A framing sequence does just that: establishes the outer bounds of the big picture, keeping some possibilities in the frame and cropping others out. Types of framing effect include:
(1) A scene in which a character is telling the story to another person, so we see the whole thing as a flashback…
- This is used in a lot of noirs (Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, D.O.A., The Usual Suspects) where it serves many purposes: It allows us to sympathize more with the morally dubious heroes because we’re getting the story through their skewed point-of-view, it allows their voice-over to establish a hard-boiled tone, and it allows the story to move at a faster clip by using voice-over to bridge gaps.
- It’s also used in movies like Stand By Me and Forrest Gump to paint the scenes in a nostalgic hue they wouldn’t otherwise have.)
- It can sometimes create a specific mystery: Why is Marlowe now blind in Murder My Sweet? Why is the hero dying in D.O.A.? This gets us asking the question the writer wants us to ask, rather than other questions that might come to mind.
- You can even deliberately mislead. A bio-pic I wrote ends with a suicide, but I begin the movie with a cryptic flashforward that implies that it was murder, so as to trick the audience into paying closer attention to the story, as they would with a whodunit. The hope is that, by the time they get to the end, they’ll enjoy the story enough that they won’t mind being tricked.
- “Alias” and “Breaking Bad” are two (otherwise very different) shows about heroes who whip back and forth between quotidian domestic problems and international gunplay. Both shows often employ a structure in which we begin we begin the episode with a flashforward in which the hero is about to be tortured to death, only to cut to a “one week earlier” title card, and then show the same hero dealing with some ho-hum domestic problem. This not only plays up the irony, but makes those domestic scenes hum with tension, as we wonder when the danger will strike.
- These can also be used to deliberately mislead. The flashforwards throughout “Breaking Bad” season two implied that Walt’s house was about to be blown up, which ratcheted up each home scene. When the truth came out, it was far more bizarre, but just as satisfying. (And it also tricked us into being more forgiving of Walt’s actions, since we falsely assumed that retribution was coming.)
- Both Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty are narrated by heroes who explains to us right away that they’re now dead and this will be the story of how they got that way. Obviously, this is an extreme risk, since it gives away the ending. Once again, this tricks us into paying much closer attention to the seemingly-low-stakes domestic problems, wondering how one could possibly lead to the other. As Hitchcock would say, the writers are sacrificing surprise in favor of suspense, hoping that the trade-off will make the whole move crackle with tension.
- These can also prepare us for difficult transitions. The fantastic voice-over in Days of Heaven not only sets a powerful mood, but it prepares for the fact that the young girl will become the main character late in the story.
Tomorrow: More devious tricks…