for about fifteen minutes. If she hadn't recognized my name, I had a few other indicators in my arsenal: the name of the neighborhood, living diagonally across the street, etc.

I gave her context to figure out who the heck I was.

The same goes for writing.

You wondered where this blog was going, didn't you? See, I finally got around to the topic. 

As you might realize, I have judged many, many contest entries over the last 10+ years. And one of the biggest problems is either too much back story (95% of the time) about a character or too little. I don't care about a character's history, how they got into their predicament, or what they ate for dinner the previous night . . . unless it has to do with the timing of their death and who the possible suspects are.

As a reader, and a contest judge, I want to feel the character's emotions, or see their actions, that tell me who they are. But the character's actions HAVE to make sense to the reader.

For example:

Centuries ago I judged a historical contest entry. The heroine started to berate her husband about how he treated his Calvary horse--he was basically abusing the horse because the horse wasn't listening.

(FYI: as a former horseman, this is usually due to the rider giving the horse conflicting signals.)

Are you kidding me?

This story took place in the mid-1700's, what woman would actually yell at her commanding officer hubby, in front of his men, no less? It didn't make sense. And yes, I dinged her for it.

Through the message boards, I saw the contest entrant rip me a new one with the score I gave her. It wasn't a bad score, it simply wasn't enough for her to final in the contest, which pissed her off.

Anyhoo, I discovered after the fact that this author had deleted a section of the story that mentioned how she was raised: On a breeding farm that supplied Calvary horses.

This was much needed information that was callously deleted because it was "back story".

But then again, the reader had zero context as to why this character was acting so weird for that particular time period.

This could have been easily fixed in a bit of narrative when the heroine sees this abuse.

For example, something as simple as this. .

How dare he spur Sultan until his sides were bloody? She'd raised that horse from a foal, training him to respond to the most minute cues. Blah, blah, blah. . . 

That little bit was all this reader needed to figure out why she was 'acting out of character' for the time period. It would have answered a lot of questions.

Like . . . who the heck was that young man at the nursery place??

Later, Peeps?


Meg said...

I hate when that happens and I can't remember who that person is. I had never thought about it in a writing context. Good point!

BTW: I learned a lot from judges in contests. Those who took the time to point out the flaws. I thank them.

Margaret Golla said...

As a contest entrant, I know how hard it is to get past the "I got a crappy score and everyone hates me" thought to "wow, I hadn't realized that I forgot that tidbit of info because I KNEW *X* about the character, but the reader has no clue".

There's a fine line between giving out too much info and not enough.