Context is often an underappreciated element of our writing because when not done well, a context-filled passage can become a tell-not-show info dump. However, context is essential for most aspects of writing, from attributing dialogue and establishing stakes to evoking emotions and anchoring readers within a setting.
For that last situation, without context to “set the scene,” readers can struggle to visualize and fully immerse themselves in our stories. So let’s dig into this idea: How can we set the scene throughout our story and avoid common problems?
What Is the “Talking Head” Problem?
For many writers, dialogue is the easiest story element to write. In fact, some first drafts include only dialogue, saving the step to layer in other elements: setting and description, action, internal thoughts, emotions, etc. for later drafts.
Without the context of those additional layers—especially those that ground characters (and readers) in the scene—dialogue is like an audio play, making the story follow a couple of talking heads floating in an empty space. To avoid that problem, writers often fall back on two techniques that don’t necessarily help our story:
- One common quick fix allows us to attribute dialogue but doesn’t solve the talking-head problem—and creates a lot of empty, clichéd phrases:
- She nodded.
- He smiled.
- She frowned.
- Another common fix addresses the talking-head issue but can also result in overwriting with too many details that don’t add to our story:
- She slid her finger around the rim of her coffee cup and then picked up the mug from the table.
- He sat back on his chair and crossed his ankle over his other knee.
- She shifted her weight and leaned against the wall.
What’s a better solution? Include details that set the scene—fixing the talking-head problem—and that add meaning to our story.
How Can We Make Context Meaningful?
Sure, we could avoid the talking-head issue by simply choosing random ways for our characters to interact with their environment: touching, pushing, pulling, opening, closing, eating, drinking, etc. But those random, empty interactions will drag down our story’s pace, feel contrived, and not add meaningful layers of context to our story. How can we ensure our contextual details are meaningful?
Details are meaningful when they add something to our story.
Strong description provides context for…
- a character’s emotional state and/or emotional struggle
- a character’s thought process and/or their priorities
- foreshadowing a future meaningful detail
- highlighting an important setting detail
- exposing a point of conflict
- reinforcing stakes or motivation
- setting up a future plot point
- and so on.
Start by thinking of a character’s environment from their emotional perspective: What’s their situation and how do they feel about it? What interactions can express that?
- a chilled character cradling a warm beverage
- an upset character pounding a table with each argument
- a nervous character hugging a pillow
Also think about what we want readers to understand from the story: Which details matter (or will matter) to the story? What interactions can highlight where we want readers’ attention?
- a character fiddling with a necklace later revealed as important
- a character dropping things that create later issues
- a character leaving a door open to later cause a scene
What Do Meaningful Details Look Like?
Those examples in the second common fix shared up top could work for grounding readers in the setting and scene of our story if they were meaningful details. For instance, let’s expand on the first example:
“Ma’am, do you know where your ex-husband is?”
Sally slid her finger around the rim of the coffee cup. Should she tell the cop Bob had just been here, drinking coffee from this very mug?
She picked up the cup from the table and dropped it into the sink, along with all the other dirty dishes that seemed to pile up whenever her too-tempting-for-his-own-good ex was in town. “No, officer, I haven’t been in contact with him.”
Now those contextual setting details add layers and subtext to the dialogue. Her touching the rim could reflect her internal debate and/or attempt to ruin DNA evidence, etc. Her picking up the cup reveals her decision in the debate by preventing the cop from discovering the evidence, while the rest of the sentence hints at more of her internal conflict.
The actions that set the scene, giving readers a visual way to imagine the setting, now add meaning to the exchange. They’re not just random actions thrown in to tell readers these characters aren’t floating in empty space. There’s a reason for her actions that add layers to the storytelling.
Limit Reliance on the Quick & Easy Approach
All that said, our story is likely to include some quick-and-easy “she nodded” or basic “he sat on the couch” type of sentences. The point is not that we shouldn’t ever use them in our writing, but that we shouldn’t rely on them too often, especially as we edit our story beyond the first draft.
Instead, when setting the scene and grounding our characters (and readers), we should look for actions and details that add layers of meaning to our story to strengthen and richen our storytelling. *smile* Do you have any questions or insights about how to set the scene in meaningful ways for our characters?
Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.