Let’s say you’re in a bookstore and you pick up a novel from the romance section. What would you expect from the story before you even read the first page?
Perhaps you’d expect to see things like—a scene where the couple meets, a budding romance between the two main characters, a first kiss, and the answer to whether or not the couple will get together by the end of the story, right?
Now imagine a romance novel without one, some, or all of these things. Would a novel with no budding romantic relationship satisfy readers of the romance genre? No—in fact, it would probably do the opposite. They’d probably walk away from that book feeling disappointed, confused, and unlikely to recommend that novel to their friends.
So, how do you make sure that doesn’t happen with your story? How do you write a story that “works” and that satisfies readers of a particular genre?
Well, first, you need to know what kind of story you’re writing. And then, you need to understand 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 be expecting from a novel in your genre. And then, you need to deliver those obligatory scenes and conventions in a new and exciting way.
In today’s post, I’m exploring what obligatory scenes and conventions are, as well as how to learn what scenes and conventions readers might be expecting from a story in your genre. Let’s dive in!
Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They are 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 will 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 subgenre, too. For example, 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 obligatory 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.
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 genre (obligatory scenes and conventions, global values, objects of desire, etc.). 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 (and innovated) the obligatory scenes and conventions, as well as what tropes have been done to death.
What kind of story are you writing? What’s your genre? Will you have both an external and an internal genre? If so, which one will be your primary genre? Once you have your genre nailed down, find 3-5 other movies or books that are similar to the story you’re writing. For example, let’s say I was writing a YA romance novel. I might choose to watch these movies—The Fault in Our Stars, Everything, Everything, Twilight, and Love, Simon.
Wait, why movies and not books? Well, obligatory scenes and conventions are specific to the genre, not the medium. You can study both films and novels (and you definitely should), but movies are faster to consume and usually follow the three-act structure to a tee (thus making them easier to study).
Pick the first movie to watch (or book to read) and write down everything you notice, no matter how obvious. Think of this list as the first draft of your obligatory scenes and conventions—you’ll edit and refine later, as you watch each movie. After you’ve finished the first movie, organize your notes into scenes and conventions. Summarize and combine ideas where appropriate and state the ideas in a generic way, in as few words as possible. The goal is to create a list that you can easily work with and apply to other stories. Then, watch the next movie and determine whether or not your list of scenes and conventions are there, and if not, make changes or delete things as needed.
Once you’ve watched all the movies on your list (or read all the books), it’s time to refine your list of obligatory scenes and conventions. So, 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? Or in which scenes did the core value shift the most drastically? Those are your obligatory scenes.
Yes, this will take time. And no, this is not actually “butt-in-chair” writing, but the depth of insight and knowledge you’ll gain from studying stories in your genre will give you a better understanding of how to craft a story that works AND show you how to deliver what your readers are expecting.
Plus, once you’ve done this exercise for multiple stories, you’ll have an invaluable reference kit for your future work!
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 above to figure out the obligatory scenes and conventions. Trust me, it will be worth it!
As I study the obligatory scenes and conventions of each genre, I will link them here:
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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 them, and experience them as a reader or viewer would to really understand why they are necessary and why they matter.
No! 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 (her brilliant master sleuth, Hercule Poirot) and innovated 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. She abides by the convention but delivers it in a new way. So, learn the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre and use them as a framework for 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.
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. The reason I don’t have science fiction and fantasy listed as one of the twelve genres is because these stories include at least one of the twelve genres–sometimes one external genre and one internal genre. For example, they can be action stories where the core value at stake is life vs. death. Or they can be love stories where the core value at stake is love vs. hate. They can even be crime stories where the core value at stake is justice vs. injustice. That means a science fiction or fantasy story would include the obligatory scenes and conventions for the external and internal content genres and that they would take place in a particular setting that’s not in the real world.
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-screen” where the reader can’t see or experience them. The obligatory scenes and conventions of your secondary genre or subplots still need to exist, but they can happen “off-screen” and/or be alluded on the page. For example, if you had 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, etc.
If you don’t do the work to understand your genre, you’ll have a hard time getting your books into the hands of your audience. And without an audience, your story will never be experienced.
So, know your genre and give your audience what they’re expecting in a new and exciting way. Give them the powerful emotional experience they’re looking for. Do that and you’ll earn fans forever. Nothing else matters more!
To learn more about genre, check out this article—Understanding Genre: How to Write Better Stories
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: What genre are you writing in? Do you write with the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre in mind?
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