A story’s setting and circumstances of its characters gives it its life. Even if the “characters” are real. That’s why context matters in storytelling.
The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words is often misunderstood, in my opinion. Sure, having a visual of a home could well be more valuable than a 1000-word description. Particularly, if it wasn’t a particularly well-written description.
The photo above has a couple of cues about setting. The door swinging open and lack of cars surrounding it might indicate vacancy. A lack of foliage on the trees may lead you to assume the photo was taken in fall or winter. The red dirt may scream “American south.”
Without my context, you can’t understand the rest of the story. Note: The story behind the photo will be featured in a forthcoming post.
Context Orients Us in Place and Time
For instance, a story about a lineman for the telephone company who ended up marrying his dispatcher is interesting. But, if I add that it happened in the 1920s in freezing-cold Wisconsin, it had a different framework. Additionally, if I explain that these two people were my husband’s grandparents, you understand my connection to the story.
Further, If I remind you of the sociohistorical context, the story takes on more texture. Men laying telephone lines at that time in our history were trailblazers-–or communications blazers. And a woman working for the telephone company during that time was unusual.
These layers add to the narrative.
Context Matters in storytelling because it sets a framework of understanding.
That’s crucial in nonfiction stories, especially when we’re recounting episodes of our family’s past.
Here’s how Literary Devices defines Context:
Context is the background, environment, setting, framework, or surroundings of events or occurrences. Simply, context means circumstances forming a background of an event, idea or statement, in such a way as to enable readers to understand the narrative or a literary piece…
Most of us are telling family and ancestor stories to forge connections. Those connections remain elusive and tenuous without context.
Readers lack the understanding of circumstances that Paul Harvey would have called “the rest of the story.” (See also Providing Context: Will they know who you are in the barber shop? and Why Hometown Context Matters to Your Stories.)
Types of Circumstance
Our own, family, and ancestor stories can inform and engage readers with a plethora of circumstances, including
- Family situations
- Health status
- Wealth and financial standing
- Social standing and expectations
- Historical backdrop
- Political climate
- Religious traditions and expectations
- Cultural traditions and expectations
- Educational opportunities
- Emotional vulnerabilities
Those circumstances are often where the magic of storytelling happens.
Another reason why context matters in storytelling: In addition to increasing our readers’ understanding, portraying ancestors’ (or our own) actions and decisions in light of their circumstances promotes connections between readers and the past.
In other words, that sociohistorical context increases the emotional impact of stories.
Further, when people are emotionally invested in a story, they are open to hearing more details about that story. They’re open to learning more facts, more history.
And that’s what it’s all about, right? Sharing our passion for our family, our history, and our family’s history.
More to come
In the next months, I’ll have a series of posts about diverse types of story context. And, I’ll share the back story to that mystery photo.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What kind of context have changed the tenor of a story for you? Which types do you find the most important for or ancestor stories? What are some of your favorite sources?