Friday, January 19, 2018

How to Use Framing to Strengthen Your Story

This week, I've been thinking a lot about framing. A lot of us take framing for granted, but it's actually such a vital part of our writing. So I thought I'd talk about it today.

We often think of framing in terms of the plot frame. As in how a plot forms the backbone or frame over which the whole story goes. This is true, and as important, but what I'm thinking of is framing, almost in a photographic sense. 

Framing has a lot of different meanings in photography too, but what I'm talking about here is aiming your camera so that the contents of your frame (i.e. what will be in the picture) results in a pleasant image. Like so: 

When we write, we should be framing the chapters in the same way. See, a chapter isn't just a number with text after it. It's actually a snapshot out of your story, and like a photo, the best chapters are framed properly, so the contents do the best work possible toward progressing the plot. 

Since I've started freelance editing, I've been noticing quite often that writers seem to think that chapters should just begin and end, maybe at a set number of pages.

Many writers seem to think that, as long as the story gets told, it doesn't matter where the chapters start and finish. 

In a way, they're not wrong. Beautifully framed chapters won't do anything if the story is weak, but then, I don't really think you can beautifully frame chapters if you didn't sort your story out first. 

The thing is, the framing of one's chapters can be the difference between a good book and an excellent one. Or even an okay book and a good one. 

It all comes back to reader immersion.

See, readers have been trained to "read" certain things in a certain way. For example, a comma makes them pause. Periods make them pause longer. Line breaks mean there has been a change of some sort from one paragraph to the next, whether it's in location, time, or point of view character. The readers might not yet know what changed, but that line break signals them to be prepared for it, so when the change does become apparent, they're not pulled out of the story. 

Just so, readers are trained to read something into a chapter as well. A chapter is a unit, which follows after the previous one and goes in before the next. The end of the chapter means that the main content of said chapter has been dealt with. Even chapters with cliffhangers. There is obviously still something unresolved in that chapter, but something still happened, and progress of some sort has been made. 

When chapters don't work in this expected way, readers get this vague feeling that something about what they're reading feels "off." 

They probably won't even be able to lay their finger on the reason, but more often than not, that sense of writing being off comes either from pacing or framing problems. (And pacing could be a framing problem in itself.)  If chapters aren't framed nicely, your job of lulling the reader into staying immersed in a story becomes that much harder. 

So what are the signs of bad chapter framing? 

There are quite a few diverse things I can think of:

The chapter doesn't lead in. 
By this, I mean that writers open chapters in the middle of nowhere, giving readers no sense of where the characters are, what's going on, who's involved, or even who's there (which especially becomes an issue when we're dealing with larger casts).

Unless the chapter follows directly on the previous one (but not too directly, more on this later), make sure your reader can paint a picture in their mind's eye of what's going on before anything important happens. You don't want your scenes to look like they're happening in white mist. You don't want talking heads. And you don't want the reader to exclaim "where the heck did he/she/it come from just now?!" Because all these will pull your readers out of the story.

Nothing happens in the chapter. 
This is a common one with writers using flashbacks. Usually, your main plot is the one taking place in the present. That's the plot you want to progress. If you only have a paragraph of two of a character starting to reminisce, followed by the flashback scene and nothing else, nothing has happened in your chapter. Because even if the memory is fully action packed, your character did nothing in the now while they were remembering the past.

This isn't to say that there has to be action in the present all the time, but something does need to happen before the chapter plays out. So does the flashback cause a reaction? Does it cause an emotional response? Does it trigger a major decision? Put those responses in the same chapter as the flashback, because in that way, the flashback adds to the main plot in a direct, immediate, meaningful way.

A chapter ends abruptly.
Often, this goes hand in hand with the previous point, but whereas nothing happens in that example, this one is more a case of a chapter ending just as something interesting starts to happen. I'm not talking about cliffhangers here. This is something entirely different.

Chapters, like most plots, have a beginning, middle, and end. Something is introduced, something happens, and there's a resolution. I find, sometimes, that something will be introduced.

Yeah. Did you just get the feeling that I just left you hanging out to dry with that sentence? That's exactly what an abruptly ended chapter feels like. The reader knows there should be something coming after, but it's just not there. The blank space where the chapter ended becomes a gaping vacuum in your story.

A good example of this is a big revelation or admission by a character, and having that revelation be the chapter's end. This could work as a cliffhanger, but nothing else has happened in the chapter yet. This is bad enough, but when I turn the page, I find that the new chapter doesn't continue where the last one left off. So... what? Did the writer forget to finish it? Did he/she just not feel like writing that day....?

Takeaway here... write out your scenes, people. Its not the readers' job to fill in the blanks for you. 

Which brings me to my next point.

Glossing over major events.
Ooh... this is a subtle one. I make this mistake most often. It's too easy. See, we're taught as writers that we need to skip the boring parts and stick to the important bits. If we don't, the story becomes boring. So what we do is spend maybe a paragraph to tell the readers something along the lines of "nothing major has happened. X did this the whole time... it's about a week since you saw him last..."

And then we ease them into the chapter proper, where things are happening. The problem is that we sometimes overdo it. We gloss over too much, and important parts of the story as a whole get lost.

It's not cool to tell me a character became friends with another one without showing us as it happens. Sure, it's cool to save the reader from the boring parts, but some things, like growing relationships, discoveries that have bearing on the scene now... those sorts of things... we want to see. If you have to say "so this cool/interesting/important thing happened off-screen," it really means you're excluding the readers from your story, which means they'll no longer want to stay as immersed as they have been. 

The chapter ends for no reason.
As I mentioned before, a chapter has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and if you split the chapter in two for no reason, it just ends the one chapter abruptly, and starts the next in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, cliffhangers are the exception, but the reason why they exist is to create tension. That said, there are so many ways in which cliffhangers can be done wrong. 

Let me count the ways. 

Cliffhangers done wrong.
Honestly, I'm not a particular fan of the cliffhanger chapter ending. I don't hate it. I mean, it's still as good a writing tool as any. But more often than not, writers use them wrong, in some groan-inducing ways.

Prime examples:

Cliffhangers followed by cop-outs. (Gasp! He has a gun! Oh... It's a water pistol. *eye roll*)

Cliffhangers followed by glossing over to explain them away. (Oh, you were worried about the bad guy's bomb going off? Well, while I purposefully weren't allowing you to look, my genius investigator figured out not only how to magically find said bomb, but he also disarmed it with a toothpick and some bubblegum. Phew!)

Cliffhangers being the entire point of the chapter. If your whole point is to get from the beginning of a chapter to the cliffhanger, and nothing else happened on the way there, you're probably doing it wrong. And finally...

For heaven's sake. 
Please make it end. 

One more thought. If you're writing a book with multiple points of view, it's probably not a good idea to use a cliffhanger chapter ending if it's going to tempt the reader even a little to skim over, or entirely skip, the other characters' points of view until the cliffhanger's resolved. 

Chapters are too long or too short.
This is where pacing comes in. As I mentioned before, readers read chapters as units of a story. But further than that, the speed at which a reader gets through those units influences their concept of the book's pacing. Shorter chapters=faster pacing, longer chapters=slower pacing.

So what happens if you have a whole bunch of long chapters with one thing happening after the other in quick succession? It feels wrong, because the chapter rate clashes with the story's actual pacing. Just so, too many short chapters will jar if your overall story unfolds at a slower rate. In such a case, it might be a good idea to look for this specifically, and combine or split chapters accordingly.

Framing your chapters is a subtle art. So subtle, in fact, that most people completely forget to do it, but most framing issues are simply solved. All it takes is adjusting the aim and focus of your chapter ever-so-slightly. 

Can you think of any other ways for chapters to be framed wrong? Any of my examples a pet peeve of yours? 


  1. Excellent tips. Love the reminder to think of chapters as having their own beginning, middle, end.

    1. I have to remind myself of this often, because it is something that I take for granted.

  2. Great tips. Chapters are something I've been thinking about during my latest round of revisions.

    1. It's a good thing to focus on Chapters. I also devote a revision round just to see that the lengths of my chapters feel right.

  3. Great post and tips. Food for thought.

  4. The chapters that end in cliffhangers drive me nuts, especially when, like you said, they don't continue with what happened next in the following chapter. I often find myself skipping ahead in the book to find out what happened, but then I end up with more spoilers than I wanted.

    1. I hate spoilers, so I never skip ahead in a book, but I think that makes it even worse if the the cliffhanger left me hanging, since I get no relief.

  5. Terrific food for thought. Thanks! (I was in need of a little snack...)

    I am NOT a fan of cliffhangers. They feel too manipulative to me, and that's especially true when an entire book ends (or rather... DOESN'T "end") with one. It's too reminiscent of the old "Perils of Pauline" days, when a cliffhanging segment was shown at the movie theater as an enticement to keep kids scrambling to come back to see what happened next.

    1. I feel the same about a cliffhanger ending. The story overall being left unresolved should be a strong enough reason (thanks to stakes and conflict) for a reader to keep reading, so the fact that there's a cliffhanger often feels so contrived to me.

      I don't like any kind of contrivance in stories aimed only on "making things interesting."

  6. As a reader I found this fascinating. I am not a fan of cliffhangers. And resent having to work for the writer. To the extent I will sometimes refuse and walk away.

    1. You sound exactly like the type of reader I have in mind when I'm editing.

      Because to me, the worst case scenario is my story alienating the reader (for any reason) to the point where they give up on my book.

  7. Hi Misha - what a great post ... telling us quite a few relevant things about what to do or not. The story has to flow, yet we need to take stock, or put the bookmarker in - so we can pick up where we left off ...

    A book needs a good ending too - so often we're half done by - but I'm sure you'll cover this too at some stage ...

    Cheers Hilary

    1. Yeah good endings really would take a whole other post (or ten).

  8. This is such a great post! As someone who writes in a long block and then must go back and chunk things into chapters, I have to keep this in mind. And avoid too many cliffhangers because I overly love them :)

    1. Thanks! ^_^

      I don't mind a cliffhanger every now and then, but there are some writers (in particular in thrillers and mysteries) who completely take it too far.

  9. What great info, Misha, and very well written. Thanks for sharing:)

  10. Great tips! (Especially about chapters being too long or short--that's definitely jarred me as a reader in the past.) Although many of my comics don't have chapters, framing is something I keep in mind a lot for individual pages. Because webcomics update a page at a time, I always work hard to make sure each can stand on their own in a satisfying way, despite obviously being part of an ongoing story, so readers don't feel confused if they've forgotten anything from the previous update...

    1. Thanks!

      It's so interesting to think of how you have to frame each of your pages. :-)

  11. I always think of chapters as building blocks for the whole story. As I write for MG and younger I generally go for short chapters. Interesting post.

    1. It's a good way of thinking about chapters. When people ask me about the correct length for a chapter, I always say, "just long enough."

      There are so many things that affect the length. Pacing is the one example I used, but genre and target age group also have an effect, for sure. :-)

  12. Excellent way of expressing this, Misha. Yes, all chapters should have their own scene and sequel and move the story forward at the same time.

  13. Great tips. Especially liked your point about how we are conditioned to read in certain ways and anything that doesn't quite fit that template tends to puzzle and ultimately become off-putting...Thanks for an informative and interesting post.


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