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On Containers

I wrote before that I hate metaphors. I still do.

I also realize my brain still thinks in metaphors, and some aren't totally unhelpful. One such example is the idea of a container.

Containers show up everywhere in our language, and we usually don't even realize it. For example, His speech was full of passion. She was overflowing with pride. I didn't find the humor in his joke.

Basically, we stuff ideas into words all the time. (See?)

Stories act as containers, too. You probably don't even notice them. When a story starts, usually we get the setting first. We learn where and when the story takes place, and who the characters are.

Only then do those characters perform an action in that space. In this case, the scene is a container for action. It's like when you preheat the oven (also a container) before putting in the casserole. The conditions need to be set before the action, so that the action, and its stakes, can be best understood (or eaten).

If you don't set the scene first, and you just have characters start doing things, this isn't the end of the world. Some authors build suspense this way. But there's so much unpacking you'll have to do later, chances are you'll turn the reader around and lose the momentum.

The safer bet is building the container of the scene, and then filling it with the action.

Oh, and one last thing. This works for essays and think pieces, too. When you introduce a new concept, it helps to offer the container of the existing knowledge or the familiar experience before filling it with nuance.

For instance, [CONTAINER] Have you noticed how in big groups, it can feel like everyone is paying attention to you? [CONTENTS] In social psychology, this is known as the spotlight effect. It finds that people vastly overestimate the extent to which other people are paying attention to them.

The next time you sit down to write, think about what container you're filling up before you pour your ideas or story all over the counter.

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