Framing: What It Is, And How To Use It

Framing is the techniques and methods by which a story conveys whether something is positive, negative, a little of both, or something else entirely. It's what makes the difference romanticizing, advocating, or criticizing something, or leaving interpretation up to the audience. It's neither good nor bad on its own, and it's hard to tell a story without framing of some kind. This article is going to look at some techniques that creators use and explore how framing can be used in good and bad ways, and at how you can use them for your story!

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Examples of framing techniques

Depending on the type of media used, creators can employ a number of framing techniques, including but not limited to:

Music. Soundtracks are often used to help set the intended mood and tone of a scene. Consider how music usually sounds when the protagonist has just won a triumphant victory, or when something sad is happening, or when the scene is supposed to be suspenseful, or when something is supposed to be funny, or when a scene is supposed to be romantic.

Colors, lighting, and tinting. Visual media makes use of color a lot. Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events uses a desaturation filter to reflect the general bleakness of the setting and the Baudelaires' situation.

Camera angles. A scene might be filmed or drawn at a tilted angle to convey that something is seriously askew, or even upside down to communicate that something is deeply wrong. Someone might be filmed from below to seem taller and thus appear more heroic or powerful - literally as someone to look up to.

Camera focus and shot length. Where and how long the camera lingers also informs us what we're supposed to think about something. If we're shown a several-second closeup of someone eating messily, it's safe to infer that we're supposed to consider this person selfish and disgusting. If a shot gives us what amounts to a lingering gaze centered on a body part typically considered sexy or sexual (EG, lips, chest, butt), we can presume that this is how the character is intended to be perceived.

Description focus and length. The textual equivalent of a lingering shot is to describe something longer and with more detail than usual. Additionally, the author might choose specific words to convey a mood or atmosphere. So if the author spends an entire paragraph lavishly describing a character's attractive features, we know the author wants us to see the character as attractive. If the author spends a lot of time describing someone's hideous habits, we know that a character is supposed to be seen as revolting.

Word choice. Authors trying to make you see a character as attractive might choose poetic words or similes to describe the character's looks. Someone trying to make you see a character as revolting might choose words and similes that evoke disgust.

The narrator's attitude and perspectives. Most stories intend the narrator to be a reliable source of information, and in such case the narrator's opinions and thoughts are meant to shape how everyone else perceives what's going on in the story. If a reliable narrator says that a character is selfish and untrustworthy, then we're supposed to see the character as selfish and untrustworthy.

Establishing moments/first impressions. Creators often use our first exposure to a character or location to establish what we're supposed to think. A character who is supposed to be seen as powerful and strong might be shown walking confidently. A character who is supposed to be comically arrogant might be shown walking confidently, only to trip and make a haughty remark the audience will find humorous. A character who is supposed to be seen as cruel and selfish might be shown with a contemptuous expression and make a disparaging remark about someone the audience can be confident doesn't deserve it.

Highlighting and emphasizing certain traits and characteristics. For example, a creator trying to depict a fantasy kingdom as a dangerous, menacing place will likely focus on its violence, injustice, and drudgeries, whereas one trying to frame a fantasy kingdom as a good place will focus on how its people are fair and kind and on how things are pleasant and good. Someone might also focus on both at different times to show that the kingdom is a mix of good and bad, or to show that some people live sheltered lives where they are blissfully ignorant of others' suffering.

Making comparisons and associations. Using whatever method the medium will allow, the creator draws an association or comparison between two characters, places, scenarios, etc. In a textual medium, the creator might describe the starship captain having the swagger of an Old West cowboy. In a visual or audio medium, the creator might have a character outright say that the captain has the swagger of a cowboy. Or the captain might be filmed standing in front of a piece of art depicting an Old West scene, with a pose reminiscent of a classic Hollywood cowboy.

Showing certain outcomes and consequences to certain choices and actions. A story trying to frame ruthless, cutthroat behavior as a good thing won't show you the pain and loss that everyone the protagonist stepped on is left to deal with. On the other hand, a story trying to frame that kind of behavior as bad will probably make an effort to show you how much the victims are hurting, and how unfair their situations are. The story trying to condemn it might also portray it as tedious, frustrating, and unsatisfying; whereas the one trying to glamorize it might show it as exciting and rewarding.

Setting a pattern of some kind. An author who really wants to make the point that we should assume aliens are dangerous and want to harm us might consistently depict them as malicious. An author who wants to establish that the world is uncaring and self-absorbed might frequently show people being too self-centered to help those in need. An author trying to establish that a particular type of action is wrong might show it always having negative outcomes.

Putting certain words and opinions into certain characters' mouths. If a character who is unequivocally portrayed as someone with horrible ideas and skewed viewpoints makes some awful-sounding statement or other, it's safe to assume that the author is not endorsing or supporting this message - just the opposite, probably. On the other hand, something said by character who is usually depicted as having good ideas and balanced viewpoints on most things is probably intended to be taken seriously. Alternatively, the same character might be used for both purposes - the author might create a character who is shown to be smart and reasonable about some things, but ignorant and irrational on others. (Which is very realistic - most people are like this in real life.)

Showing how certain characters react non-verbally. Sometimes it's not necessary to have them actually say anything. A horrified facial expression, a hand yanked out of someone's grip, or a character simply choosing to walk away from someone or something can say a thousand words.

Where framing can go wrong

Sometimes framing methods just don't work out as well as the author had hoped. Here are some possible reasons they might not work:

The creator tries too hard in all the wrong ways. Many novice writers have tried to get people to like their protagonists by framing them as attractive and super talented first and foremost. However, since this this isn't what gets most people to like and want to be around somebody as a person, this often backfired. Another way writers might try too hard is to be too unsubtle hamfisted about it - in this case, audiences tend to feel like the author is trying to preach to them, and they really don't like this. (For more information, you might want to read Writing Better Stories With Morals & Messages.)

It's mean-spirited. Creators sometimes use framing techniques to take mean-spirited digs at others. For example, an author might depict a gaggle of fangirls as the embodiment of the most reviled fangirl stereotypes out there, with no sympathetic or redeeming qualities between them whatsoever. Considering that rude, creepy fangirls usually only make up a small percentage of a fandom, this is just insulting and unnecessary.

It betrays an arrogant attitude. The author might constantly show that those who disagree with the protagonist are motivated by selfishness or jealousy, or always have some sneaky underhanded motive behind it all, as if no one could ever have an honest or valid reason to disagree with the protagonist. Or the protagonist is framed as singularly wise and mature amidst a crowed of childish and ignorant people in desperate need of guidance, or as a solitary voice of reason in a crowd of fools. Seeing this much raw ego oozing out of a story can be pretty off-putting.

It's not how anything works. Avengers: Infinity War tried to frame Thanos as a sympathetic villain with a valid point, albeit a misguided method: he wanted to kill half the population to eradicate shortage and reduce suffering. But the thing is, someone who was as genuinely concerned about the welfare and happiness of others as Thanos allegedly was would have tried to find a kinder alternative first - and there are many alternatives. Additionally, the abuse that Thanos inflicted on Gamora and Nebula (making them fight each other) was framed as a loving father simply trying to help his children be strong. In reality, parents who pit their children against each other like that are social predators looking to feed on the drama their conflict creates.

It otherwise undermines the creator's own intentions. For example, an author tries to make a character seem smart by using large words where small ones would do and by namedropping the titles of classic literature. This can make the character come as pretentious and snobby rather than intelligent, since this is how people who wish they were super smart but actually aren't often act.

It comes off as skeevy or inappropriate. For example, a female torture victim is filmed or described in a way to highlight her sex appeal and frame her as an object of desire. Although sensual shots/descriptions have their place in the right contexts (EG, intimate scenes), in this one it amounts to inappropriate ogling and makes it all too easy to see her as a sex object instead of a person who is in pain and fear and needs immediate medical care.

So what does this all mean? What should you do?

For one thing, this means there's very little (if any) subject matter that absolutely should not be depicted or broached, ever. It all comes down to framing. Your story's subject matter is what you decide to talk about. The framing is what you choose to say about it. Brutal violence, for example, can be framed in a way that dehumanizes its victims and thus sends the message that killing people isn't a big deal. But it can also be framed in a way that evokes sympathy and compassion for the victims, and thus send the message that it is a very big deal. (Pan's Labyrinth is a very good example of this; it's a very pro-kindness, anti-oppression story that uses graphic violence to drive in just how horrible fascism is.)

You can still have fighty heroes. There is still no evidence that violence in media leads to violence in real life, so you don't have to worry that a combat-oriented protagonist is automatically going to corrupt the youth. Depending on your preferences and the kind of story you're trying to tell, you might show that the protagonist has other problem-solving methods to use when combat isn't actually appropriate, and that the protagonist doesn't resort to force until nothing else works; or you might show that using force at the wrong time has undesirable consequences and that other methods should be used instead. (These aren't your only two options, of course; what exactly you should do will depend on what works best for the kind of story you're trying to tell and what's appropriate for your target audience. You'll have to weigh it all out and decide for yourself.)

If you're really trying to remain neutral on something, you want to make sure you aren't using framing methods (whether accidentally or intentionally) that actually tilt viewpoints one way or another. For example, it doesn't work to just say that this one faction isn't always evil, but then only show them doing evil things. Conversely, simply saying that you don't actually endorse a character's questionable behaviors won't do a lot to change the overall impression people get when they see these actions framed as incredibly satisfying and rewarding, and see the character always proven right in the end.

If you're worried about people romanticizing your villains and coming away with the idea what what they do is actually awesome, careful framing can help you a lot. For example, by framing your villains, their activities, and their organizations as tedious and oppressive to its members, you can make them a lot less enticing. For more on this, you can look at How To Keep People From Admiring & Idealizing Your Villains.

Ask yourself if how you plan to frame things might be in questionable taste or send an unfortunate message. Trying to frame somebody's choice of action as understandable and sympathetic when it really isn't (EG, the Thanos example) can leave a bad taste in people's mouths. Framing stalking and boundary breaking as good ways to romantically win someone over can potentially give young, inexperienced people the impression that this kind of behavior is normal and harmless, as well as make those who have personal experience being stalked very uncomfortable. Framing a character who acts like a bully as someone who should be admired and respected can make people resent the character. So you should probably put some thought into what you're trying to do and say, and ask yourself if it's really a good choice.

And watch out for mixed messages. If you frame the kind of things the protagonists get up to as horrible and atrocious, then turn around and frame the protagonists doing pretty much the exact same thing as awesome and glorious, you're sending mixed messages. Same goes for framing an antagonist as unforgivable after crossing a certain line, but framing a protagonist who did more or less the same thing as forgivable and deserving a second chance. If there's a particular message you want to convey, try and make sure you stay consistent.

Ask yourself what kind of framing might be appropriate or necessary for your target audience. Framing methods that might be necessary to help a young child understand that something has harmful consequences might come off as heavy-handed or condescending to an adult who is already well aware that these consequences exist. If you're writing about a serious issue that your target audience doesn't understand very well, you may need to stronger framing than you would for one already familiar with it. Stop and ask yourself what your target audience probably understands or not so you can best deliver the message you want to send without being either condescending or incomprehensible.

Know that the audience should be allowed to make up their own minds about some things. For example, your audience should be allowed to decide for themselves if your protagonist is attractive to them. It's one thing to show that a protagonist is attractive to other characters, but trying to force the audience to find the character attractive themselves often rubs them the wrong way and even breeds resentment toward the character. Basically, anything that comes down to a matter of personal taste and preference shouldn't be framed as objectively good or bad. Another place where it's appropriate to let your audience make up their own minds is when you're dealing with a complicated real-life issue that has no easy or clear-cut solutions.

If you're not sure how you might do something, stop and think back to how you've seen it done in other fiction. All fiction uses framing of some kind, so stop and think about how it was done in various fiction you've seen. Then ask yourself how you can adjust and customize that type of thing to fit your own story.

These pages are also relevant to this topic:

Representation: Why It Matters, & How To Do It Well
Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story
Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters

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