You needn’t look closely to see that nature slips into compositions all the time. Out the window an oak dramatizes a sliver of moon and a single star. A staghorn fern fans itself across the glitter of mica-encrusted rocks. Male and female goldfinches feed beside a six-foot-tall pure yellow lily. Nice.
But artifice, not nature, shapes the kinds of frames that novels need—the kind that add coherence and aesthetics to plot and tension.
Those of us raised on 19th century novels associate the hooks with setting, often a long, long, long, LONG description of something. But these days anyone can visit exotic places with a couple of clicks. Though E.M. Forster’s Passage to India is a great novel, today’s readers no longer a need a dozen pages on the Marabar Caves—or anything else.
Instead? Hook with drama, tension, secret, promise. Begin and end every scene that way. Want to integrate conflict with setting? Go for it. Just don’t forget the conflict part. That’s the hook.
“A story is already over before we hear it. That is how the teller knows what it means”
(Joan Silber, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes). Her observation suggests how fiction exerts its power. Novelists comment on truth not just through plot and character, but time itself. So many options. Where does the story start? How much backstory would add, and where does it belong? Is the ending foreshadowed? Does the pace let readers savor what’s interesting and speed past what’s not? The unwinding of time contributes to the frame embellishing the story inside.
~ Scene structure.
Whether you make a plan before you write (definitely not a bad idea), or revise what’s already written, every scene should frame a moment in time. Photographers choose what to include, omit, and emphasize; similarly, novelists can use the constraint of each individual scene to make this chunk of plot coherent, dramatic, and causal.
Frames exist to enhance what’s inside. You might think of description, foreshadowing,
backstory, and the prose itself as the framework supporting the plot. If any of those distract or
diminish tension, then the frame overwhelms the part that matters.
Reality is random. What’s great about novels? They aren’t. But only if the narrator frames the