“Context, Context, Context” is like “Location, Location, Location”


Words take on their full meaning in the context of sentences, paragraphs, and your entire story. It starts with the first line of your book, as each bit of information sets the stage for what follows.

Have you ever polished a sentence to find it still sounds wrong when you read it again from the top of the page or paragraph?

It’s all about context. No words stand in isolation: meanings are always flavored by — and relate to — the words that precede them.

Consider this sentence: “I have two cats, one is gray and the other black.”

You can judge this sentence by itself and give it a “score,” but it’ll drop if you read it in this context: “My cats’ names are Mousy and Hops. I have two cats, one is gray and the other black.”

Now the sentence jars. We know there are two cats. Generic information follows specific information (names) and it is unbalanced. It’s wrong now, so we edit.

“I have two cats, one is gray and the other black. The gray cat is named Mousy and the other is Hops.”

This is a simplistic example of how even great sentences can be significantly diminished by context and highlights the type of bond that exists between all sentences – and how it can be broken.

Sentences polish up into final form only when abutted correctly, like puzzle pieces, into the big picture. In this way, every sentence, and each word in it, is dependent on the one before, right back to the first sentence of your book. The contextual flow of information and sentence structures runs from start to finish, like a river.

In flawed books, contextual fabric is tattered, or its absence makes for boring reading. Content impacts every dimension of the reading experience, so its importance cannot be overstressed.

We forget, when we read a book straight through, how much our experience is based on context. We already have a lot of context just from the title and the information on the back cover when we start in on page one.

It begins at the beginning

One of the most important lessons about context is found in opening lines. Endless discussions are had about how to write opening lines and which stand as best in history. Yes, they have merit in isolation, but their true laurels rest on context. Without the context of the rest of Moby-Dick, would “Call me Ishmael” really be such a memorable opening line?

Titles work in a similar fashion. Who knows or cares what Moby Dick is before reading the book? This title acts to draw one in with curiosity, not meaning. The title is wholly context dependent. Once you know it’s the name of the white whale, it takes on a completely different aura. Context thus governs every level of writing, from the order of words and how they sit next to each other to opening sentences and titles.

Genre, also, is about context. Genre sets expectations for content and style and, in the end, these all serve as context. Genre means you know what you are getting – you are getting a contextual promise. If you like Westerns, you’ll pick another title from this genre. If you love romance, you’ll pick the next best one from the genre.

Context also explains why so many readers choose a book by author. Once a fan, reading the next book is a treat because of a very special kind of context: artistic context. That context is explicit when it comes to purchasing the next title in a series. In the next book of a series, you have both the context thread of the story and the art of the author.

Context is to writing what location is to real-estate – a sure thing.


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