What does your story assume?

In writing, there is always an intellectual frame in place. What that frame is, and how the writer selects it, is usually both taken for granted and similar to frames that are clearly accepted by the target audience. One wouldn’t frame the work of a classic master in a $5 plastic poster frame from Walmart.

In science, a theoretical framework is a structure of assumptions the scientist or researcher has accepted as true in order to conduct their work. A psychologist who assembling a study will generally rely on previous precedents to establish the controlled elements of the study. They would follow the most current standard for randomized subject selection, adopt a method of measurement invented by another psychologist and supported in the professional community, and reference several existing theories to interpret the data received over the course of the experiment. These elements are named and referenced in the final report and published as part of the full research documentation.

Fiction – or really any narrative – relies on this kind of framework too, though they’re never listed out with the names of all the people who have contributed the assumptions.

I’m not talking about themes and deliberately psychological elements here. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how our stories – through characters, culture elements, description, even plot devices – rely on certain, common reactions to things.

I was watching Turner Classic Movies the other day and they played Of Stars and Men, a 1960s animated adaptation of a book by the same name. It’s a simplified documentary about humans’ position in the known universe. At the beginning of the segment on space, the narration explicitly sets out the psychological framework for the segment: small, noble human race humbly taking in a glorious, unknowable expanse of the universe. (This is paraphrased. The segment begins around 9:40 in the video below.)

This tells the audience, “This is the way we will feel about this subject.” Few works outside of educational nonfiction do this. For the most part, emotional/psychological frameworks of a narrative are demonstrated in the characters thoughts/emotions/actions and the other characters’ response to them. These responses help the reader see what (in the story) is “good” or “bad”. Reading these cues is one of the skills English teachers try to instill in us when they ask, “What is the author trying to say?”

Now for the inspiration part – what happens when you invert these frames? Using the video as an example, how would the impression of space change if the introduction instead declared, “Man is the center of the vast universe and will one day control all things from the electron to whole galaxies”?

These frames are different from person to person, so identifying a common frame and inverting it within a single person can help create a memorable character. Consider Life of Pi as an example of this. Before he begins his story, he explains some of his early life, and how his frame with regard to the animals he lived and worked with differed from others’ ideas, including his father’s. This becomes a major, actionable element of his character throughout the story.

Frames can also set up a whole narrative, acting as a set-up for a narrative exploring a clash of emotional frameworks. Star Trek and other speculative fiction series often operate as morality plays, exploring the boundaries of what is acceptable or unacceptable human behavior. The freedom of the genre allows the writers to bend circumstances drastically in order to push some accepted ideas to their breaking point, questioning if anything is wholly good or bad at all. (Personally, I love these.)

So give this a little thought: What are some perspectives you automatically accept? Give it some thought to writing a character who feels the opposite. Do you think a clear sky is beautiful? Write about a person who believes there’s nothing more glorious than a violent storm. Do you believe nothing feels better than beating your buddy at ping pong? Write about a person who really isn’t into competition at all, who would rather lose than win. Dig around in that and see what comes out.

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