Context and Why It’s Important

My parents’ bedroom and my father’s office are situated side by side at the end of the hall in the back of their house. Sometimes you can catch them having conversations around the corner. The other day I was sitting just down the hall when I heard my mother’s voice.

“Can I trust you? I would like to, but I just don’t think I can.”

Now I have heard my parents argue and I have heard my mother’s voice when it is under stress. This was different. It didn’t sound like a voice she would use with my dad, but who else would she be talking to in the back of the house? It sounded like she was repeating the lines from some soap opera.

A few minutes later I went into my parents’ room to ask a question. Everything became clear. She had two dresses (freshly dry cleaned) hanging from the bed frame and over on the windowsill was our black cat Max. (And no, he should not be trusted alone in a room with two dresses exposed. To him they might as well be the stairway to heaven.)

If I were the sort of person to jump to conclusions, that whole situation could have played out very differently. Here’s the truth about people though: a lot of them do tend to jump to conclusions. I tend to come from a rare breed–the ones who want to gather all the information they can before making a conclusion. I know it must be rare because people comment on it all the time.

I don’t think I need to explain to you how you can use context in your story. Some of the most infamous pieces of literature are centered around characters taking things out of context, or miscommunication.

Now, to be honest, stories about miscommunication can be infuriating. But as a writer, I have to recognize that people take things out of context all the time. It’s human nature. (Yes, even I do it.) One of the coolest things about human beings is that we can take information, process it, find patterns, and come to conclusions. Our brains are pretty neat. But no one is omnipotent. And we like for things to be wrapped up neatly. So, even if we don’t have all the information, we try to wrap up what we do know and that’s where we get into trouble.

Misunderstanding is part of life and it can be really fun to play with as an author (as long as you don’t torment your reader. Please don’t do that). In fact, I think there is nothing that can so powerfully show the different backgrounds of two people then how they may understand the same statement in two completely different ways.┬áThat’s the kind of misunderstanding I want to play with: the kind that reveals more about my characters.

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