Saturday, August 15, 2009

When context is king

I've been watching Steven Pinker talk about language and thought, and he's a man that takes language seriously. I've never come across a person that could discuss verbs with such fervour, or a such length ... except perhaps for my English teacher in year 10.

So why did I find this interesting, and how does it relate to digital storytelling forms in particular? First, let's observe the fact that we live with a fixed series of constructions that govern our language, and we use them for the most part, unconsciously. Our sentences are, largely, framed around verbs for example.

Steven talks about this framework, about how we're strongly influenced by our preconceptions in language, his work explores how we can have an unconscious understanding of what people mean by using language in a particular way. For example, using the phrase 'Let's get it on' would most commonly be interpreted as something other than looking for a light switch.

Preconceptions like these are largely at our discretion when we're reading a novel, we make decisions about what we think something means based on our experience, but also based on the context in the story. Observing how language is interpreted, how one word or phrase influences another is the art of the author.

When we want young writers to observe language more closely, there are a number of ways it can be done. One way can be to have them build smaller and smaller stories. 2 paragraphs becomes 1, becomes 20 words, becomes 10, and then 6 word stories. This forces the writer to hone their language, and closely consider the relationships between each word, and as a whole.

With digital storytelling however, closer attention is a necessity. There are additional influences on the reader more diverse and potentially beyond our control that may ultimately be the undoing of our story for the reader. For example, where I refer to a 6 word story website earlier. The page I have linked to is completely beyond my control in so far as the stories presented at that website are changing constantly. If you were to read something objectionable on that site, and then return to this post, it may adversely influence your reading of what I have written.

With digital storytelling, there are potentially so many influences on our reading of the text, that once we are aware of this, we are forced to adopt a more closely observational style of writing. We must remain alert to how these external influences may affect the reading of our work. Context becomes king, in a way that it does not with static text offline, and I find this fascinating, because context is one of the few ways in which the art of writing is teachable. You can teach context, in the same way that you can guide a new photographer to develop an eye for their art.

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