Contextual Embedding

Contextual embedding, criteria #4, is my favorite. So what is it? Let’s take another look at Story #3. (You’re going to get sick of this story–I’ll be mentioning it a lot before we’re through.)

Back when I was living in Oakland, my house was burglarized. I was living with my brother, his wife, her sister, their two dogs, and my five-month old son and in the middle of the night, someone broke in and cleaned us out. The worst part for me was that he or she stole the camcorder that I’d been recording my son with. I’d actually caught my baby’s first laugh on tape, and the thief stole it. Other stuff, too, but it’s the laugh that hurts.

This story uses multiple elements of contextual embedding. I tell you where the house is–Oakland, California. I tell you about the people who were there–my brother, etc. And I give you enough information to provide a sense of a specific moment in time–when my son was five months old.

Contextual embedding sets a scene. It provides context for the story, by including information about the place and time where an event happened. With CBCA, contextual embedding has a 69% success rate in determining a true story from a false one. After lots of details, the criteria with a 98% success rate, contextual embedding is one of the strongest.

Of course, using contextual embedding in your writing might seem obvious. All stories need a setting, after all. But you can be blatant about your contextual embedding–for example, starting a chapter with a heading that gives a place and a time–or subtle. And using subtle contextual embedding will make your writing richer and more believable.

Let’s look at another example, this time from A Gift of Ghosts. (Henry and Rose are the speakers.)

“Tommy Shaw put a garter snake in Rose’s lunchbox one time. We must have been about thirteen, fourteen years old.”

“Thirteen.” Rose shuddered. “It was my brand-new Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox, and I was so proud of it. When I opened it up and that snake slithered out, I cried.”

There’s some obvious contextual embedding in that quote. Henry and Rose were thirteen or fourteen years old, which tells us something about the timing. But there’s also some subtle contextual embedding in the shape of that lunchbox.

Now, I could have described the lunchbox in many different ways. I could have used no adjectives at all, simply said, “When I opened my lunchbox up and that snake slithered out…” Or I could have stuck with only “brand-new.” Or I could have described it. “It was my brand-new lunchbox, bright red metal, and I was so proud of it…”

But making it a Hopalong Cassidy lunches turns it into a detail that provides contextual embedding. It sets the scene at a specific moment in time–a moment when people knew who Hopalong Cassidy was. (Specifically, the year was 1953 and the reason Rose has a Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox is that it was the only branded lunchbox available at that time. Random trivia: Hopalong Cassidy was the very first branded lunchbox.) But if the lunchbox had been a Scooby Doo lunchbox or a Star Wars lunchbox or a Spice Girls lunchbox, it would have served equally as well as contextual embedding because any of those would have provided information about the timing of Rose’s life.

Stephen King once said, “Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”

A lunchbox that is “brand-new” or “bright red” is still a detail. But it’s not the kind of detail that stands for much. A Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox offers more. For those who don’t recognize it, it offers the subliminal, ‘that must have been a long time ago.’ For those who do recognize it, it tells the era, it suggests that Rose’s family had money since they had a television in 1953, it suggests that Rose was probably a little spoiled, since she was proud of her trendy lunchbox. As details go, it is a very hard-working detail–and that’s because it’s a detail that provides contextual embedding.One more example, this time excerpted from A Gift of Time:

Travis paused, looking down at the boy. “Anything happen while I was gone?”

The boy dropped his head. …

“Heard a big splash, that’s all. Got scairt.” The last word came out in a mumble.

“Told you before, you’re way too big for a gator. It’s more scared of you than you are of it.” Travis made no move to get into the boat.

“You saw that big one. Thirteen foot long, it was! I’d be, like, breakfast. And not a good breakfast, neither. Not bacon and eggs, I’d be like a bowl a’ cold cereal.”

That alligator and that splash? And also the bits of dialect in the boys’ voices? They’re contextual embedding, details that evoke a setting, hint at a place and a mood. That line could have been, “It’s just scary out here in the dark.” That would have been a detail, too–the dark–and it would have made his mood clear, but it wouldn’t be nearly as successful at providing contextual embedding and making the story richer.

So, use contextual embedding to choose the details that will make your writing stronger. Stephen King’s overturned tricycle carries as much meaning as it does because it’s located in a specific place–in the gutter, in an abandoned neighborhood. It’s contextually embedded.

 

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2 thoughts on “Contextual Embedding

  1. This makes me wonder if I could use it to write the book I want to write set in the activist community in ABQ NM in the early 90s. I’ve tried to write it before and it becomes too much. I’ll have to ponder this a bit.

    • Maybe? I suppose the question is why the book gets overwhelming. So many ingredients go into a book–character and plot and setting and pace and the rhythm of the words–CBCA can’t help with most of those things, only with making the story feel more truthful.

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