We don’t always write with the meaning of our stories in mind. We often don’t even start a story knowing what we want to say. As a storyteller, I’ve told stories just for the pure fun of it, and I’ve also told stories that I thought might help my students to learn. But ultimately, the meaning that I managed to convey, in either case, was entirely dependent upon the context. So the question is, what does context have to do with your story, and how can you use it?
Oxford defines context as, “…the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” So viewed through the lens of storytelling, at the top level our context is quite simply our setting. When telling a story, your setting is going to be critical. In fact, attempting to tell a story without including any sort of setting at all is extremely difficult. I have been unable to find any good examples of this, however there are some more esoteric forms of art wherein the setting is left entirely up to the reader. That setting must still exist, though, and thus is a projection of the reader’s own mind. These stories I have found valuable as art form, however as a vessel with which to convey meaning, they are relatively lacking. I believe that this is because without setting, and therefore some level of context, the audience is left to decide how to interpret almost all of the meaning.
This technique can be useful to a degree – for example, if I wanted a story to appeal to a broad range of people, I might leave certain details of my setting undecided and allow the reader to fill in the blanks. In this way I could entice them into engaging with the story on a deeper level. This would still leave me the vectors of character and plot to convey meaning, however my intended meaning might easily be changed by the context the reader ascribes.
Engaging with a story is important, but if the goal of the story is too teach a specific truth, or even to illuminate a specific theme, then the storyteller cannot neglect the specific details of context. If there is something truly important to the goal of the storyteller, then they must include the right detail! Note the wording there; the right detail, not all of the detail. Spending half the story describing every characteristic of every person, place, and thing is going to give the audience a very detailed idea of the context as well as likely deflate any interest they man have had. It’s also mostly unnecessary because if the way the brain works.
The conscious mind is where we live. No way around it, of you’re awake you are thinking. But the rest of your mind, the subconscious, is constantly working as well. A great story will take advantage of this, by respecting it. Too much detail in the story forces the audience to hold all of it in their conscious mind. This is mentally taxing and uses up valuable bandwidth that they could otherwise be thinking about what the story means, how it relates to them, what the implications are-all of the things the storyteller really wants.
So if you’re telling a story, pay attention to context. Think of at least a few different ways your audience might interpret your story, and provide the specific details they’ll need to connect the dots. You can’t control every meaning people take from a story; that’s part of the beauty of the medium. But you can set the conditions for your audience to move in the direction you are going.