Framing Your Story

One of the (many) problems/headaches I’ve experienced in my writing is ensuring that I’m true to the story’s frame of reference.  You see, we all have our own set of experiences and cultural references that set our understanding of the world around us.  But should they also influence our characters?

Take for example borsht.  I know that borsht is Beet soup.  I can describe what it looks like, how it tastes, how best to eat it, etc.  But would the word borsht mean anything to someone from South America (without having to go through the detailed explanation first)?

Now, how about a more extreme example.  What about a peasant farmer living in a medieval-esque era in a fantasy setting who worships nature?  Would he (or she) understand a reference to hell (as in “Go to hell, you bastard!”) or bastard (see previous example)?

That person may not understand the concept of marriage, so bastard could be irrelevant.  And is hell even a concept in their religion?

Now how about a more fundamental concept, like time?  If clocks don’t exist, would a peasant think and speak in terms of seconds, minutes and hours or would their frame of reference be more in terms of morning, midday, afternoon and evening/night?  How about if it is never dark?

Suddenly, the story-telling can get very complicated because you need to provide additional explanation of concepts that the reader may not be familiar with.  In other words, you need to give the story’s frame of reference to the reader.

I’ve seen this get extremely complex in some books I’ve read (or tried to read).  The danger is the complexity could turn off the reader to the extent that they put the book down and refuse to read any others you write.

The other danger is that once a concept is introduced, you must remain true to it.  If you stray from it, your readers will catch it and your story will lose credibility.

You don’t necessarily need to work out all the cultural and environmental differences before you begin your writing.  What you do need to do is edit your story with an eye to identifying where a reference doesn’t work and make the appropriate changes (and stay true to the changes).

Having said that, some writers prefer to have all the nuances of their cultures and environment worked out in advance to the actual story writing.  That pre-work may be necessary for them to provide the setting they need to work within.

Whatever method works for you, it is a necessary step to take, regardless of genre.  Present day New York or Victorian England, the reader needs to see the events in the proper frame to fully appreciate the story and understand it from the character’s point-of-view.  That richness will make your stories more intriguing and keep people coming back for more. 



  1. Nothing pulls a reader out of the story like an anachronism. Okay, I just wanted to use that word, haven’t used it since I learned it in A.P. English class my senior year in 2001 🙂

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