Framing Devices and What They Mean

While many may suggest that change is always good when it comes to storytelling, using that approach to describe the intent behind the use of "bookends" or a framing device can be potentially misleading. As always, a deeper look into the purpose behind such concepts can illuminate the reasons why they exist and how they can be best applied to one's work

In the commentary section of the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, screenwriting legends Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot single out their five rules of screenwriting, with the first two being:

  • No Bookends and
  • No Bookends

Said with tongue firmly-in-cheek, Rossio and Elliot are clearly referring to the rather pedestrian use of a framing device to set the stage for the story itself. Films like Saving Private Ryan, A League of Their Own, and even Young Guns 2 employ this technique of having an aged character recount the story, typically with a voiced-over narration as well. This particular version of a framing device sits outside of the actual story, wrapping itself around the potentials within.

It is not a part of the Author's proof, and simply serves as a means to create a context within which to appreciate the story.

Purposeful Framing Devices

A film like Titanic extends the idea of a framing device a bit further, taking these bookended scenes and infusing them with a story of their own. The central "1912" story centered around Main Character Rose (Kate Winslet) and her change at the hands of handsome Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). The modern visiting-the-wreck story flipped things around with a now much older Rose influencing the change of character within Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton). This second story is far less complete than the one with the big block of ice, but it still runs off the kind of growth of character that exists with a complete story. As such, it has its own meaning that, like its simpler narration-only cousin, sits outside of the story proper. These smaller sub-stories may share thematics or create dissonances with their bigger brothers, but they still aren't an essential part of the main story's argument.

Another fork of this concept has the Author jumbling up the order in the telling of events, or revealed to the Audience. Starting at the end, then rewinding to the beginning and playing through to the end again is a common technique used by Authors who want to play on the Audience's preconceptions of how certain scenes appear to be at first glance. Films like Memento, The Usual Suspects and The Sweet Hereafter all incorporate this tecnhique to give an enhanced appreciation the story's message. Here, these scenes become an integral part of the story's argument.

Yet, as meaningful to the story as they are, this particular version of a framing device still don't give the powerful opportunity for an Author to prove their central character's resolve.

Moving Beyond Simple Bookends

Dramatica theory co-creator Chris Huntley sums up these framing devices nicely in a recent conversation on the Dramatica Convore page (now deprecated, Dramatica Writers Community):

Bookends are often storytelling devices that allow the author to put the story in context. Other times, bookends are storyweaving devices that show a bit of the end of the story at the beginning of the work, and then finish the end of the story at the end of the work. Another form of bookending involves having an establishing scene at the beginning that shows how things stand with the Main Character and then have a parallel scene at the end of the work that shows how the Main Character has changed (or not).

It is with this last example that the framing device begins to takes on a signficant and powerful meaning.

Why Resolve Matters

Lightly touched upon in last week's article Dramatica: Mad Libs or Madly Accurate, the Main Character's final resolve reveals the meaning of an Author's story. If the Main Character changes their approach and the end result is a triumph, then the Author is saying Changing your approach in this context is the right thing to do. If instead, the Main Character remains steadfast in their approach and the outcome is an abject tragedy, then the Author's message becomes a cautionary tale--By sticking to your guns, you set yourself up for failure.

As introduced by Huntley above, a common technique to prove this resolve is to employ two scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end, that drop the Main Character into a similar set of circumstances, and in some cases even the same exact situation. If the Main Character responds the way they did in the beginning, then it becomes clear to the Audience that the Main Character's resolve has stayed the same. If the Main Character somehow musters up the courage to react differently, to try a different method for solving their personal issues, then it becomes obvious that the Main Character has resolved to change their approach.

Think of this technique as the Author's Proof of Resolve, rather than simply another instance of "framing device" or bookend. Beyond simply showing that something has "changed" or providing a context within which to appreciate the story, this sophisticated use of a framing device comes with the prime intent of helping an Author confidently prove the message of their story.

Proving the Author's Argument

Referring again to last week's article, The Godfather uses Kaye to frame Michael's "proof of resolve":

In the beginning he has no problem explaining the family business to Kaye. At the end, he lies to her face about it. He changes from a man driven by his feelings about the mafia to a man driven by the cold-hearted logic necessary to keep his family business alive.

Presented with the same set of circumstances, Michael has changed the way he approaches that problem. The two scenes prove his resolve.

In Top Gun, the aptly named Maverick (Tom Cruise) is a lone wolf, jumping into action at the drop of a hat, completely disregarding any responsibility he might have towards others. He starts the story abandoning his wingman in order to flip over and flip off a Russian pilot, complete with a Polaroid snapshot. The result? His terrified wingman almost loses his life on final approach.

At the end of the film, Mav finds himself in the same exact situation, only this time he refuses to leave his wingman. Proof of resolve once again. The Main Character has altered the way he solves the issues plaguing them. Top Gun is not Shakespeare or as well-crafted as The Godfather but the concept remains just as effective--the Author conveys their message clearly and succintly. Control your impulses and you too can experience triumph.

In The Shawshank Redemption, Red's proof of resolve sequence so clearly defines itself by happening in the same exact room! Facing the parole board at the beginning of the story we can easily see what the system has done to poor Red (Morgan Freeman). Beaten down, he cowardly grasps hat in hand and nods Yessir, whatever you say sir. Telling the board what he thinks they want to hear, he recevies his rejection notice with ease.

At the end, having gone through a lifetime of growth experience with Andy (Tim Robbins), he vehemently stands his ground and speaks up and out at them. No longer content with simply towing the system line, Red defies authority and in turn gains their respect. His stamp of approval is the Author's proof of resolve, and the message clearly delineated: speak out and you too may find freedom.

More To It Than Simply Change

Bookends or framing devices are not revolutionary new concepts in storytelling. The revolution exists in understanding how they work and how best to apply them.

Save the Cat! creator Blake Snyder refers to bookends in the explanations of his Opening and Final Image:

These are bookends. And because a good screenplay is about change, these two scenes are a way to make clear how that change takes place in your movie...the final image in a movie is the opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred and that it's real

This is a reasonable assessment from the Audience's point-of-view (covered in Forget the Cat, Save Yourself!), but as an Author, why do these scenes of correlation exist and how can one create meaning out of them?

If the framing devices show the Main Character's change in approach (or lack--equally as important!) towards solving his own personal issues, the why becomes clear. They are there to prove the Main Character's final resolve. It is more than simply showing change because good screenplays are about change, it is supporting the Author's message, solidifying their original reason for writing. Crafting scenes like this simply becomes a matter of understanding the problem at the heart of the Main Character's personal throughline and creating scenes that exploit it.

:: expert Advanced Story Theory for This Article Dramatica gives an Author with the key elements central to a Main Character's Throughline. In the case of Red, Support is his Problem with Oppose falling in as the appropriate Solution. The parole board scenes give a perfect opportunity for the Author to show how Red's willingness to fall in line can be "fixed" by speaking out and opposing their way of doing things.

If instead Red had been a Steadfast character, that final parole board scene would have him responding the same way he did in the beginning, supporting their every word.

Now, the story isn't set up for that to make sense, but in a completely different story an Author could show how towing the line is completely the appropriate way to resolve an issue of institutional thinking. Having faced challenges in every scene in-between, Red could find him standing resolutely in the Support corner. If released because of it, then the Author's message would be clear and a bit subversive, be a yes man and you can be free.

If instead, he received his final rejection notice and went back to his cell head down, the message would come from the same point-of-view, yet be a completely miserable and downer experience. Tow the line and you'll end up a sad and lonely man! Sad message, but a clear one to be sure. ::

Originally published 06-04-2011

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