How important is the frame?

By Carol / March 29, 2016 /

A few years ago, as I walked the Crystal Bridges Art Museum grounds, I spotted a single picture frame set on posts in the middle of a soccer-sized field. Intrigued, I walked out to look closer, reasoning that this frame must be quite important to command such a space.

Framing nature at Chrystal Bridges Museum

Framing nature at Crystal Bridges Museum

As I circled the nondescript structure, I realized that the frame gave form to whatever you saw through it. The frame and what it held were equally important.

My friend Mary recently enclosed an open air deck with windows. She found that the window frames focused the way she looked at the trees, buildings, and landscape beyond, causing her to appreciate the views from her deck in ways she hadn’t before.

Framed for drama and impact. Photo courtesy of

Framed for impact. Photo courtesy of

Frames are, of course, nothing new. They show up everywhere in everyday life – movies, TV, computers, pictures on the walls, windows – each one encouraging us to focus on, to look at, something in a particular way.

As writers we make decisions daily on what story to tell. We choose the frames with purposeful intention.

Memoirists choose what parts of their life to share. In my memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, I picked stories from those formative years when I was between 8 and 12. Years when the values my parents taught us kids came into focus (and conflict) in my young mind. The very same events depicted in my childhood memoir could have told a much different story if I’d used them to frame a look into the sometimes unhealthy ways I existed in my first marriage.

As I wrote my novel Go Away Home, deciding the time(frame) was one challenge. If the story began in 1900 and the main character Liddie was 10, the story would be entirely different than if the story were set in 1913 and Liddie were 16. The technological, political, and social differences between 1900 and 1913 change what might be included in the frame, not to mention the differences between how a 10-year-old and a 16-year-old would view herself and her actions.

In my work in progress, literary fiction set in Iowa, the main character is forced to face her own prejudices when she sees life through the frame of immigrants working in a meat packing plant.

Recently, I joined several authors at a retreat where I read a paragraph synopsis of my latest work. Because I mentioned one relationship in this synopsis, the listeners jumped to the conclusion the novel is a love story. It is not. Clearly, the frame I had chosen for my story was wrong.

In the wrong frame, a beautiful tree is blah. In the right frame, something mundane comes into compelling focus. Change the frame, change the story.

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  1. Miriam Hoffman on March 29, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Carol, I love your idea of framing. What a great idea! I may have to borrow this tool.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 29, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Mim. Feel free to use any idea you find here. In your creative hands, I know the outcome will be excellent.

  2. Merril Smith on March 29, 2016 at 11:20 am

    Carol, so interesting. I never thought about framing in such a way before–either the literal action (and what a great art installation)–or as a tool for a book.

    For some reason, my mind leapt to Jan van Eyck’s painting, the Arnolfini Portrait. It has fascinated me since I was a child and saw it in an art book. The painting shows a wealthy couple, the woman looks pregnant, but she probably is not–and there is a mirror in the background that reflects the scene, but with the addition of things that are not seen in the “main” painting. So the couple is framed in time, but there is more in the room that is framed within the mirror.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 29, 2016 at 12:29 pm

      The word and concept of “framing” gets thrown around a lot in writing workshops, yet it wasn’t until I saw the Crystal Bridges art that the idea really clicked for me.

      I know the van Eyck painting you’re talking about. I’m as taken with what’s around the people as with them. The artist is telling us a lot if we take time to see it.

  3. Shirley Hershey Showalter on March 29, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    Carol, I remember talking about frames as we sat at the kitchen table and looked out the window to the Shenandoah Valley beyond. So much depends upon a frame. I, of course, read these ideas through my own current “frame.” As we move into the last third of our lives, we aren’t yet able to see the final frame. So we need to live each day as though it is the final one.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 29, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      Once Mary and I began talking about frames, they popped up everywhere. Nowhere more so than your windows framing the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

      You’re quite right – we cannot see the final frame, but all of our life experiences ensure the frames we look through are richer. I so appreciate the thoughtful way you are approaching this next phase in your life. As you dig deeper into this time and share it through your writing, I know we’ll all be enriched.

  4. Joan Z. Rough on March 29, 2016 at 2:50 pm


    As a visual artist I have always known that a frame is as important as the artwork that it surrounds. I hadn’t thought about it terms of writing our stories but now that you’ve pointed this out I see it clearly. Even in every day life, if we carefully frame our conversations with ourselves and others perhaps we can bring our communication to a higher level. Lots to think about here. Thanks!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on March 29, 2016 at 3:04 pm

      The realization was a deeper connection for me, too, Joan. Once I focused on the idea, I could hardly have a conversation that didn’t include some thought about how my comments and the ideas communicated were framed. Even without an actual frame, the way you compose your artwork – what you include, what you leave out – offers a virtual frame. True in visual arts, in writing, in conversation. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  5. Janet Givens on April 1, 2016 at 5:50 am

    I love words. And now am chewing on all the ways one can “frame,” as a verb, including framing, which takes us off into another world, yet isn’t really so different.

    Now I hear the characters in your story, each complaining, “I’ve been framed!”

    I’m eager to read it.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on April 1, 2016 at 9:14 am

      Very funny, Janet. A couple of my characters might have a legitimate beef!

      The word “frame” offers a wealth of opportunities to play.

  6. Mary Gottschalk on April 2, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    I love Janet’s comments about characters being “framed” … it reminded me of how often we unconsciously put people we meet into social or cultural frames … sometimes very inappropriate ones.

    One lovely thing about this blog is that I am reminded of you every time I look out my new office windows!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on April 2, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      Janet’s comment was both funny and painfully true, as you point out, Mary. The characters in my novel in progress find themselves framing people with uncomfortable regularity.

      It was our conversation that got this blog post rolling. I look forward to seeing the views framed by your new windows.

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