Sometimes a story demands more than just a plot to move its emotional content forward. When a story becomes very complicated, or a little too crowded with characters, or stretched over a long period of time, you may want to create a context. Context is the descriptive background in a story that sheds light on its meaning. Context is larger than plot; it gives the characters a larger arena in which to hate or love each other, to discover or destroy themselves, to fall under or triumph over adversity.
Contexts can be large: World War II, the Catholic Church, death. Contexts can also be small: winter, a wedding, a hometown. Context provides forward motion at the emotional level, using symbols and metaphors that reinforce emerging themes in a story. It also can serve the practical purpose of organizing the physical movement of a story into beginning, middle, and end. For example, a story told in the context of weather can follow a season or seasons for its beginning, middle, and end: the beginning unfolds during planting, the middle during harvesting, the end during the dormant winter. At the same time, the context reinforces developments of character: a woman's suntanned face gives way to winter-bitten skin that reflects her gathering bitterness.
In Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, the plot follows Ethan's doomed affair of the heart with Mattie Silver, the "companion" of Ethan's sickly and querulous wife. It is a dark story told in the context of the cruel New England winter. After a brief prologue, the story opens this way:
The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.
This descriptive passage sets up a context that will be carried through the novel—the characters cannot escape the literal and metaphorical cold. And yet the shafts of yellow light sent undulating over the snow deliver a hint that warmth is possible even in this unforgiving place. The love that develops between Ethan and Mattie is that drop of warmth, but the landscape literally and figuratively becomes their doom. As the story progresses, Wharton softens the landscape a bit when Ethan begins to imagine himself and Mattie together:
They finished supper, and while Mattie cleared the table Ethan went to look at the cows and then took a last turn about the house. The earth lay dark under a muffled sky and the air was so still that now and then he heard a lump of snow come thumping down from a tree far off on the edge of the wood-lot.
Even though the landscape is softened here—the domestic quiet implied by the cows and the muffled sky—Wharton preserves an unrelenting sense of foreboding with that disquieting, far-off thumping of snow. The context remains steady throughout, with repeated images of sterility and starkness and frozen ground, as the physical and emotional lines of the story culminate in a toboggan accident that destroys Mattie and Ethan in different ways.
The plot of Jane Smiley's novel A Thousand Acres unfolds in the huge context of land—the family-owned, generations-old "thousand acres" of the title. The land is something that must be reckoned with at every turn in the book, for the land is the characters' livelihood and also their prison. It is both beautiful and menacing. The context provides an irony that resonates throughout this story of a multitude of family betrayals set into motion by the patriarch's dividing of the land. (It's a retelling of King Lear.) Because the land must be tended to in all its seasons, the context provides a blueprint for moving the plot along. Ginny, the narrator, begins and ends her story by describing the land:
. . . you could see our buildings, a mile distant, at the southern edge of the farm. A mile to the east, you could see three silos that marked the northeastern corner, and if you raked your gaze from the silos to the house and barn, then back again, you would take in the immensity of the piece of land my father owned, six hundred forty acres, a whole section, paid for, no encumbrances, as flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth. . . .
... I thought it appropriate and desirable that the great circle of the flat earth spreading out from the T intersection of County Road 686 and Cabot Street Road be ours. A thousand acres. It was that simple.
The ensuing story is anything but simple, and ends with another view of the same land:
Let us say that each vanished person left me something, and that I feel my inheritance when I am reminded of one of them. When I am reminded of Jess, I think of the loop of poison we drank from, the water running down through the soil, into the drainage wells, into the lightless mysterious underground chemical sea, then being drawn up, cold and appetizing, from the drinking well into Rose's faucet, my faucet. I am reminded of Jess when I drive in the country, and see the anhydrous trucks in the distance, or the herbicide incorporators, or the farmers plowing their fields in the fall, or hills that are ringed with black earth and crowned with soil so pale that the corn only stands in it, as in gravel, because there are no nutrients to draw from it.
The poison beneath the land echoes the poison beneath the family relationships. The context of land reinforces every lie and betrayal the characters inflict on one another.
Not all contexts are this large. The breadth of the story should dictate the breadth of the context. A story about a marriage breaking up would work quite well in a small context: the story takes place over the course of an exceptionally dry summer, say, its attendant images of burnt lawns and dead flowers reinforcing the story's emotional content. A story about the dissolution of an entire family might work well in a larger context such as a five-year drought or a civil war.
Let's start small, with a story about a middle-aged woman named Harriet who comes to realize that she has squandered her life. That's the "story," the emotional content; the plot, however, takes her through the machinations of her first dinner party in twenty years. Her model for this party is a wine ad she saw in a magazine. The ad depicts a genteel, dress-up dinner party—an image so vivid in Harriet's mind that it becomes the context for the story. This context contains symbols of an elegant, upper-crust lifestyle which contrasts nicely with Harriet's middle-class limitations. It also has the potential for illuminating themes like falseness and self-deception. Also, the dinner party gives you a blueprint for moving the plot forward: appetizers, main course, dessert.
Suppose you begin the story by showing Harriet getting the appetizers ready in the kitchen. As in all the previous examples, careful description heightens context and connects the story's physical and emotional forward movement:
She put one bright canape after another onto a silver tray, fretting over each rose-shaped radish, each olive-topped cream-cheese cracker, each polished cherry, each frilly spray of parsley. She frowned. The props that had suggested whimsy in the magazine photograph took on an air of desperate excess when crowded onto her grandmother's silver platter. She tried to imagine the wine-blushed faces in that ad, all of them frantically happy. What, exactly, were they looking at? The food? Each other? Their own fabulousness? Harriet sighed. It was too late now. The menu was set, the table decorated, the guests invited and arrived. Whatever she had overlooked would have to wait.
By describing the tray of hors d'oeuvres so vividly and then revealing Harriet's disappointment, you imply that this is more than just a dinner party to Harriet, and that she's beginning to suspect that her lavish expectations may not be met. The context begins to form, for what reader has not longed to step into the midst of an ad like the one Harriet is remembering? Because you render Harriet's reaction to the ad in such precise detail ("wine-blushed," "frantically happy"), your readers have no choice but to measure Harriet's party against the wine-ad party.
What's next? Suppose Harriet glances out the kitchen door and spots her husband, Marty, looking stiff and unyielding among the drift of guests, whom she realizes are all her friends:
She let the door fall closed, picked up her burgeoning tray and practiced moving with it in the clean privacy of her kitchen. She stopped, listening once again to the light-hearted weave of voices, and suddenly remembered certain old friends—all those laughing girls!—who had gone off to work or traveled out of state or otherwise drifted away.
"Hors d'oeuvres," she called cheerily, brandishing her tray. Everyone looked up. The women were dressed in skirts and pantsuits, the men in ordinary shirts, as though they had arrived here straight from the office.
In this passage, you move the story forward emotionally, and that emotional movement is made richer by the context. Notice how even small contextual details reveal character: Harriet's "burgeoning tray" harkens back to the wine-ad party in all its bounty, but the phrase also reminds us of Harriet's burgeoning expectations, and her dim sense of her own "desperate excess." Because we recognize that Harriet's hope is for the wine-ad party, we understand without being told that Harriet is disappointed to see the "skirts and pantsuits" and "ordinary shirts."
In the next scene, Harriet circulates through her living room with the tray, realizing that she doesn't actually know any of her guests very well. She makes little stabs at small talk, remembering her earlier expectations:
She had imagined herself glancing around gaily, discussing things topical and stimulating. She had imagined glasses raised in convivial gladness. How extravagant the women's dresses, how smooth and muscular their exposed shoulders. And the men! Leaning forward, listening to her opinions, relaxed and genial, stretching in their beautiful silk shirts.
Even though Harriet is remembering past thoughts in a brief flashback, the emotional content of the story is moving forward because you are revealing even more about Harriet's self-delusion. The passage is full of Harriet's foolishness—convivial gladness and beautiful silk shirts, indeed!—almost as if she is remembering the wine ad as something she actually experienced. The wine-ad image of "... men leaning forward, listening to her opinions, relaxed and genial ..." suggests this lonely woman's desperate hope for something that will never happen.
Using the context as a story organizer, you can enter the story's middle through the vehicle of a main course. The action accelerates and the stakes rise. Harriet tries vainly to strike up some "topical" conversation with the increasingly taciturn guests; Marty picks a fight with the man sitting across from him; Harriet takes the man's side, which triggers another argument between her and Marty; finally, the guests one by one remember other appointments or babysitters at home and drift off.
The end of the story is signalled by the end of the party. Marty stalks upstairs without a word, leaving Harriet alone to preside over the half-eaten remains of her elaborate dinner:
Harriet drew herself up and collected the dirty plates and took them to the kitchen. She could see traces of the delicate pattern—little blue flowers—between gobs of sauce and bits of meat and the frayed heads of asparagus. Marty was moving through their bedroom overhead, his steps heavy and grave. Along the counter twelve cuts of cheesecake were lined up on filigreed dessert plates, one perfect cherry atop each slice. She looked closer: the cherries had begun to bleed, leaving uneven drizzles along the lovely white wedges. Harriet shook her head, clucking to herself. She had left them out too long. She had not paid enough attention. Not that it mattered; there was nobody here to eat them.
Notice how the physical and emotional endings coincide. Harriet rues her bleeding cheesecakes, and the nature of that observation (the marred appearance of the white cake) gives your readers to understand what Harriet now realizes: Not only has the party been a dismal failure, but so has her life. She has left herself "out [of life] too long," and is only now feeling the enormity of her exile.
Ethan Frome draws its power from the similarity between the story and its context—the hopeless people and the hopeless weather. This little story about Harriet draws its power from the contrast between the story and its context—the real party and the wine-ad party. Context can work with or against a story with equally satisfying results.