Fiction Writing Made Easy

#128: What Are Obligatory Scenes And Conventions?

February 06, 2024 Savannah Gilbo Episode 128
Fiction Writing Made Easy
#128: What Are Obligatory Scenes And Conventions?
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

“When a story doesn't include these key scenes and conventions of its genre, it's just not going to work.” - Savannah Gilbo

Want a framework for your entire story? Learn what readers expect from a story like yours, and then use these obligatory scenes and conventions as a framework to craft a story that works.

Read the blog post here!

Here’s a preview of what’s included:

[03:47] What are obligatory scenes and conventions (and why are they important)?

[06:58] 3 steps to finding the obligatory scenes and conventions for your story's genre.

[10:31] Savannah breaks out most of the required scenes and conventions, which you can download by visiting the blog post for this episode.

[13:58] How to handle the obligatory scenes and conventions of your subplots vs. the main storyline.

[16:51] Final thoughts: If you don’t do the work to understand your genre, you’ll have a hard time getting your books into the hands of readers. And without readers, your story will never be experienced. That’s a terrible thought, right? To avoid this, know your genre and give your readers what they’re expecting in a new and exciting way. Give them the emotional experience they’re looking for, and you’ll earn loyal fans for life.

Links mentioned in this episode:

Want to write a novel but not sure where to start? Click here to grab a FREE copy of my Story Starter Kit workbook that'll help you get clarity on your characters, setting, theme, plot, and so much more!

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Speaker 1:

the very, very first thing you need to do is identify your story's content genre. Once you know your story's main content genre, you can dig in and find those obligatory scenes and conventions that readers are going to expect to see in a story like yours, and then deliver those in your story in a new and exciting way. This is what's going to help you craft a story that works. Welcome to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming, so each week, I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So, whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started. In today's episode, we're going to talk about obligatory scenes and conventions and, specifically, how to find the obligatory scenes and conventions that readers would expect to see in a story like yours. But before we get into definitions and specifics, I just want to do a little thought exercise, so play along with me as we imagine this scene. Let's pretend you're in a bookstore and you walk over to the romance section, and let's say that you grab a random book off the shelf full of romance novels. What would you expect from the book in your hands before you even read the first page? Your answer might include things like a scene where the couple first meets, or a budding romance between the two main characters, maybe even a first kiss or more, depending on the heat level and eventually you would probably expect to get the answer to whether or not the couple gets together by the end of the story. Does any of that sound like what you would expect from a romance novel? I'm going to assume so, and we'll keep going with the example. So let's now imagine that you bought that romance novel, you took it home and you started reading it, but it was missing one or more of those things that you expected to see. So, for example, maybe the focus of the story wasn't on the budding romance between two characters. If you were expecting that and you wanted to read a romance novel, would a story like this satisfy you or would it leave you disappointed? If you're like most readers, I'm guessing you would feel disappointed, confused and probably pretty unlikely to recommend that book to your friends. So in today's episode I want to talk about how to make sure your readers don't have this experience with your story. So we're going to look at obligatory scenes and conventions, we're going to talk about what they are and then I'm going to share an exercise to help you uncover exactly what readers will expect to see in a story like yours. Now, for the purpose of today's episode, we're going to say that a story quote unquote works when it delivers on and maybe even exceeds a reader's expectations. So this means the very first thing we need to figure out is exactly what a reader would expect from a story like ours. Right, and you won't be able to do this if you don't know what kind of story you're writing. So the very, very first thing you need to do is identify your story's content genre. I have a whole episode on how to do that. It's episode number two. I will link to that in the show notes.

Speaker 1:

But that's the very first thing. Once you know your story's main content genre, you can dig in and find those obligatory scenes and conventions that readers are going to expect to see in a story like yours and then deliver those in your story in a new and exciting way. This is what's going to help you craft a story that works. Okay, so we're going to go over some definitions in a second, but I want to say really quick I did not come up with these terms of obligatory scenes and conventions. This is something I learned from studying the work of Robert McKee. He talks about this in screenwriting, and then Sean Coyne, over at the Story Grid, adapted this into a method for novelists. So if you do want to go deeper into learning about these things, definitely go check out Robert McKee's book Story or Sean Coyne's book the Story Grid.

Speaker 1:

Now, without further ado, let's go over some definitions and we're going to start with conventions. So conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of character, roles, settings and circumstances that are specific to a genre, so they're things that the readers will intuitively expect to be in a work of genre fiction, whether they consciously realize it or not. Obligatory scenes, on the other hand, are the key events, decisions and discoveries that move the protagonist along their journey from A to Z. So these key scenes are what's going to help you evoke emotional reactions in the reader and, when coupled with your genre's conventions, they're going to help you give the reader the experience they're looking for. So, as an example, let's just pretend a reader has chosen a murder mystery novel to read. They're probably expecting to feel intrigue as they work to solve the puzzle, right alongside the sleuth or the cop. Right In the beginning, they'll expect to see a scene where the dead body is found, because it's a murder mystery. At the middle they're going to expect to uncover clues and learn new information. And then, towards the end, they'll expect to see a scene where the identity of the murderer is revealed and by the last page they'll expect to know whether that murderer is brought to justice or not. Okay, so this is just another example of you know the key scenes and conventions that readers are already expecting when they go to a story of a certain genre. So something like a master detective that's a character role right, that would be a convention of the crime genre. Something like that detective discovering the dead body. That would be one of your key scenes or obligatory scenes.

Speaker 1:

Okay, now, beyond the obligatory scenes and conventions of your main genre or your global genre, there are going to be things that your readers expect from your commercial genre as well. So let's take the same example of the murder mystery and say that you're writing a gothic murder mystery. Readers of a story like this are going to expect the story to be set in or around an ancient castle in the 19th or the late 18th century. Right, that's what would make it a gothic mystery novel. If you're writing something like a supernatural romance, then readers would expect all of the key scenes and conventions of the romance genre, plus those supernatural elements and settings. Now, these things might sound simple or obvious to you, but you would be surprised how many drafts I see that don't include these genre-specific elements or scenes that readers are expecting to see. And when a story doesn't include these key scenes and conventions of its genre, it's just not going to work.

Speaker 1:

So now that we know what obligatory scenes and conventions are, the next question is how do I find the obligatory scenes and conventions of my genre? And if you've been in the writing world for any amount of time, you've probably heard the advice to read more. And this is solid advice, because by reading more, you're subconsciously going to absorb all of the different aspects of your genre, and the more you read in your genre, the more these things will become automatic when you outline and write your next novel, you're going to be able to see how other writers handled those obligatory scenes and conventions in your genre, which tropes have been done to death and so much more. So that is my primary advice to read more. But beyond that, there are three steps you can take to uncover the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre. And step one is to identify three to five comp titles or comparable titles. And these are stories like yours that would sit on the same bookshelf.

Speaker 1:

So, assuming that you already know your story's content genre, I recommend finding three to five books or movies that are similar to the story you're writing, that are also in that content genre. So, for example, let's say that I was writing a young adult coming of age romance, I might identify these three books as my comp titles. So number one, the Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Number two, everything, everything by Nicola Yoon, and number three, simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. So that's step one, just identifying three to five comp titles.

Speaker 1:

And if you're having trouble figuring out what genre you're writing in or what your comp titles are, I don't want you to give up. It is worth the time and the effort to figure it out, and you can even work with a developmental editor or book coach if you need one-on-one assistance. But you can ask yourself what story am I really trying to tell here? So focus on that main storyline, find similar stories to the one that you want to tell and then figure out what the genre of those three to five stories are. And then, just by going through the rest of the steps that we're going to go over now, you're going to learn so much about your story and build a really awesome framework. So it is totally worth the effort.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so that's step one identify those comp titles. And then step two we want to figure out what your comp titles have in common. So as you read those three to five books that you've chosen, or watch the movie version of those books because that counts too I want you to write down everything you notice that they have in common. So think of this list that you're creating as the first draft of your obligatory scenes and conventions. You're going to edit and refine this list later as you go through each of your comp titles. Then, once you're done, you're going to organize your notes into scenes and conventions and then you can summarize and combine those notes where appropriate, to get a statement that expresses the idea in a generic way in as few words as possible.

Speaker 1:

So let's say that you're watching these movies or reading these books and you notice there's always a scene in a romance where two characters come together and meet for the first time. You might write something on your list like the two characters meet or something like that, just a short little generic phrase. And the goal of this is to create a list that you can easily work with and apply to other stories. So it's not to come up with the most perfect list. Okay, as you read more books in your genre or watch more movies, you can continue to refine this list, making changes or deleting things as needed. So that's step two.

Speaker 1:

Step number three is to refine your list of obligatory scenes and conventions. So once you've read all the books or watched all the movies and made your list, it's time to refine that list and complete your final list of obligatory scenes and conventions. So you want to ask what character, roles, settings and circumstances do all of your comp titles have in common? Those will be your conventions. And then you want to ask what scenes do all of your comp titles have in common and which ones had the most impact. These are going to be your obligatory scenes. Now, yes, this is going to take time and, no, this is not actually button chair writing. However, the depth of insight and knowledge that you're going to gain from studying stories in your genre is going to be huge. It's going to give you a better understanding of how to craft a story that works and delivers on reader's expectations. Plus, once you've done this exercise for multiple stories, you're going to have an invaluable reference kit for all the stories you write in the future, and that is a pretty neat thing to have. If you ask me Now, if you've been listening to this podcast for any amount of time, you know that I've done a lot of this work to uncover the obligatory scenes and conventions of each genre already.

Speaker 1:

I'm going to link them in the blog post that goes along with this episode. You can find the link to that in the show notes. But remember, unless you have seen these obligatory scenes and conventions in action, a list can only help you so much. Okay, you need to see how other writers have tackled these scenes and conventions and then also experience them as a reader or a viewer would to really understand why they're necessary and why they matter. So I do have those available for you on my website, but I still recommend going through this exercise to really internalize them and cement them in your brain.

Speaker 1:

Now, with all of this being said, you might be wondering well, what about science fiction and fantasy? You've done a lot of the genres on this podcast before and I haven't heard you go over the obligatory scenes of science fiction, fantasy or even historical fiction. And if you're wondering this, then I do want you to go back and listen to episode number two, where I talk about the difference between content genres and commercial genres, because fantasy and science fiction and even historical fiction, those are commercial genres or consumer-facing labels. Okay. So fantasy and science fiction and even historical fiction, they will definitely have their own set of requirements and rules that need to be followed in order to satisfy readers. For example, in fantasy stories, there's usually some kind of magic, maybe even a mentor character and a lot of world building, right. But as writers, what we need to identify is what kind of story happens within that fantastic or magical setting. So this is why you need to know your story's content genre. Your fantasy or science fiction story needs to include the key scenes and conventions of whatever content genre best suits your idea. So, for example, you can have an action story set in a fantasy world, a romance that takes place in outer space, or any combination that you want If you are writing science fiction or fantasy. I have another episode I want you to go check out. It's episode number 95, called how to Start Writing your Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel, and we will link to that one in the show notes as well.

Speaker 1:

Another question I get asked when I talk about obligatory scenes and conventions is won't using these as a framework stifle my creativity or won't this make me write a formulaic novel? And my answer to this is always no, and that's because figuring out how to present the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre in a new and innovative way actually requires a lot of creativity and imagination. So, as an example, just think about Agatha Christie. Right, she writes Amazing Mysteries. She took a tried and true convention of the crime genre, which is a master sleuth, and innovated on that convention when she created her amateur sleuth, miss Marple. So she didn't eliminate the central clue hunter from her story, she just changed the personality and the background of the investigator and came up with something new. So she abided by the convention but delivered it in a really new and fresh way. And the cool thing is is that you can do this too. So once you learn the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, you can use them as a framework to craft your story and then, inside that framework, you can take whatever you need from those more traditional quote unquote rules of the genre and innovate them by adding your own preferences, experiences, values, worldview, etc. Right, this is the really fun part about writing genre fiction.

Speaker 1:

And something else I get asked all the time when talking about obligatory scenes and conventions is how do I handle them for subplots? Do I have to write all of those on the page? Do I have to include them all in questions like that? Now, the obligatory scenes and conventions of your story's main genre or your global genre, those do have to be on the page. So, in other words, these moments or those conventions, they can't happen off page where the reader can't see or experience them. And that's just because your readers have signed up for a particular reading experience. Right, if you leave out the key elements of the story they expect to see or put them off the page. It's likely going to be a disappointing experience.

Speaker 1:

But speaking to subplots, specifically the obligatory scenes and conventions of your subplots, those can happen off page and or be alluded to on the page, so readers don't always have to see them exist or unfold in real time, although they certainly can, but what we want is to know that they are there, even if we didn't see them unfold in real time. Okay, so, for example, if you have a romantic subplot, you don't necessarily have to have a scene where the lovers first meet, but you do have to let the reader know that they've met and kind of how they've met. Right, we need to know that context and this can be included through a conversation, a flashback context in a different scene or things like that. So hopefully, this episode gave you a nice little overview of obligatory scenes and conventions, why they're important, how to find them for your genre and things like that, and we'll do a really quick recap before I let you go. So the first key point is that in order to write a story that works, we do need to include the obligatory scenes and conventions of our story's primary content. Genre Conventions are the character, roles, settings and circumstances that are specific to a genre and obligatory scenes are the key moments, decisions and discoveries that move the protagonist along their journey from A to Z. And including all the conventions and obligatory scenes of your genre is going to help you give the reader the experience they're looking for and write a story that works.

Speaker 1:

Key point number two we talked about three steps to finding the obligatory scenes and conventions of your content genre. So step number one was to identify three to five comp titles or stories like yours that would sit on the same bookshelf. Step two was figuring out what those comp titles have in common. So, remember, we want to make a list. And then step number three was refining that list into one list of obligatory scenes and conventions for your primary genre.

Speaker 1:

And the last key point, or key point number three, is that using these obligatory scenes and conventions is not something that's going to stifle your creativity or make you write a formulaic novel. Instead, they're really just there to help you write a story that works and give you a container for your ideas. And then it's up to you to bring your creativity and your imagination to that framework. So, remember, we always want to be including those key scenes and conventions, but delivering them in a new and innovative way, and what this all boils down to is that if you don't do the work to understand your genre, then you are going to have a hard time getting your book into the hands of readers, and without readers, your story will never be experienced, which is probably a terrible thought to most of us, right? So to avoid this happening, know your genre and give your readers what they're expecting in a new and exciting way, and if you give them the emotional experience they're looking for, you will earn loyal fans for life, which is what most of us want.

Speaker 1:

So hopefully you enjoyed today's episode. We will link to the other episodes mentioned in the show notes and I will see you same time, same place next week. So that's it for today's episode. As always, thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes, listed in the description of each episode, inside your podcast player or at savannahgobocom. Forward slash podcast. If you're an Apple user, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and, in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. And while you're there, go ahead and hit that follow button, because there's going to be another brand new episode next week, full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So I'll see you next week and until then, happy writing.

Uncovering Obligatory Scenes and Conventions
Identifying Comp Titles and Refining Conventions
Understanding Obligatory Scenes and Conventions