Finding the frame for your true story is essential, but not always easy. If you think of a frame as the story device that allows questions to be raised and gives your story shape, you can see how nebulous a thing it is. Screenwriting is full of rules and guidelines, formats and formulas. But the frame is a phenomenon that is unique to every story.
In Catch Me if You Can, it’s the plane ride Frank Abagnale, Jr. and Carl Hanratty take, revealing their friendship and making us wonder how they got there. In Amelia, it’s her flight around the world, showing us what she died for. Often the frame is a sequence from the end of the story’s actual timeline, and makes us wonder how the story will arrive at that conclusion. But not always.
Sometimes the frame is an earlier scene that needs explanation, or a sequence occurring simultaneously with the main storyline but in another place, or from another character’s point of view. There are many ways to frame a story, but finding the exact unique frame that works for your story can be frustrating and seemingly impossible. It’s sort of like finding the perfect title.
I spent the summer working on a screenplay based on a true story, and once again I was humbled by the challenge of finding the frame. In fact, I couldn’t find one, and for most of the summer, this story was just a straightforward telling, and lacked the layers and complexity a frame brings.
In the end, the frame found me. After several drafts, it was a reader, the son of the real life protagonist, who suggested that I start the story with a scene that would add a murder mystery to this portrait of a mobster with scruples. I can see now that it not only adds intrigue, it also echoes and underscores the theme of the script, by raising the question of whether the hero is good or evil. When the frame is in sync with the theme, the story is more cohesive and powerful.
So, as it turns out, we can’t always find the frame. But if we stay open to insight, epiphany, and the suggestions of our trusted readers, usually, it will find us. Now, if I could only come up with the perfect title.