Pickpockets and other thieves use a technique that they call framing. This is a process of directing the victim’s attention towards a specific object, person or event, as a means of directing their attention away from what the thief is actually doing.
So, a stranger may stop you in the street, thrust a map in front of you, and ask you to help them find Tower Bridge. What they’re actually doing is ‘framing’ your attention on the map, while their free hand is in your pocket or your handbag.
You’d think the major skill of the pickpocket would be physical, the ability to reach into someone’s pockets without being sensed. In fact, the pickpocket’s success depends largely on how good they are at framing their victim. If they can completely focus the victim’s attention, they can do almost anything outside the ‘frame’ and the victim simply won’t realise. The display pickpocket and crime consultant Apollo Robbins has taken glasses off people’s faces without them noticing, and relieved Secret Service agents of their IDs and weapons while they’re on duty guarding the President!
When we’re writing a screenplay, our job is to frame the attention of the reader.
Within the world of the screenplay, details of setting, action, and dialogue should register at different levels. Some are immediately important and must strike the reader of the screenplay hard; others need to worm their way into the reader’s memory so that be there later when a revelation or twist refers back to them; and some are simply background detail, to give a sense of mood or place, which need to have an almost subliminal impact. And often, we’re working on all three of these levels within the same descriptive paragraph or line of dialogue.
There’s an excellent example of framing a conversation to draw attention away from something in the contained thriller Buried, written by Chris Sparling. (POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD)
Paul Conroy, a US contractor working in Iraq, has been kidnapped by militants, and wakes up in a packing crate (yes, you guessed it) buried somewhere in the desert. All he has is a phone, which his kidnappers tell him to use to arrange a ransom before his air runs out…
Paul ends up in contact with a State Department official, Brenner, who coordinates the search and does his best to keep Paul calm. Among the things he tells Paul is that he was involved in a similar kidnapping case a few months earlier, and that ended well.
In fact, this earlier kidnapping will become very important in the final moments of the movie, and we’ll need to remember it without being prompted. But if too much attention is drawn to it now, we may put two and two together too early.
So the conversation is framed as Brenner reassuring an understandably scared Paul about his chances of survival. This allows Sparling to tell us a lot about the earlier case without drawing undue attention to it – because we assume it’s all about calming Paul down, saying “This has happened before and we got the guy out – so we’ll get you out too.” A superb piece of writing in an excellent movie.
So if you’re struggling with exposition, or with setting up something for later, how about asking yourself “How far inside the frame do I want this information? Is this the thing I want the audience to focus on, or something in the background, or something that they’re not even consciously aware that they’ve seen?”