A Choice of Frames

The way we cut a picture is almost as important as what a picture contains. The difference between a sleeping lion and the potential of imminent death by claws is about five inches of focus.

This is not a blog entry about photography.

One of my few promises to myself when I created this blog was that all of the pictures I used for my blog entries would be unedited. Everything that goes up here has not been altered after being taken, so I have to live with poor focus or lighting or framing.

I think that there are some important lessons that I’ve been able to take from this and apply both to my writing and to the stories I read.

As much as a few inches shift can affect what a photograph shows, so can a small difference in the choice of focus in a story.

The more I’ve become involved in photography and graphic design, the more I’ve become aware of the difficulties people encounter when they try to decide how much or how little their story is going to show.

Viewpoint can help decide this – a tight first-person narrative is normally going to show less of the world and its events than an omniscient, head-hopping narrator. But much like photography or playing cards, knowing how much to show -and how much to conceal- is a vital part of creating the power and motion of a story.

I’ve mentioned Shirley Jackson on this blog before, but her short story “The Lottery” is a masterclass in framing. I’ve often wondered if Ms. Jackson knew anything about photography because her slow pans and careful scenic movement feel cinematic. The movement towards her reveal of the full scene is careful and cautious and helps to create the power of her conclusion.

I think that sometimes there is a temptation to show everything at once right away or to hide so much information that people become lost and confused. Good framing is honest about what it is showing, but still leaves enough pieces out to create interest and draw viewers into the story or photograph.

There is also the kind of framing where the only part of the story that is told is the part that justifies the experiences of the focus character. This can be used in interesting ways if the narrator is shown to be unreliable (in cinema, something like Rashomon or in story, American Psycho), but it can also make it harder to suspend disbelief if the story does nothing but prop up the character’s thoughts and beliefs.

Have you ever read a story where you spent a few minutes thinking about the main character and decided that you probably would have sided with the villains?

This is often because of a failure of framing. When what we see as bad actions on the part of the main character are justified rather than challenged, we will often lose trust in both the story… and the writer.

Much as viewers will lose trust in a photographer who makes a sleeping lion look as if it is a dangerous threat.

Thinking about how a story should be presented is a vital part of writing.

It is important though that the tale accurately reflects exactly what kind of lion sits on the other side of the lens.

IMG_0623The other part of framing is what is shown and what is not. What’s on the other side of these irises? You’ll never know!

I am fascinated by what we choose and do not choose to show in our stories and how that translates into the tales we tell.


I enjoy playing with framing in my own writing, although I can promise that all lions are portrayed at an accurate level of threat. If you would like to see for yourself, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

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