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This discussion of worldbuilding choices as high context and low context expands upon the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall.

Background reading: “Communicating in High Context vs. Low Context Cultures.” United Language Group. Accessed October 20, 2022. <https://www.unitedlanguagegroup.com/blog/communicating-high-context-vs-low-context-cultures>

There are two ends of the storytelling spectrum: high-context narratives and low-context narratives.

Key points to keep in mind as you explore the following table comparing and contrasting the two modes:

  • Neither is better than the other.
  • Each achieves a particular effect.
  • The techniques are not mutually exclusive, and form a duality rather than a binary.
  • You can freely move between modes and employ techniques from both within the same narrative.
Table comparing and contrasting high-context and low-context modes of storytelling.

Table 2. Characteristics of high-context narratives and low-context narratives.


High-context narratives

High-context narratives expect the reader to already know what’s going on. Usually, the narrator or author doesn’t explain very much. Only people in the know might pick up on certain clues.

Example 1: “Every weekend the tourists arrive by the busloads from Penang, KL and Singapore. They love the farm-cheap prices and supposedly organic fruit Ah Jie’s family grows. They descend on the all-you-can-makan durian buffet like a monsoon flood.”

Yap Xiong, “Jiak liu lian.” Published in Arsenika 3, Spring 2018.

In this example, the reader is expected to know

(1) the geography of Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia and Singapore,
(2) naming and nicknaming conventions to understand “Ah Jie”’s relationship to the narrator,
(3) the Malay language, as shown in the phrase “all-you-can-makan” (emphasis added),
(4) the Hokkien and Teochew dialects, used in the title, and
(5) what kind of fruit a durian is, as well as its cultural significance in Southeast Asia.

Just three sentences require a lot of cultural understanding and/or research from the reader.

Example 2: ““右拐就到了,” the attendant says. You look up. His blond hair is as standardized as his Mandarin, as impeccable as his crisp shirt and tie. You’ve just proven your aptitude in English, but hearing Mandarin still puts you at ease in the way only a mother tongue does. You smile at the attendant, murmuring a brief thanks as you make your way down the hall.”

S. Qiouyi Lu, “Mother Tongues.” Reprinted in EscapePod 636, July 12, 2018.

In this example, the reader is expected to

(1) recognize that the writing system is Chinese,
(2) understand that Chinese orthography has different rules than English spelling that make it difficult to read aloud if the reader doesn’t know all five characters used, and
(3) either find a translation for the phrase or piece together the meaning from context clues.

Low-context narratives

Low-context narratives, on the other hand, expect the reader to know very little. The narrator or author usually explains more about what’s going on, or the main character is new to the world and other characters explain what’s going on. Terms may be explicitly defined.

Example 3
Three panels of a comic in a monochrome yellow palette with black inks. Panel 1: A light-skinned, dark-haired person wearing a CENSO 2017 shirt says, “For your customs and ancestors, do you feel or identify as:…” Panel 2: Text continues: “Quechua,… Aymara,… Native, or—” Another dark-haired person with a slightly darker skin tone and wearing a button-up collared shirt interrupts: “What do you mean by that?” The census-taker thinks, “Uh, oh.”

Panel 3: The census-taker says, “That’s all the question says, sir.” The interviewed person says as a third person watches, “I—I am a cholo. A chusco I guess, ha ha. I mean, everyone is, right? Me. You. Everyone.” A boxed note in the lower-right corner says, “*Chusco is Spanish for “Mongrel”.”

Panels excerpted from “Mestizo” by Alberto Rayo & Diego Revelo. Published in Electrum: An All-Ages Mixed Race Comics Anthology, April 2019 from Ascend Comics, pg. 12 (print). ISBN 978-0-9981937-2-4.

In this example, although several of the identity terms aren’t explained, they are still italicized to show that they are distinct from the English dialogue. There is also an explicit note defining the term “chusco.”

Example 4: “The second Negro tooth belonging to George Washington came from a slave from the Kingdom of Ibani, what the English with their inarticulate tongues call Bonny Land, and (much to his annoyance) hence him, a Bonny man. The Bonny man journeyed from Africa on a ship called the Jesus, which, as he understood, was named for an ancient sorcerer who defied death.”

P. Djèlí Clark, “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington.” Reprinted in The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year, Volume Thirteen, edited by Jonathan Strahan, 2019 from Solaris Books, pg. 46 (print). ISBN 978-1-78108-576-9.

In this example, the “Bonny man” is a newcomer to U.S. Christian culture. Readers of Western fiction written in English are usually familiar with the concepts of “Africa” and “Jesus.” The humor and subversion in this example, then, stem from Clark’s low-context framing that defines “Africa” and “Jesus” differently from their expected meanings.

You can write high-context narratives, low-context narratives, and everything in between with neopronouns. Because each writer and reader expects something different from a story, and stories vary in their goals and intent, there’s no right or wrong way to use or introduce neopronouns into a story. Write the story that your heart moves you to write and trust that it will find its reader.

Additionally, neopronouns do not have to be gender-neutral. Our Earth has not assigned neopronouns to specific genders yet, but other worlds might have that option. The real world is only meant to be a model to inspire your art.

Practice questions

Read the following passages and determine whether each is an illustration of a high-context or low-context narrative.

You may use the comment box to explain your rationale. Please note that if you hit “Submit,” your response will be saved and viewable by the instructor.

Excerpt from “A Brief History of Beinakan Disasters as Told in a Sinitic Language” by Nian Yu, translated by Ru-Ping Chen

I enjoy cleaning out my stash of memory capsules.

I believe this is an accurate manner of representing what most Beinakans enjoy doing in our free time. A figurative walk down memory lane? True, to a certain degree, but you see, these memories, these experiences that I endeavor to organize, they didn’t actually happen to me.

We Beinakans possess a rare trait, one that allows us to pass down memories we deem important and meaningful to our progeny. Memories of the ancient past, measurements of old lab equipment, items from old grocery lists… Basically, there’s a lot rolling around in my brain that technically doesn’t belong to me.

This is how it works.

As published in The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang from Tordotcom Publishing, 2022.

Excerpt from IN THE WATCHFUL CITY by S. Qiouyi Lu

La Sombra unties the twine with care, then examines the slip of paper.

“You’ve made quite the journey,” she says. Whether she is speaking to the parcel or to him, he can’t tell. She traces her fingers over the flowing script and careful flourishes. “I presume this sigil is from Altyn.”

“Yes,” Hàokōng says. “You’re familiar with it?”

“It would be foolish of me to not study the work of others who practice our craft,” she says, her tone sharp. “Even if we may practice it differently.”

She unsticks the sigil from the parcel, then peels back layer after layer of fine joss paper, which she places to the side to be burned with the sigil. Beneath all the wrappings is a simple cloth-covered box, the crimson fabric gleaming.

She undoes the latch. A pile of bleached bones greets her, a grinning skull on top.

“Who is this?”

As published August 31, 2021 by Tordotcom Publishing.

Excerpt from STEEL CROW SAGA by Paul Krueger

Lee thought about it for a moment, then said, “You don’t need their signature to release me,” she said. She eyed the inspector carefully, wondering if she had the right measure of the woman. Then she rolled the dice and continued: “You see, I’m an agent of the Li-Quan.”

It took half a second for the inspector’s surprise to bleed into a mischievous smile.

The warden already looked flustered enough. Now she seemed all but beside herself. “What?” she said, her head snapping up to her prisoner. “No, you’re not! You’re… you’re…”

“Jeongsonese?” said the inspector. “Very observant of you, Warden. Who better to travel around Shang, conducting, ah, business for the throne, than someone the world will go out of its way to overlook?”

Lee didn’t smile, but it was a very near thing.

“The fact is, Lee Yeon-Ji is one of the Li-Quan’s finest agents both in spite of and because of her heritage, and the one I’m proud to call my partner. I had her embedded here for a long-term sting operation meant to entrap our illustrious former magistrate over there.”

As published 2019 by Del Rey.

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