A Writer's Guide to Framing


In 1984, a 73-year-old Ronald Reagan was running for his second term as President. He’d just lost a debate against his opponent, Walter Mondale, and members of the campaign feared that he was beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s. Naturally, the media pounced on the candidate’s age, and so a young Roger Ailes was hired for damage control. 

With a background in theatre and entertainment, Ailes was a perfect match for the aging actor hoping to be re-elected for the highest office in the land, mostly because the two men shared a common language: emotion. As Ailes reassured the presidential candidate, “You don’t get elected on details - you get elected on themes.” And the genius behind those themes came down to framing. 

When the next debate with Walter Mondale approached - a highly anticipated televised event - Reagan and Ailes (who was known by the campaign staff as ‘Dr. Feelgood’) were ready to deliver the goods. At the first moment of attack from the press regarding Reagan’s age, he shot back with a line devised by Roger Ailes himself: “I want you to understand that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” 

Not only did the line disarm his opponent, but it won over TV audiences in droves. That same year, Reagan went on to win his bid for re-election. As for Ailes, he continued to frame policies and opinions as he saw fit, ultimately changing the face of American politics (for better or worse). 

How can something as simple as a frame be so powerful? 

Well, consider all of the ways we frame things in daily life. For example, let’s say a friend has an arch-nemesis they despise. You might be able to persuade them to do something should you mention that it would hurt their sworn enemy. Or, let’s say you have a friend who’s exceedingly lonely and you hope that they will join you at a new bar down the street. You might frame your invitation to join you by mentioning that there will be plenty of singles there. Or, consider a man preparing to ask the woman he loves for her hand in marriage. Would he not improve his changes of getting a 'yes' by ensuring he pops the question in the most romantic setting possible? These are all framing devices, and we use them every day whether we realize it or not. Why? Because the proper frame means that we’re far more likely to get the reaction, response, or result that we want. 

Now, let’s look at this technique as it applies to writing. 

You’re responsible for writing an essay. You want your argument to succeed, but you also don’t want to mislead the reader or misrepresent your argument. Then again, the opposing argument is rather strong and you can’t face it head-on. So you must shift the context to better footing so that you can prove your point without refuting it. Here’s what you can do:


1. Know Your Audience

Who are you talking to? Why should they care about what you have to say? What might cause them to have an emotional response to your argument? What do they value? What metaphors or imagery might translate best in their minds? What data will they respect? How can that research back up your emotionally-driven prose? 

Believe it or not, this is the most important step in constructing a frame because a single frame will not work on everyone. You must decide, right here and now, who you are trying to convince and the context needed to do just that. Feel free to test your ideas on someone similar to your preferred audience. If it doesn’t win their support, or it’s too complicated, then you need to change your approach. 

And remember: the point is not to mislead, but to present your argument through the correct lens. For instance, Jill Stein sees the world through a very different lens than Ted Cruz; just as a Japanese filmmaker might appreciate balance and delicate environments more so than Michael Bay. The better you know your audience, the easier it will be to find the frame that works. 


2. Construct Your Thesis

Alright, now you must settle on an argument to make. This is your main point, your introduction, your thesis. It’s also where you must win over your audience and gain their trust - quickly - despite the fact that your argument is likely to be complex. (If it’s too simple, you’ll have little to write about.)

So, first step, think about what you want to say. Now try to boil it down to a single sentence that can serve as your thesis. Next, if you can, break down your argument into a series of sentences that fall under the umbrella of your thesis. (Ultimately, this structure can become the outline for the piece itself.) After you’ve done this, double-check to make sure your framing of this argument is both sound and effective for your chosen audience. In other words, is your argument being positioned within the proper context? Will your audience connect with what you’re saying? Are you setting the stage for an emotionally-compelling story? 


3. Lay the Foundation

OK, now is the time to provide some background for your argument. What is at stake here? Why are you even bothering to argue for or against? What can be gained or lost? Don’t be overly dramatic, otherwise you’ll lose your reader; but what will be the results should you win your argument versus your opponent?

A couple of fallacies you should be aware of going in:

  1. First off, a fallacy is flawed logic or a false belief that can lead to a false conclusion. A fallacy is sometimes used to gain ground in an argument when sufficient data or reason is lacking. You don’t want to employ this type of tactic, but you should also be aware when an opponent does so. 
  2. One tactic is to misrepresent or redirect an argument with a straw man. This type of fallacy means that you are attributing an easily refuted position to your opponent, one they wouldn’t endorse or agree too, then attack that position as a way of undermining your opponent's true argument. Ultimately, you’re creating a “straw man” to attack, other than your actual opponent, to injure their standing in public opinion. This works especially well with an audience that’s unaware of what your opponent actually stands for or truly said. 
  3. Another tactic is known as equivocation, or a hasty generalization. When someone is brushing over facts to generalize a complex issue, they may be employing this particular fallacy. For example, John is a nobody, but since nobody is perfect, John must be perfect too.
  4. And finally, there is the ad hominem, which means “to the person” or “directed to the person." It’s basically when you attack someone’s argument by attacking them personally on an irrelevant charge, which undermines the argument itself. Super shitty move. Don’t go there. 
  5. Of course, there are plenty of other fallacies to explore and study. We invite you to read more here: https://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/


4. Assemble Your Evidence

Next, you’ll want to compile all of the supporting evidence for your argument, keeping it within the frame. Organize your evidence into main and supporting points, then attach them to each statement that formed your outline in Step 2. You’re going to want to present and support each piece of evidence like a trial lawyer on SVU, including quotes from experts, specific facts, analyzed data, and any and all relevant examples. (Do your homework to ensure all stats are correct!) And remember - we’re framing here - so be sure to translate complex ideas into clear, concise and simple language that tells a straightforward and cohesive story within the frame. 


5. Address All Objections

There will be claims that refute those you’re trying to make. You must face these head-on. Either you prove that claim to be false, or you concede. If you refute it, be sure to provide enough evidence to support why it’s wrong, inaccurate, irrelevant, or misrepresenting the opposition’s true argument. If you’re conceding to the point, address why it’s valid, as well as why it doesn’t negate your entire argument. Perhaps it’s a fair compromise. Maybe not. Just be clear and don’t fall into the trap of the fallacies listed previously. 

However, if you have properly framed your argument from the beginning, answering these objections will become much easier. Your frame should enable you to dive deeper into specifics, use storytelling to prove your point, and ultimately damage the strength of the opponent’s argument. But if these points are poorly phrased, you could do more harm than good. So sit down and really think: where is your opponent’s achilles heel within the eyes of your audience and how can you strike it properly? Consider the Matador. The audience cheers when he strikes the bull. You want your audience to cheer as well. 


6. Wrap It with a Bow

This is the final moment with your audience. You want to leave them with some final imagery, something to really drive the message home and tie everything together. It’s also the part where you reaffirm your thesis, ensure a clear understanding of everything you’ve just argued for, and use those last few sentences to frame your position so that only one answer becomes clear in the reader’s mind.

Remember our example of Ronald Reagan: that one moment left people thinking not about Reagan’s age or weaknesses, but about strength rooted in life experience. He suddenly became wise, witty, and experienced in the eyes of his audience. In contrast, he could have hit below the belt, attacked Walter Mondale for personal reasons or lashed out at the press. Instead, he got the audience to laugh, and that made him endearing. He didn’t lie, he just reframed the argument. And with any luck, that’s what you’ll accomplish too.