Context: When a Story Demands More Than Plot

45 Years

A story I often find myself reflecting on, with no prompting, is 45 Years. It’s a British drama based on the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine.

While the movie portrays some of the most ordinary events you can imagine, the context of those events amplifies every scene. It’s about a married couple planning their 45th wedding anniversary right when a stunning revelation surfaces from the husband’s past.

Without the context of the anniversary—which is right there in the movie title—the story wouldn’t be half as affecting. In the latest Glimmer Train bulletin, Monica Wood discusses how context is a “descriptive background in a story that sheds light on its meaning.” And, as she points out, it’s larger than plot:

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.

She goes on to offer a few excellent examples, including Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (the context of a cruel New England winter) and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (the family-owned and generations-old thousand acres of land). Read Creating Context.

Also in this month’s Glimmer Train bulletin:

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Douglas Woods

‘half as affecting’? Did you mean half as effective?


Thank you for this article, Jane. The examples bring home the idea of context as a means of (among other things) bringing thematic resonance to a story, whether novel-length or short. Thanks also for reminding me of the excellent Glimmer Train bulletin!

Yilmaz Sarac

I think it will take several thousand years to reach the literary quality of the 20th century again.

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