There’s no more effective way to do that than with a framing sequence and/or past-tense narration (as opposed to a present-tense narration, which has a different effect). A framing sequence establishes the outer bounds of the big picture, keeping some possibilities in the frame and cropping out others. Types of framing effects include the following:
A scene in which a character is telling the story to another person, so we see the entire thing as a flashback. This is most often seen in books, of course, but it’s also used in a lot of movies. In Stand By Me and Forrest Gump, it’s used to paint the scenes in a nostalgic hue they wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s used most often in crime thrillers (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 mood.
- It allows the story to move at a faster clip by using voice-over to bridge gaps.
- 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 biopic I wrote ends with a suicide, but I begin the movie with a cryptic flash-forward that implies it was murder. Doing so tricks the audience into paying closer attention to the story, as they would with a whodunit. The hope is, 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 the episode begins with a flash-forward where the hero is about to be tortured to death. Then it cuts to a “one week earlier” title card and shows the same hero dealing with some ho-hum domestic problem. This not only plays up the irony but also makes those domestic scenes hum with tension as the audience wonders when the danger will strike.
These can also be used to deliberately mislead. The flash-forwards throughout Breaking Bad season two imply that Walt’s house is about to be blown up, which ratchets up the tension in each home scene. When the end of the season finally arrives, we discover we’ve been misled: We weren’t watching the wreckage of Walt’s blown-up house; we were watching the wreckage of a plane that blew up far above Walt’s house (and was indirectly caused by his actions). This is far more bizarre than what we expected, but just as satisfying. (And it also tricked us into being more forgiving of Walt’s actions, since we had falsely assumed all season that retribution was coming.)
A past-tense voice-over. This is the standard for most novels (although the past-tense narrator often seems to have no foreknowledge of the events she is narrating). It’s possible but far less common in plays (where you need an onstage narrator, as in The Glass Menagerie, to pull it off). This type of framing is fairly common in movies (where you need voice-over narration) and sometimes even in TV.
Both Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty are narrated by heroes who explain right away that they’re dead and this will be the story of how they died. Once again, this tricks the audience into paying much closer attention to the seemingly low-stakes domestic problems, and being on the lookout for the one that will lead to the hero’s death. Obviously, this is an extreme risk, since it gives away the ending. As Hitchcock would say, the writers are sacrificing surprise in favor of suspense, hoping that the trade-off will make the entire movie crackle with tension.
These can also prepare us for difficult transitions. The young girl’s voice-over in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Days of Heaven not only sets a powerful mood, but it also prepares us for the fact that she will become the main character late in the story.
In each of these cases, the writer is asking a certain question early on to keep the audience from asking others. The case of American Beauty is the most basic of all: If we didn’t know Spacey was going to die, then our question would simply be, “So what?” Why would we care about some random shlub’s midlife crisis, since those crises never have any real consequences? Writer Alan Ball knew that the only way to get us to care was to assure us up front that this time was different.
Rulebook Casefile: Use of a (Literal) Framing Device in Donnie Brasco
As Donnie first gets in with Lefty, we intermittently get a literal framing device: we hear an ominous-sounding camera clicking and the action is rendered in a series of still frames, shot from far away at a high angle, until we go back to normal. We never have a clear sense who’s taking these picture or from where…we’re not even sure if Donnie himself knows about it.
The effect is sinister, for both Lefty and Donnie. These are both manhunters with licenses to kill, and they’re both potentially in each other’s gun-sights, but this creepy surveillance reveals them for what they really are: victims of forces beyond their control, ground up by the twin bureaucracies of the mob and the feds.
Like any framing device, this establishes the mood, the nature of the jeopardy, and the dramatic question. In most undercover movies, the question is “Will the hero survive long enough to get the evidence he needs?” Here, it’s more a question of “Can either Donny or Lefty get out of the boxes that their bosses have put them in, or are they both trapped?” The occasional intrusion of these ominous, fatalistic photos set up that dynamic nicely.
This device acts as the cold eye of fate, foreshadowing the ultimate powerlessness of both men. Tellingly, this is the only movie movies I’ve looked at in which the hero is not there for the climax: We finally see the photos manifest themselves in the story when Donnie’s fed bosses walk in to the mob club, toss them on the pool table, explain who Donnie was, and walk out. Donnie will never have the chance to intervene and save Lefty’s life: larger forces are in control now.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. In-story onscreen type describes the situation in an intentionally unclear, cold, formal, corporate-speak way.
NO. Narration doesn’t kick in until the very end.
YES. The opening nightmare. The events of the book predict the events onscreen. The events on TV comment on the rest of the story.
YES. The theme song comments on everything, and then Bart sees Count Basie’s orchestra playing for him: we know that this is a commentary on westerns, and it’ll take place on both sides of the fourth wall
YES. the mom is watching film noirs (films noir?) on TV, and we see gumshoes on the TV doing what Jeffrey is about to do.
The Bourne Identity
Somewhat, with the surveillance footage, and cutting away to the CIA discussing his situation. There was a terrible framing sequence that was shot at the last moment and then wisely rejected.
NO. Nope, we jump right in.
YES. we see a globe, maps, and brief omniscient narration, then we see Nazis asking who has the letters of transit, then people wondering who Rick is.
NO. The narration was cut, which made it feel more immediate, but removed the glue that held the scenes together, giving the movie a hallucinatory lack of scene-to-scene logic.
Somewhat, the device of the cutting away to anonymous camera snapping pictures creates a sense of paranoia and doom coming from the feds.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Senor Love Daddy is our narrator, and he warns us that this will be a hot, dangerous day.
YES. We begin with an intercut phone call between Nai Nai and Billi, establishing the worlds. The first shot is a picture of a beautiful Chinese landscape, but then we realize it’s just a picture in a hospital, establishing the idea of lies and masking illness.
YES. Interviews with Micky and Dicky.
YES. The songs.
YES. there is a Greek chorus of reporters throughout giving us the larger picture
YES. We start with the kidnapping of Andre to establish the genre.
NO. It’s actually pretty amazing that this movie doesn’t use voiceover. It’s a credit to Murray’s performance that he can convey what’s going just with his face.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. Just a little bit of voiceover.
In a Lonely Place
NO. and the movie suffers for it. We’re never quite sure of what type of movie it is, and where it’s going.
YES. A flashforward establishes the genre and assures us that we can like this jerk we’re about to meet because he’ll soon get his comeuppance.
YES. Tons of voiceover and montage.
YES. The curtains establish a theatrical artificiality and formalism.
YES. Showing the woman fail to register to vote and then showing the little girls killed (which had nothing to do with Selma) establishes these.
YES. Danny has flashforwards of the horror to come. We wonder what will go wrong at the hotel. Who are those twin girls?
YES. Just slightly: We start with a title card saying “SUNDAY”, then they announce a weeklong trip and we get “MONDAY”, letting us know the shape of the movie.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Opening title, followed by scroll.
YES. a flashforward and narration.