What It Takes

What It Takes

Conventions and Obligatory Scenes

By Shawn Coyne | Published: October 25, 2013

Here’s some more from “The Story Grid.”

The iPhone abides its Genre

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?

  1. You’d expect that someone will be killed early in the telling, if not on the very first page.
  2. You’d expect that there will be an investigator called in to solve the crime.
  3. You’d expect certain stock characters to appear throughout the novel. The “Watson” to the novel’s Sherlock Holmes for example.
  4. You’d expect false clues in the plot otherwise known as “red herrings.”
  5. You’d expect an eventual confrontation between the investigator and the murderer.
  6. 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.

Posted in What It Takes

12 Responses to “Conventions and Obligatory Scenes”

  1. October 25, 2013 at 6:18 am

    Only when know the rules can we even consider breaking them. Hearing it again from someone of your experience reminds me not to take jarring liberties. If I’m writing bodiless romantic mysteries, I’d better be sure prospective readers aren’t expecting Christie or Chandler.

    Or I’d better start dropping some corpses.

  2. October 25, 2013 at 6:38 am

    Thanks Shawn. I echo Joel–it’s great to hear you cheer innovation and trusting ourselves to push the envelope, guided by what we need to create.

  3. Kent Faver
    October 25, 2013 at 6:53 am

    Once when I heard just how much J.A. Konrath and other genre writers are making I thought about buying all the seasons of Mannix, Kojak and Barnaby Jones and seeing what came out if you stole, re-hashed, combined, etc. them into a line of thrillers. I never did that.

  4. October 25, 2013 at 6:54 am

    There is extraordinary insight in this post. Thank you.

    -RG

  5. October 25, 2013 at 7:01 am

    Love this Shawn! Only when we are students can we actually create something worthwhile. Knowing about the past and building on top of it is so crucial.

  6. Mary
    October 25, 2013 at 7:11 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful post – you’ve given me a lot to think about.

  7. October 25, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Timely Shawn! Very timely indeed. I’m writing an alternate history and it would appear I’ve read nowhere near enough to know what’s expected of me. Back to the reading, I mean researching stage.

  8. October 25, 2013 at 8:41 am

    Tough balance, to create surprise while fulfilling expectations. Great example in the iPhone, goes to intent. Jobs didn’t want to just make money building a new phone. Thank you.

  9. Ulla Lauridsen
    October 25, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Ha! Manattan, The Old Man in the Sea, and Weird. You did that on purpose, right?

  10. Bipasha
    October 27, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Just read this on nyt. Related to what you guys posted a little while back.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/opinion/sunday/slaves-of-the-internet-unite.html

  11. October 28, 2013 at 8:25 am

    This is equally true in the genre of studio furniture building as with all genres of art. It is okay to bend, break or defy conventions; but it must be done for a noble purpose and must start with understanding the conventions and the masters like nakashima, maloof, the quakers etc that are the reason for the convention. Then you can create your own unique art for the genre. Just being different for the sheer sake of being different without an understanding of the conventions will probably create lesser quality art and will probably just come off as arrogant. Defying with a purpose other than your arrogance or ignorance with the goal of greater wellbeing of others is something all artist should be open to should the muse guide you there.

  12. Basilis
    October 29, 2013 at 9:03 am

    Great article and a great, accurate example!
    Perhaps you could add elements list about other writing genres of your expertise, Mr. Coyne.