What Are Obligatory Scenes And Conventions?
Let’s pretend you’re in a bookstore, and you walk over to the romance section. And let’s say 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?
Maybe things like—a scene where the couple meets, a budding romance between the two main characters, a first kiss (or more, depending on the heat level), and eventually, the answer to whether or not the couple will get together by the end of the story.
Now, imagine you bought that romance novel, took it home, and started reading it… But it was missing one or more of those things you expected to see. Would a novel that doesn’t focus on the budding romance between two characters satisfy you?
Probably not, right? In fact, you might actually walk away from your experience with that book feeling disappointed, confused, and very unlikely to recommend it to your friends.
So, how do you make sure readers don’t have this experience with your story?
That’s exactly what I’m going to cover in this post! We’ll look at what obligatory scenes and conventions are, and then I’ll share an exercise that will help you uncover exactly what readers will expect to see in a story like yours. Let’s dive in!
What are obligatory scenes and conventions?
For the purpose of this article, we’re going to say a story “works” when it delivers on (and maybe even exceeds!) a reader’s expectations. This means the very first thing we need to figure out is what exactly a reader would expect from a story like ours, right?
To do that, you need to know what kind of story you’re writing. And then, you need to learn what readers will hope to see and experience in a story of that genre.
In other words, you need to know the obligatory scenes and conventions that readers will expect to see in a novel in your genre. And then, you need to deliver those obligatory scenes and conventions in a new and exciting way.
- Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of character roles, settings, and circumstances that are specific to a genre. They’re the things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction, whether they consciously realize it or not.
- Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. These key scenes are what help you evoke emotional reactions in the reader—and, when coupled with your genre’s conventions—will give the reader the experience they’re looking for.
So, for example, if a reader chooses a murder mystery novel, they’ll probably expect to feel intrigued as they work to solve the puzzle right alongside the sleuth or the cop. In the beginning, they’ll expect to see a scene where the dead body is found. Throughout the middle, they’ll expect to uncover clues and learn new information. Toward 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 the murderer is brought to justice or not.
Beyond the obligatory scenes and conventions of your global genre, there are things readers will expect from your commercial genre, too.
If you are writing a Gothic mystery novel, readers would expect the story to be set in or around an ancient castle around the nineteenth or late eighteenth century.
If you were writing a supernatural romance, readers would expect all of the key scenes and conventions of the romance genre, plus supernatural elements and settings.
These things might sound simple or obvious to you, but you’d 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 draft or story doesn’t include the obligatory scenes and conventions of its genre, it just doesn’t work.
So, how do you know what the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre are? Let’s take a look at how to find them.
How do you find the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre?
Have you ever asked someone how to become a better writer only to have them say something to the effect of, “Read more!”
It’s solid advice because by reading more, you subconsciously absorb all the aspects of your genre. And the more you read in your genre, the more these things become automatic when you outline and write your next novel.
You’ll be able to see how other writers handled the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, which tropes have been done to death, and so much more.
So, that’s my primary advice—to read more.
But beyond that, here are 3 steps to help you uncover the obligatory scenes and conventions of your content genre.
3 Steps To Help You Uncover The Obligatory Scenes And Conventions Of Your Content Genre
Step 1: Identify 3-5 comparable titles—or stories like yours that would sit on the same bookshelf.
Assuming you already know your story’s content genre, I recommend finding 3-5 other books or movies that are similar to the story you’re writing.
For example, let’s say I was writing a YA coming-of-age romance, I might identify these three books as my comp titles: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. That’s step one.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what genre you’re writing in, or what the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre are, don’t give up. Put in the time and effort to figure it out. Work with a developmental editor or book coach if you need to.
Ask yourself—what story am I really trying to tell here? Find stories similar to the one you want to tell and figure out what the genre is. Then, go through the steps below to figure out the obligatory scenes and conventions. Trust me, it will be worth the effort!
Step 2: Figure out what your comp titles have in common.
As you read the 3-5 books you’ve chosen (or watch the movie version of those books, that counts, too!), write down everything you notice that they have in common. Think of this list as the first draft of your obligatory scenes and conventions—you’ll edit and refine later, as you go through each book or movie.
Once you’re done, organize your notes into scenes vs. conventions. Then summarize and combine ideas (where appropriate) to get a statement that expresses the idea in a generic way, in as few words as possible. For example, “the two characters meet” or something like that.
The goal is to create a list that you can easily work with and apply to other stories—it’s not to come up with *the perfect* list. As you read more books in your genre (or watch more movies), you can continue to refine your list, making changes or deleting things as needed. That’s step two.
Step 3: Refine your list of obligatory scenes and conventions.
Once you’ve read all the books on your list (or watched all the movies), it’s time to refine your list of obligatory scenes and conventions.
- What roles, settings, events, and values do all of your comp titles have in common? Those are your conventions.
- What scenes do all of your comp titles have in common? Which ones had the most impact? Those are your obligatory scenes.
Yes, this will take time. And no, this is not actually “butt-in-chair” writing…
However, the depth of insight and knowledge you’ll gain from studying stories in your genre will be massive. It’ll give you a better understanding of how to craft a story that works and delivers on readers’ expectations.
Plus, once you’ve done this exercise for multiple stories, you’ll have an invaluable reference kit for all the stories you write in the future—and that’s a pretty neat thing to have if you ask me!
As I study the obligatory scenes and conventions of each genre, I will link them here. But remember—unless you see these obligatory scenes and conventions in action, having a list will be next to useless.
You need to see how other writers have tackled these scenes and conventions and experience them as a reader (or viewer) would to really understand why they’re necessary and why they matter.
Obligatory Scenes & Conventions By Genre:
- Action: Key Scenes and Conventions
- Crime: Key Scenes and Conventions
- Horror: Key Scenes and Conventions
- Morality: Key Scenes and Conventions
- Performance: Key Scenes and Conventions
- Romance: Key Scenes and Conventions
- Society: Key Scenes and Conventions
- Status: Key Scenes and Conventions
- Thrillers: KeyScenes and Conventions
- Worldview: Key Scenes and Conventions
(Full disclosure, I do not have a plan for when I’ll tackle the remaining genres. But as I do, I will list them here, so you might want to check back periodically or sign up for my email list so that you get all the updates.)
Now with all of this being said, you might be wondering…
What about Science Fiction and Fantasy? Why aren’t they on your list of genres?
Fantasy and science fiction 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 magic of some kind, a mentor character, and lots of world-building. But what kind of story happens within that fantastic or magical setting?
This is why you need to know your story’s content genre! Your fantasy or science fiction story would include the key scenes and conventions of whichever content genre best suits your idea. For example, you can have an action story set in a fantasy world. A romance that takes place in space. Or any combination you want, really!
If you’re writing a science fiction or fantasy story, check out this article: How to Start Writing Your Sci-Fi or Fantasy Story
Now, you might also be wondering…
Won’t writing obligatory scenes and conventions stifle my creativity? I don’t want to write a formulaic novel!
Nope! In fact, figuring out how to present the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre in new and innovative ways REQUIRES creativity and imagination.
Take Agatha Christie, for example. She took a tried and true convention of the mystery genre (a master sleuth) and innovated on it when she created the amateur sleuth, Miss Marple. She didn’t eliminate the central clue-hunter from her story—she just changed the personality and background of the investigator. So, she abides by the convention but delivers it in a new way.
You can do this, too! Once you learn the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, you can use them as a framework to craft your story. Inside that framework, you can take what you need from the traditional “rules” of the genre and innovate them by adding your own preferences, experiences, values, worldview, etc. This is the fun part of writing genre fiction!
And finally, you might be wondering…
How do I handle obligatory scenes and conventions for my secondary genre or subplots?
The obligatory scenes and conventions of your story’s global (or main) genre have to be on the page. In other words, these moments or elements can’t happen “off-page,” where the reader can’t see or experience them. Why? Well, remember, your readers have signed up for a particular reading experience—and if you leave key elements of the story they expected to see off the page, it’s likely going to disappoint them.
Now, the obligatory scenes and conventions of your subplots can happen “off-page” and/or be alluded to on the page. Readers don’t have to see them exist or unfold in real-time (although, they certainly can).
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. This can be done through a conversation, a flashback, or something like that.
So, let’s wrap this up in a nice little bow, shall we?
The key point here is that 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 happening, 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.
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Do you write with the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre in mind? Or do you use them as an editing tool? Have you gone through the exercises above? If so, let us know how it worked out for you!