MBM: Constructing Context Clues by Charissa Stastny

This is the last week of March Book Madness. (If you’ve missed any posts, you can catch the schedule and explanation at the bottom.)

Today my friend, Charissa Stastny, is here talking about how language can be both a barrier and a bridge to communication. Char is so sweet, and very supportive and helpful in the writing community. Check out her blog for great ideas. She wrote an awesome post last year for March Book Madness about weeding our words. (See the link below this post).


Charissa Stastny

In real life, words can take on so many meanings. Think of text messages that are used for a large part of communication. When one of my daughters was having a long distance relationship with a boy for a few months, they texted like crazy. They also fought about a lot of those texts.

I wondered why this was, and realized that words don’t convey emotion perfectly as we like to assume they do. They’re easily misunderstood when taken out of context.

Words are the basic building blocks of communication. When they are constructed carefully, they bridge the gap between us and others, welcoming them into our creative worlds. But when tossed around haphazardly, they can become piles of worthless rubble that hinder others from understanding us.

In order to be understood by others, we must also make sure we are not misunderstood.

Context is the key

Context is the other words (bricks) and sentences that are around a certain word, character, or plot in your story.  As authors, we need to be all over Context like bees to pollen. Context gives our readers clues to help get emotion across, which will hook them to our stories. Yea!

It’s important to build our writing carefully, applying enough context clues to paint a vibrant textual picture for our reader. That doesn’t mean everyone will see your writing exactly as you see it, or even have a similar emotional response; we all bring our own world experience, judgments, and preconceived notions to a story. But an author can construct words with the purpose of narrowing the gap between writer and reader through context clues that build a bridge into our world. Here’s a few ways to do that:


When I read a book and don’t know what a word means, one of the easiest ways for me to figure out the meaning of it is to look to see if there’s an antonym nearby. In a scene, opposition can work the same way. If a character is having a mental breakdown, you can show the extreme opposite in a side character that is calm and collected. This paints a picture for the reader to see how distraught the other character is by comparison.


Hearing characters speak to each other is exciting. It provides great context clues to help readers understand your characters better. But don’t let your characters tell the readers what to think. Construct your dialogue so that clues fall in a manner that gives your readers their own “Ah hah!” moments of discovery into a character’s soul.


A psychology professor from UCLA, Albert Mehrabian, did a study that showed that verbal communication consisted of only 7% of our total communication. The rest—93%–came from nonverbal clues with 55% of that being body language and 38% coming from tonality.

If that’s true, then we, as authors, shouldn’t try to have our characters only speak to each other in dialogue. We need them to communicate in a lot of other ways as well, such as:

1: Inner Thoughts Our brains are always working overtime as we go about our lives. Thoughts can seem random, insightful, or almost crazy in the patterns they seem to take in our conscious brains. Letting the reader see inner thoughts of characters can leave great context clues for them to piece a character together.

A simple sentence like… He kicked the ball.

…Can suddenly expand to create a whole new mood with inner thoughts thrown in.

He kicked the ball. There you go, you no good, double crossing jerk, he thought, as he watched the ball sail over the fence.

2: Physical actions These include body language, closeness (invading someone’s space, drawing back), body contact (shaking hands, throwing a punch), facial expressions, hand and head movements, appearance, posture, speech style (fast, stutter, stress on words), and body sounds. Throw several of these in to help your reader gain context about characters in stressful situations.

Physical clues are very telling…without the author having to tell you.

3: Emotional Responses As an author, you want to reach your reader on an emotional level. If you do, they’ll be hooked. A great book I would highly recommend to help you figure out how to stimulate emotional responses in your readers is The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becka Puglisi (http://www.amazon.com/The-Emotion-Thesaurus-Character-Expression/dp/1475004958)

This book lists 75 different root emotions and the various physical, internal, and mental responses each produces. It’s very handy for writers. I suggest getting a hardcopy so you can write down more ideas as they come to you under the right emotion section.

Embed from Getty Images

There are plenty of other tools you can use to drop context clues into your writing, but these will give you a good start in using language as a bridge instead of a barrier to communication.

In the words of Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no try.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’m a little bit of a nerd). May the Force (of context clues) be with you!

Charissa Stastny


Charissa Stastny hails from Las Vegas, Nevada, but has never pulled the handle of a slot machine and can’t shuffle cards to save her life. Since 4thgrade, she has envisioned herself an author after writing the creative work, The Creature from McGool, and continuing in shame to pen some cheesy romance scenes as a teenager. Thankfully, she has matured somewhat and is a member of the Idaho Writer’s Guild and tries hard not to spread too much cheese around in her writing now. She graduated from Brigham Young University and enjoys writing, reading, hiking and biking. She resides in Idaho’s Treasure Valley with her husband and children (where card shuffling isn’t required).



Eyes of Light by Charissa Stastny

Secret Keepers by Charissa StastnyHands of Mercy by Charissa Stastny





Rebecca’s Thoughts:

I love these examples. What a great way to show, rather than tell, the reader what’s happening. I especially love how she gives specific areas to focus on. I’ve read both of her books (intense suspense/romance novels), and she does a fabulous job of this.

As Char has pointed out, language is so much more than the words we speak. When we can get our books to the next level of language, they resonate with the readers.

Thanks so much, Char, for coming back for March Book Madness. Good luck with the release of your new book later this year.

Now it’s your turn? How do you portray what your readers are doing to enhance the communication in your novels? Comment here.

Constructing Context Clues by Charissa Stastny

Tune in tomorrow for our next guest: Janice Hardy.


If you’re new to March Book Madness, it has nothing to do with basketball (sorry) and everything to do with books. March is National Reading Month, so March Book Madness gives me an excuse to discuss everything about writing, editing, and reading books with some amazing authors.

If you’ve missed any posts, find them here





14 thoughts on “MBM: Constructing Context Clues by Charissa Stastny

  1. Thanks for inviting me back this year, Rebecca. I love having an ‘assignment’ that stretches me and also reading what all the other authors post during this month.


    1. Thanks for coming back. Great thoughts! And I agree. March Book Madness is my favorite time of year on the blog because of everything I learn. It’s awesome! Thanks for being part of it.


  2. Excellent article, Charissa. Well written and really made me think about how I communicate emotions in my books.
    I used to always say to my children, “Tone of voice! It’s not what you are saying, it’s how you are saying it.” It’s so true in all of our communication, whether it be texting, emails, blog comments, or Facebook comments. We can’t “hear” what the person meant and we sometimes misconstrue their meaning. I loved your example about your daughter and her boyfriend.
    You’ve pointed out some really good thoughts that we need to be very aware of as we write.
    And I can’t wait for the third book in your series!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Taylor. That tone of voice makes so much difference. I remember telling my kids to say Sorry…and tone makes a huge difference in that word. That same word can mean so many different things by how you say it.


  3. Wonderful article, Char. I’ve found ‘The Emotion Thesaurus’ to be very helpful. You raise an excellent point–in the real world, body language speaks volumes. We need to try to do the same in our fiction without being repetitive with the actions we choose (he shrugged, she grimaced, etc.). Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done. :)


  4. Ah the shrug — I need to do something about all that shrugging going on in my story. *shrugs* :)

    These are excellent pointers Char, great article!


  5. Fantastic article, Char. I agree about non-verbal cues being important in communication. Whenever my kids aren’t getting along and then deny that they “said” anything hurtful, I remind them “it’s all in your tone and body language.”

    Of course, they use that wisdom against me, so it’s a double-edged sword! :)


  6. Great article! I’ve always believed words are inadequate. It’s funny that we keep trying to use them anyway. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why writing and craziness go so well together.


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