Conventions and Obligatory Scenes
Here’s some more from “The Story Grid.”
If I hand you my novel and tell you it’s a murder mystery, what would you expect from the book before you even turned the title page?
- You’d expect that someone will be killed early in the telling, if not on the very first page.
- You’d expect that there will be an investigator called in to solve the crime.
- You’d expect certain stock characters to appear throughout the novel. The “Watson” to the novel’s Sherlock Holmes for example.
- You’d expect false clues in the plot otherwise known as “red herrings.”
- You’d expect an eventual confrontation between the investigator and the murderer.
- You’d expect an ending that either results in justice (the murderer is discovered and pays for his crime), injustice (the murderer gets away) or irony (the investigator gets his man, but loses someone or something in the process).
So what happens if I fail to deliver even just one element from the above list?
I haven’t written a mystery novel. I’ve disappointed you and wasted your time.
You may or may not tell me that (you probably wouldn’t because you’re a nice person and don’t wish to hurt my feelings) but for sure, you’ll beg off if I ask you to read any more of my work. Worst case scenario, you’ll lose respect for me and slowly terminate our friendship.
How stupid is he that he didn’t have the scene where the investigator unmasks the perpetrator? That’s Scooby-Doo 101! you’ll think.
Art is that personal. If you discover that someone close to you doesn’t share your tastes, you can’t help but see them as “other.”
She’s okay, but she didn’t “get” Anna Karenina…can you believe that?
Worse, if that same friend calls herself a writer and claims to have a handle on 19th Century Russian Realist Literature and still has that opinion, you’ll barely be able to suppress your rage. Woody Allen made a career out of this sort of exasperation. Just watch Diane Keaton in MANATTAN and Woody’s reaction to her didactic inanity and you’ll see what I mean. Her “Academy of Overrated” is priceless.
There is nothing more infuriating to blue collar pros than listening to amateurs who obviously haven’t done the work necessary to know their art form. You can’t help but lose respect for them. It’s like your cousin Lou who makes “Pot-au-feu” without meat or vegetables calling himself a French chef.
In order to write a professional novel, you must know the obligatory scenes and conventions of your chosen genre. If you don’t know them, learn them. How do you do that? Read the top novels in the genre (yes, the most commercially successful ones) and write down what they all have in common. And “literary novels” are of a genre too. If you are going to write a novel about endurance and tenacity, you better read THE OLD MAN IN THE SEA and DELIVERANCE.
So what are Obligatory Scenes?
Obligatory scenes are the most difficult ones for a writer to crack—the discovery of the dead body scene, the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, the first kiss scene, the attack of the monster scene, etc. The reason is that they can easily devolve into cliché. They’ve been done to death and to come up with something fresh, surprising, and without a deus ex machina is an extremely difficult task. A deus ex machina is when someone or something appears solely to rescue a protagonist in peril or solve a prickly story problem. It derives from Ancient Greek theatre when playwrights were allowed to end their shows with actors playing gods entering from Stage Right to settle all loose story ends.
A lot of writers have contempt for obligatory scenes for the very reasons I described above. They don’t want to write them because they find them cheesy. Many writers insist that their work is so intellectually challenging and above “genre,” that their revolutionary technique frees them from having to fulfill these obligations. Theirs is homage to a genre, not really part of the genre, they’ll tell you. Whether it is or not matters little. If their global inciting incident is one associated with a particular genre and they don’t innovatively pay it off in the way that the genre demands, the book won’t work. People won’t buy it.
Other writers love genre because they think they can just recycle old scenes from the genre’s canon to fulfill these obligations. But if rehash something you saw on a MANNIX episode from the 1970s, you will sorely disappoint your reader. They may not have seen that particular episode, but they will easily be able to tell that what you’ve written is unoriginal. If you’re re-using it, chances are someone else has too.
Remember that the earliest readers in a particular genre are experts. When I ran mystery programs at the major houses, you can be sure I was aware of the thousands of hardcore crime readers. I couldn’t help but run into them at conventions and specialty bookstores. These readers are desperate for innovation. Their first question is always “what’s new?” These core 2,000-4,000 readers will give new writers a shot. If the writer creates something unique, they’ll have that aficionado for the next book too. And the book after that.
But if the writer is rewarming old Rex Stout plotlines and somehow makes it into a big house without being found out, rest assured these first readers will know. They pride themselves on their expertise and if they find you lacking, they’ll tell their fellow mystery junkies to skip the book. It’s “meh,” not worth their time. They won’t brag about having a first edition of your first novel. They won’t look forward to your next book. They won’t give you another chance.
But what about those hugely successful novels that defy what I’m saying? What about those books that don’t deliver fresh obligatory scenes? Sometimes, an influential group of readers (usually critics) falls in the love with a book or just its prose and talks it up incessantly. The sophisticated and New York Times reading metropolitan cocktail crowd (a dying tribe in the new connected age of “Weird”) hears the chatter. Wanting to be “in the know,” the swells repeat the hubbub and quite a number of books are bought and displayed on coffee tables across the country. Many go unread.
Writing for that kind of attention is not going to fill the hole in your soul. It’s certainly not a business plan. More like buying a Lotto ticket.
Instead write for the genre nerds desperate for new stories. They won’t desert you when you push the envelope too far, either. Just knowing where the envelope ends will warm their hearts.
Genre craft demands innovation. And that innovation is found in the way a writer handles obligatory scenes.
This requirement is exactly the same thing that Steve Jobs and Apple faced when they decided to create a new cellphone. Jobs knew that the iPhone had to be compatible with cellular networks, at least one of them. He knew that it had to “ring.” He knew that the connections between callers had to be clear. And tens of other obligations had to be met. So the question Jobs asked himself was not “How do I make something completely unique and change the way people speak to each other?” but “How do I build on and reinvent those things that phone users demand while also giving them an intoxicating original experience?” Jobs worked inside the phone “genre,” and then moved the genre forward.
As you’ll remember, the first generation of iPhones had a tendency to disconnect in the middle of calls. The obligatory antenna required in the phone did not deliver. It wasn’t until Apple fixed that problem that the iPhone moved from Apple baseline cult first generation adopters (its genre experts) to middle managers abandoning their BlackBerrys. The core fanatics cut Apple some slack on the first iteration of the iPhone, but they didn’t evangelize to non-cult members until all of the bugs were out of it.
Same thing for books. Win over the experts and keep banging away at the keyboard. When you’ve knocked out something extraordinary, the experts will beat down their neighbors’ doors to get them to read your book.
One thing is for sure. Apple opened up every single cell phone they could find to see what they all did and how they did it before they started working on the prototype of the iPhone. Shouldn’t writers do the same thing?
There’s no shame in not knowing something. The only shame is when you willfully ignore and then blame the educated for your failures.