Scene framing: Threat or menace? Messiah or Antichrist? Floorwax or dessert topping?

…well, I thought it was funny.

Here’s a simpler question: What the hell is scene framing?

Scene framing is a term thrown around a lot in gaming these days, and it’s the simple act of setting a scene for play, ideally play that is immediately interesting. Here’s one description from the Story Games Codex:

 At its most basic, Scene Framing means focusing play on only the interesting events within the narrative of the game, deciding what occurrences are too mundane to waste time describing and which entail enough conflict to play out in detail.

That seems so basic an idea that it hardly needs to be spelled out, but I’ve sat through enough three-hour-long rolling-on-the-random-shopping-result table sessions to tell you that it’s a learned rather than an innate skill. Sometimes we feel that we have to include boring or unengaging details for the sake of realism, or verisimilitude, or because one guy really likes rolling on that goddamn table-generation table. And the end result is that while the game might feel more realistic (spoiler: it never does), it doesn’t become interesting, because those two words are not the same.

But scene framing isn’t a skill unique to gaming; it’s a natural part of writing fiction – and again, it’s a learned skill that not all writers have mastered. Too many books start with a description of the weather; too many chapters only exist to get the characters over to the next chapter, where stuff actually happens. And I say this as someone who’s written about weather and written too many bits that are just there to bridge to the next bit.

So if you want to up your scene framing game, or even dare to tango with its grumpy cousin ‘aggressive scene framing’ (which just means leaving more stuff out), here are a few tips that make sense to me as a reader, writer and filthy roleplayer.

Start as close to the action as possible

The ‘action’ meaning the conflict, the drama, the tension that gets people reading, whether it’s a fistfight or an argument or a hurricane hitting your house. ‘Start the story at the start’ is a common enough writing adage, and it applies within the bits of story too. Open the chapter right before the first punch hits, or perhaps just after it lands; push the reader as far as you can to the heart of things, rather than making them walk up the garden path and quarrel with their elderly aunt before she snaps and goes the knuckle. You don’t have to start in medias res, although that’s a great way to snap right into the thick of it – but the closer you can cut, the greater the urgency, the stronger the hook to the reader.

But maybe not too close

The thing is… context matters. It doesn’t always matter as much as we think it does – but sometimes it’s important. Readers are smart and can work things out for themselves, but put too much work on their shoulders and it starts to become annoying. You don’t want to drop the reader into the guts of a scene and have them say ‘Who’s that guy? Why is he being chased by mummies?’. Actually, scratch that – what you don’t want is for them to say ‘Why do I care that that guy’s being chased by mummies?’ and then stop reading. When you trust a writer, you have faith that the answers will come after the hook; until that faith comes, you need to bait the line and frame the framing. Give some scenes a little background to fill in the situation, a little breathing room to develop tension, then crack that tension like it was Rama-ho-tep’s sundried fibula.

And maybe not all the time

A movie that is just supercuts of all the best fight scenes of all time sounds amazing, and would be great to watch for ten minutes, but after a while you’re going to zone out. Similarly, a story where every scene is BANG! CONFLICT! IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCES! BRIGHT LIGHTS! SUGAR! would wear out its welcome pretty quick and leave the reader feeling like they’re trapped inside a cement mixer full of typewriter keys. Every scene should matter, but not every scene needs to revolve around the core action – again, breathing room, time between OMG moments to slow the pulse and recover your strength. Use the scenes that aren’t about conflict to connect characters to each other, the setting and the story – those connections are the stakes that then become important when the yelling starts.

Everybody in the frame

One of the trickiest things for game masters when framing a scene is making sure that every player is involved – they’re both the actors and the audience, and they need to be engaged both as story participants and spectators. It’s easier when you’re the only one calling the shots; you don’t have to worry about entertaining your characters, just making their lives miserable interesting. But you still have to make sure they’re involved in the scene; few things are more obvious than when a character doesn’t belong in this bit of the story or have anything to do. When you frame a scene, don’t just think about what’s happening, think about who it’s happening to – give everyone a reason to be there and something to do, even if it’s just to run away and get out of the scene as quickly as they can.

Ride the rhythm

A story is like a sine wave – peaks and troughs, highs and lows. Well, it’s usually more like a jagged EKG readout from a heart patient that’s swallowed too many pills, but the principle is the same. You build up to points of tension, you come down to bleed that tension off and then you build up again. Effective scene framing is about starting things in the upward curve – maybe just after the bottom, maybe just before the top – and ending things in the downward curve. Don’t end a scene at a higher point than it starts, or it’s exhausting; don’t end it lower than it begins, or it’s dull; don’t jump right across the curve or it’s bewildering. Your story has its own waveform, its own rhythm – listen to it, get the beat and move with it, rather than trying to fight it or push it into a shape that doesn’t fit.

Did I say ‘tips’? That last one is a bit vague for a tip. But I’ve crossed the 100o-word rubicon and I don’t have space to explain how to build a text-stethoscope for listening to your story’s heartbeat. Maybe next time.

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