Show context again and again throughout a story. Repeat the broad context that surrounds your protagonist’s goal and struggle. When you zoom in, you must zoom out again. There are many analogies; one is that of the tour guide.
A writer is simply a tour guide to the terrain of a character’s life, in particular the wing of the museum where the goal and conflicts are housed.
Think about how a good tour guide acts. The guide knows the territory, the terrain, and can traverse it unimpeded without much attention to her course. Without even thinking about it, without even noticing the features of the landscape. But her job is to guide others who haven’t been there before. That’s true whether the site is a national park, a historic mansion, or a spelunking cave. She trods patiently and is explicit about every stage, every feature. “This is the entrance. We’re going in now. Watch your step.” She knows it’s the entrance. She’s not saying that for her sake. But she waits and oversees. She acts as a shepherd, and takes care. The point is not about her facility, her expertise. Her objective is to get guests informed, get them observing, and get them experiencing the site for themselves.
The Enemy of This Task
The enemy of this task is fixation and tangent. Imagine a tour guide not relating details about the historical background of a place, the geological epochs, how things formed, when they were built, who lived here, who settled the lands, but instead talking about a single tree. Imagine if she iterated at length on the floorboards and ceiling joists. Many stories that fail to engage readers do so out of a dearth of contextual information. Sometimes a story provides abundant surface detail but doesn’t help readers know what to do with that detail.
For example, here’s what I wrote during an in-class exercise about League Bowling night.
Al Pearson, team captain of the New Paltz New Horizons, stood at the ball return, his hand dangling over the air vent, wiggling his fingers. It was Tuesday, league night, and he wore his bowling shirt with the sunrise logo on the back, his name stitched in cursive over the left breast. Whenever he wore his bowling shirt, he stood, as he did now, with especial pride; captains were not always picked for having the highest average, but in his case they were. Al’s average was a whopping 241. His goal for season was nothing less than to get his hands on the first-place trophy, which would surely mean besting three-time league champs, the Kingston Hornets.
The look of assured disinterest, of professional poise, that a bowler embodies is very close to that of a matador or an embarking paratrooper. So it was that Al’s face, cheeks drawn in, subtly concealed a grin as he watched his rival, Huey Farn, of the Hornets, miss a split pickup in lane 7, adjacent to Al’s.
Al Pearson, team captain of the New Paltz New Horizons, stood at the ball return, his hand dangling over the air vent, wiggling his fingers. The air felt good on his hand, cooling it, like a summer breeze. He stared at the lights reflecting on the gleaming boards of the lane, bright and shimmering like a dozen suns.
I can’t even execute on faking a bad example here. It’s too cruel to leave Al there, inert, with no goal and no perspective, the essentials of his scenario unrevealed. What I see happening in a lot of fiction is a continuing dive into psychological depth. We get uber-close to a character’s inner world, and it keeps drilling down, adding metaphors, similes, images. But then it never comes up for air. The camera never pulls back. We never understand the broader context. What day of the week is it? What is he wearing? Ultimately, what does he want out of this experience? That’s what lets us understand him, more than gleaming boards looking like a dozen suns.
There’s a contradiction here, because yes, we do no need those literary devices, and the sensory details, but as story objects, they must be placed on a — shall we say — pedestal where we can view them unobstructed, from all sides.
Narrative excursions that go too far into the five senses, colorful similes, and other wordplay, in lieu of other basics, often create the impression of a character who isn’t focused, has no immediate concerns, and is perhaps impressionable and aimless.
If a character is these things, then he/she cannot be much occupied with his/her goal and ensuing obstacles. This is where the story weakens. Contextual information serves as a foundation for other flourishes. I think of the platforms, the ropes, barriers, boundaries, and walkways that are erected on palace ruins to direct guests and get them viewing in the right places, seeing the crucial features.
To not build those for guests would be lazy of the historical foundation, so to speak. But they came up with the funds and did, because that’s what they care about, and they’re pros.
We can think of a story lacking these helpful guides as being in a way ungenerous. Though they may not intended to be, they are sometimes neglectful of guests — or readers.
What happens when the writer gains experience is that they come to recognize the feeling they get in themselves when they are drafting lines, passages, and scenes that don’t offer good guidance. Once they recognize that indulgent, tangential feeling, they can choose to indulge it minimally. It’s an unfortunate truth that the most helpful and clarifying passages of a work are not necessarily the most pleasurable to compose.
Think again of the valiant tour guide. Yup, the tour guide at the caves is a geological expert. She was fascinated when first studying geological formations, enthralled by the layered strata, the magnificent treasures beneath the earth’s mantle, the behaviors of sediment, the results of millennia of compression, how fault lines shape terrain. But in her role in tour guide, she doesn’t try to dazzle or awe; mainly, she helps others understand the significance of what’s in front of them. She provides context, a perspective.
Sounds rudimentary. Sounds a bit basic. It is.
When the writer-as-narrator provides broad context, plays tour guide, stories change from portraits that are myopically close, to vistas that readers can relate to and imagine themselves in; much, we might say, as a tourist, standing behind the barrier at Pompeii, imagines himself overtaken one day in his parlor, only to become entombed in ash.
And that’s the whole point, ultimately: to allow that magic to happen in the reader. It requires generosity, restraint, and selflessness.
Dozens of tourists a day may leave a site knowing only a fraction of all that the guide knows. But if they’ve been guided well, they are truly enlivened by their visit.