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It's All About That Frame

by Becky Spratford

*This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of RA News.*

Librarians are well versed at asking about genre and appeal preferences. We remember to bring up issues like preferred pacing, desired tone, and favored writing style but we often forget one vital question as we talk to leisure readers: Are there any special topics, places, or things that you enjoy when you encounter them in a book? In RA terms this is how we ask about frame. 

Frame is all the details that enrich the backdrop and make the world of the novel come alive. Some of this is setting, but there is much more to frame than the simple geographic location of a story. The easiest example can be seen in genres or subgenres which include details of a specific profession, such as legal thrillers. Readers who enjoy legal thrillers want all the legal frame that comes with them. They crave talk of briefs, witnesses, cross examinations, law office politics, and criminal justice system minutiae.

That is an extreme example where the actual subgenre is defined by its frame but there are plenty of other books where interesting frames pop up and add to the appeal of the overall story. Nora Roberts is an expert at this. As Joyce Saricks writes in her NoveList Author Read-alike article on Roberts:

One of the features fans appreciate in Roberts' books is her interesting background frames. Antiques, art, magic, fairy tales and legends, treasure hunting, larceny, horse breeding and racing, all find space in her pages, and readers feel as if they've learned something about an intriguing or unlikely profession or activity. In fact, these background frames are a draw for many readers, who like a little extra in their books.

I have found that there are some specific frames that I enjoy in my leisure reading. For example, as a transplanted but proud Jersey girl, I will read just about any book if it is set in New Jersey. I also love books with circuses, ones set on college campuses, titles with a Civil War background but which do not focus on the battles, and books with baseball in them. I will read any type of book in which these subjects appear -- fiction or nonfiction. Nine times out of ten, I will end up loving the book, even if it is not a genre or writing style I would normally enjoy. I can go against my appeal preferences if these frames are present because their presence in the story in and of themselves gives me great enjoyment.

Now think about yourself. When I first mentioned asking readers if there is a special frame they enjoy I am sure your first reaction was, "No." But as I travel around the country doing RA training, one of the first things I make library staff do is sit down and think about their own reader profile. As they think about their leisure reading preferences, most are surprised to find they have at least a couple frames which they particularly enjoy. Asking them to think about their own reading habits can make them more sensitive to addressing future patrons' habits.

Until you really force yourself to think about it, however, these likes and dislikes tend to stay hidden in your subconscious. Bringing them to the forefront of your own mind can only make you better at drawing these appeal factors out of others as you assist them at the service desk. So now, I ask you again, "Are there any special frames you enjoy in your books?"

Here are some (anonymous) examples of the frame preferences of friends and colleagues that I have gathered over the years: anything that mentions Faberge eggs, any genre as long as it is set in Tudor times, dragons, vampires, anything British, the Amish, books with "pink" covers," and discussions of pottery or the making of it.

Frames can also be limiters. Yes there are things that if they appear in a book will make someone hate the title even if they liked everything else about it, and I mean things beyond typical sex and violence issues. Again, here are some real life (anonymous) examples of friends' and colleagues' frame restrictions: anything with a circus, even the mention of cancer, dragons, vampires, anything British, apocalyptical situations, books with pastel covers, and anything featuring "crafts."

Yes, I realize some of the same frame favorites of one reader can become frame kryptonite for another. You can also see how strong people feel about something that may only be in one scene of a book, or in some cases, it may only be on the cover. This just goes to show how important frame can be.

Here is an example where understanding frame mattered for me. I was helping a reader for whom Haruki Murakami would be the perfect author. She enjoyed surrealist and mystical fiction with interesting characters and experimental styles, like she found in two of her favorite authors Paul Auster and David Mitchell. However, when the RA conversation came to talking about frame, she mentioned that she could not read a book with talking animals, no matter how perfect the rest of the novel would be for her. Well, that is one of Murakami's trademarks, he almost always has a talking cat in his novels. Even though Murakami seemed perfect for her in theory, in practice, she would have ended up not enjoying his novels solely because of talking cats who might only appear in one or two scenes in a 500 page book.

So as you are out there in the RA trenches matching readers with books, remember to stop and ask about any special interests.  You can easily put those frames into NoveList as a keyword search and you will find a plethora of options, many of which you might not have considered without asking about frame in the first place. And don't forget to offer your own reading quirks as examples to break the ice because sometimes it really can be all about that frame.


Use NoveList cataloging to provide recommendatiosn after identifying reader frames. Using Becky's example frame "New Jersey, " try typing "SU New Jersey" in the search box. 

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Becky Spratford is a Readers' Advisor in Illinois specializing in serving patrons ages 13 and up.  She trains library staff all over the world on how to match books with readers through the local public library.  She runs the critically acclaimed RA training blog RA for All, and is on the Steering Committee of the Adult Reading Round Table.  Becky is also known for her work with horror readers and is a proud member of the Horror Writers Association.  You can share your favorite quirky frame with Becky on Twitter at @RAforAll