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Five Ways to Use Context to Add Tension

Context is the frame that defines words, actions, and people.

1. When the mind registers something out of place, it hangs onto the image and tries to reconcile it. This dilemma can eat away at your character, and the reader, until it is explained.

Dick will either deny what he saw, decide he didn't see what the thought he had, or blame it on a trick of light.

A slick detective will notice the slightest thing out of place. The image will keep churning in his brain until he figures out why it bothered him. Things presented out of context cause cognitive dissonance. Dick will pick up on things a witness says that are out of context. Poirot and Sherlock were masters of detecting conflicts of context.

If Dick sees someone walking down an urban street in a pioneer costume, he may have caught a fleeting glimpse, but his mind will hang onto the image. His rational mind won't be able to resolve it easily. Dick might see someone who looks familiar, but he is seeing them out of context so he can't quite place them.

2. Context shifts when a character is relocated or finds himself in a different world.

The frame changes when small town football star, Dick, goes off to college. He becomes a small fish in a big pond. That's why college is a great place for characters to reinvent themselves. Everyone there is out of context. Whatever your character's past, he or she can start over with a new identity or self image.

3. Shifting context can shed a different light on something said or done or cause misunderstanding. 

Advertisers, politicians and news headlines do this all the time. You see a headline and think something must really be wrong. Then you read the same words in the context of the article and realize it meant nothing. It is also a way to advance false data to support a proposition.

If Dick wants to make Jane look bad, he can take something she said out of context and distort her meaning by making her quote sound more simplistic or extreme. When asked to confirm if she made the comment, she'll have to admit to it. She may not be given the opportunity to defend herself by explaining the context. This tactic is used in courtrooms to great effect. If Jane said she wanted to "kill" Sally for being such a bitch, she may have said so as a joke or in a moment of ire. She did not intend to ever harm Sally. On the witness stand, Dick will use her words against her.

Dick can also use this tactic by quoting an authority out of context to support his argument. If an article states that cigarettes cause cancer in six out of ten smokers, Dick can state that the article said cigarettes don't cause cancer in all smokers. He is technically correct, but that was not the intent of the article's author.

If Dick is caught quoting someone's inflammatory statement, Jane can turn on him and pretend the statement came from Dick himself, when in fact the remainder of Dick's comment countered the inflammatory statement. This is often done with biblical quotes. Just because a scribe in biblical times said that something was okay does not make it an acceptable, rational choice in modern society. Or the person takes a quote from a trusted text and uses it out of context intentionally (or ignorantly) to support their proposition.

Jane can state there is some evidence that a specific medical treatment was effective. She leaves out the part where the article stated that it was effective in such a small sampling as to be considered ineffective and not worth further study.

Dick could film Jane doing something and edit the film to make it look like she was doing something wrong or illegal. In a world where virtually everyone has a cell phone camera, it's easy to take a random shot or video clip of someone and use it however you like. This is a frequent tactic by paparazzi when it comes to celebrity hookups. They show two actors standing together and call them a couple when all they were doing was posing for an upcoming film promotion.

4. Seeing photographs or images out of context can make Jane view something in an entirely different light. An example would be the "this is your brain on drugs" that showed an egg frying in a skillet. Juxtaposing different verbal images can have the same effect.

Commercials sometime stream images of unrelated images together to illustrate a point. The images are all out of context but work together to change perceptions. The E-trade baby commercials where they show toddlers talking like adults or the identity theft commercials where they show teenage girl voices emitting from a middle aged man are good examples. The switch in context makes them funny. The photo of an oil rig next to an oil-soaked duckling is another example. Sometimes it is not until you see something out of context that the reality sinks in.

5. Conflicts occur when something Dick says is taken out of context or misunderstood. He can have the best intentions in the world, but if Jane is having a bad day, feeling overly sensitive or Dick's words catch her at just the wrong angle, he has conflict. This happens all the time in all facets of life. Small misunderstandings create big wounds. We all have our issues and sensitive moments. Jane can be experiencing emotion due to something else entirely and an innocent comment from Dick can set off a storm of retaliation.

Sally can reveal information she didn’t intend to under these circumstances. Characters have their hot buttons and comments can push those hot buttons. Sally might perceive someone’s comment as a blow to her pride, honor, integrity, intelligence, generosity, or belief system. A casual comment from a spouse, friend or relative, even if it was meant to be funny, could result in a massive blowout if it strikes an unintended nerve. What Jane said might have been funny if it hadn't been out of context. If Jane intentionally says something knowing she'll strike a nerve, that’s another conflict.

Characters hear things wrong, interpret things wrong, and relate information filtered through their past experiences and personal preferences. They could repeat something that was said to them. They may believe in the accuracy of what they are saying. That does not, however, make it true or accurate.

Conflicts of context can be utilized in all genres and all aspects of a story from setting and character description to dialogue.

For more information on using context and other obstacles to create conflict, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

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