Context {screenwriting}

Well, I say screenwriting, but really this applies to any writing, or any form of communication, I guess, even without words.

And what do I mean by context?

The Collins English Dictionary has this definition:

  1. the conditions and circumstances that are relevant to an event, fact, etc

Let’s take an example:

JOHN heads into the kitchen, stops by the coffee maker, looks at the grinder, pauses, then looks at the instant coffee tin for a moment. Turns the kettle on grabs for a cup, spoons, and waits. When the water is done boiling he pours the instant coffee into the cup, adds water, looks at the sugar for a moment, then stirs and drinks it.

Not very exciting is it?

But what if we establish that two days ago his wife, who used to make him his freshly ground coffee every morning, with 2 sugars left him for another man. Now, if you read that paragraph again, all those pauses, previously meaningless, can now take a life of their own. Unspoken bitterness? Regret? Anger? That’s all left up to the reader to decide. And all of a sudden, a previously boring scene now has meaning.

It’s like the first scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basters, which is my favorite of his works. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. At least that first scene is an amazing study in Tension and suspense.

So, how can you apply this? I’ll let your work it out for yourself, but here’s some thoughts out of my mind. Have a boring dialogue scene? Give it some context. Something awkward or painful against which the scene suddenly takes on a different life.

Writing an action/thriller instead of a drama? Maybe that’s a tainted batch of coffee, or he has an allergy but there’s someone with a gun to his head trying to kill him and make it look like an accident or a suicide. Look for something fresh, something unexpected, and you can turn a previously boring and meaning scene into something powerful.

Think in terms of Suspense vs Shock. Suspense is the ticking bomb under the chair that the characters don’t see, and the audience is waiting for it to go off. This can be tortuous and last a long time.

Shock is when the audience doesn’t know the bomb is there and it goes off unexpectedly. A quick instant bang, and that’s it. All they’re left with is the aftermath and its repercussions on the characters.

You can combine both, of course. Each story is different. Thrillers are more suspenseful, horror films are more shock based. The main difference I guess is that in a horror film it’s a matter of when, versus on a thriller where it’s a matter of if.

And then you also have subtext, which is different than context, and a subject onto itself.

Just a random thought I had the other, thought I’d share.

Val Gameiro
Writer, Director, Filmmaker
Austin, Texas