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.
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?