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Monday, December 16, 2019

Obligatory Scenes and Conventions

Today I want to talk about Obligatory Scenes and Conventions™️ 😱 These are things that often writers, particularly new writers, don't like . . . all that much.


Because they are . . .

Obligatory Scenes and Conventions™️ 😱

Okay, they aren't all that bad for all of us . . . but some of us go out of our way to avoid them because they feel so contrived, and it ends up just hurting our book 🙄 (#guilty).

So what are obligatory scenes and conventions?

They are the stuff, the elements, that are "obligatory" for your genre.

Meaning, if I'm writing a romance, I need to write a first kiss scene. If I'm writing a murder mystery, I need to write about the discovered body at the beginning. If I'm writing a superhero origin story, I need to show how the superhero got his or her powers. And if I'm retelling Sherlock Holmes, I better have his deductive reasoning in it.

In some genres, the conventions are really obvious:

Others are a lot less noticeable.

But every genre has them.

Shawn Coyne, an editor with over 25 years of experience, has noted that many writers he works with try to avoid writing obligatory scenes. They feel they are stupid or even "cheesy." Writers may try to leave them out in order to write something "fresh" and "original."

But this is sort of like saying you are going to be "fresh" and "original" by ignoring the "Show, don't Tell" rule, and instead "tell" your whole novel. In fact, it's like saying you will be "fresh" and "original" by disregarding any writing rule.

In reality, it isn't ignoring the rules that makes you great, it's understanding and respecting them, and then knowing when to break them. Ignorance rarely, rarely, rarely (I used it three times, so I hope I get the point across) leads to "fresh" and "original" content. In fact, ignorance most often leads to poor content.

And yet writers often want to try to leave out the "rules" of their genre. Sometimes it's not because they want to be original, but because they want to be surprising. But this doesn't work.

Why? Because the most surprising things are surprising because of conventions.

What's more "surprising," a story where you don't have any grasp or idea of where it is going, or a story where you think you know where it is going before it twists a different way?

The most satisfying surprises come not from disregarding conventions, but from flipping, twisting, or inverting them. From breaking them.

In order to create true surprises, the audience must have some kind of expectation. We need to understand and respect the conventions, first.

It's like that with every rule in the arts.

You have to know the rule inside and out before you can break it.

One of the most important aspects of writing surprises is that the surprise isn't a disappointment. If you ignore the obligatory conventions instead of respect them, you are more likely to disappoint. After all, the reason your audience is drawn to your genre in the first place is because of the conventions. Surprises usually work better when they are more than what the audience expects, and they almost never work if they are less than what the audience expects. But I don't want to spend too much time on surprises--if you want to know more about them, check out my post "5 Types of Surprises."

For some of us writers, obligatory scenes and conventions can be a little annoying. A few months ago, I saw a romance writer lament on social media something along the lines of, "Just HOW many ways can you write a first kiss?!" After writing several romance books, it can be hard to think of new ways to portray it.

But while originality doesn't usually come from ignoring the conventions, it can come from respecting them.

HOW many ways can you write a first kiss?

As you struggle to write it a brand new way, you may well breathe some originality into the story. Because again, what makes something feel satisfyingly original often isn't something that has no relation to any conventions, but rather something that bends, twists, and properly breaks conventions.

In order for something to feel "fresh" and "original," the audience has to have some kind of expectation--formed from what they've seen before.

As you respect and bend obligatory scenes and conventions in satisfying ways, your target audience, immersed in their chosen genre and surprised over a sense of originality, may not even notice them for what they are.

For example, in a typical fantasy story, at some point, the protagonist must face some sort of hellish creature or entity. In old stories, this is your traditional dragon. Usually this creature is in the earth or underground, or at least comes from somewhere deep and remote or secluded. In old stories, this is related to tunnels or caves, a sort of symbol of hell, which is "beneath" or "downward"--the underworld.

If you look at some of the most famous fantasy stories, you'll see this convention respected in some way.

In Harry Potter

Book 1: Harry and Ron defeat a troll that came from deep under the castle, Harry faces Voldemort (who is more of a spiritual entity at this point) deep in the forest, and then again deep down, through the trapdoor (not to mention facing the Devil's Snare and Fluffy on the way).

Book 2: Harry defeats a giant serpent in the Chamber of Secrets, which is located under the lake, deep under the school, and the snake has been getting around using the plumbing as tunnels. (Not to mention all the spiders in the forest.)

Book 3: Harry goes through a tunnel to the Shrieking Shack, a "haunted" place, where he encounters a werewolf, and then later is deep in the Forbidden Forest trying to fight off Dementors.

Book 4: In a secluded graveyard, he faces Voldemort, who appears almost more of a hellish creature with red eyes and slits for a nose, than a human.

Book 5: Deep down, in the lowest level of the Ministry of Magic, Harry faces the "fringes" of magic--floating brains, a death chamber, time itself, and then Voldemort's possession. Sure, Death Eaters are human, but even a name like that suggests something hellish.

Book 6: Harry and Dumbledore go deep into a cave where inferi from deep under the water attack them.

Book 7: Harry goes deep into Gringotts--one of the deepest chambers--to retrieve a Horcrux, but must watch for (and then rides) a literal dragon.

Have you ever noticed how often he goes into the "underworld" and faces a hellish entity? I hadn't really put it together until preparing this post. The only one I think might be a little iffy is book five, as much of the elements of the Department of Mysteries aren't living things, and those that are, are human. But the department is full of things that seem hellish--the Death Chamber with the mysterious veil, the brains that attack Ron, the time room with the bell-jar that changes a person slowly into a baby, over and over again.

In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, we have Smaug, a literal dragon, literally deep in a mountain.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo must traverse through tunnels, where he encounters Shelob, a giant spider.

Right now I'm rewatching FMA:Brotherhood, and even in that story, the heroes face animal/human chimeras and artificially-made humans in tunnels under cities or in abandoned laboratories near a prison. Hellish creatures linked to a kind of underworld.

Look at all the different ways this convention is met in all these stories.

I once had a person say to me--why do all fantasy stories have to have a real or figurative "dragon" in them?

Well, because that's a convention of the typical fantasy story. It's like asking why every romance has to have a first kiss scene.

Sure, you can probably find some that don't have these things, but usually the best stories of the genre include some kind of rendition of it, even if it's so twisted or subtle that no one realizes it until they are analyzing.

Do you always need to meet the exact expectations? Of course not. Remember, we work with the understanding of conventions to create satisfying surprises and original ideas. Maybe the dragon turns out to be an ally. Heck, maybe he turns out to be a human (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). The underworld doesn't have to be a recess in the earth. It can be a forest, a graveyard, a secret government laboratory.

Even if we aren't fully aware of all the conventions of our genres, often we will intuitively know that such an element needs to be added--simply because we have consumed so many stories of the genre. In one of the earliest drafts of my fantasy book, I felt that I needed to add some kind of monster; it just felt "right" and like it would make the story more . . . "complete." Did I know that such a thing was a convention of fantasy at the time? Sorta, but not really. I just knew it would be a more satisfying story.

See, but what we don't want to do when this arises is go, "Uugh, but no, I can't do that--so many fantasy stories already have monsters! I don't want to be the same as them; I want to be original (wink wink), so I'll make sure to avoid putting in anything that could be interpreted as a monster at all."

This is ignorance, not invention.

(And trust me, in my early days, I did this a lot! (and have paid for it.))

Which is one of the reasons I'm doing this post.

If you respond that way to obligatory scenes and conventions, you will probably pay for it. The story might not feel "right" or "complete," regardless of how much work you put into everything else.

HOW many ways can you write a first kiss?

Now that's invention.

And you need to be inventive about it. Otherwise the story will feel just like "so many fantasy stories." Otherwise it will feel cliche. How do you make the scenes and conventions unique in your story? Well, look at how even each of the Harry Potter books does it differently.

How do you make that dead body scene in the opening different than any other?

How do you make that saloon scene in a Western different than any other?

How do you make the hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villain scene in your thriller different than any other?

You have to respect the convention as you twist it into something new.

Obligatory scenes and conventions aren't our enemies; they're our friends.

We all know the buddy stories where two characters start out hating each other and realize they needed each other all along.

For some of us, that's how our relationship with conventions go.

And often the key element to making a relationship work, is respect.

Note: Don't forget to enter the advent calendar for writers--all of the prizes have been revealed, and you can now go on the website and enter all of them, including mine, which is a first chapter edit. 😊  They will be open until the 19th!


  1. This article found me at a good time! Thank you! This is something I've been thinking about recently. I feel like absence often draws the eye worse than an average moment in its place. You either get the plot bending away from its intended shape in order to justify its omission, or risk disappointing readers by allowing them down a blind alley as they over think its significance.

    You could argue that these moments are one of the few opportunities where the writer DOES get to show originality - in how they handle it. Declining that opportunity runs a little close to someone who tells you they would have passed that test... if they'd taken it. They could be right, but imagine the 'moment' displayed in a gallery. Of the authors you've read, there's a picture in each frame, and like all art, no effort is objectively 'better' than another's. But they ARE better than the empty frame with your name on it. If that makes sense?

    That's obviously a generalisation, and very plot dependant, but it's something I've been struggling with recently! It's like battling my subconscious - why am I REALLY writing around this obligatory scene / convention... because I want to look 'original'? or because I'm afraid my iteration won't be as 'good' as those around me.

    1. Hi Paul,

      What you are saying makes complete sense, and I totally agree! I also like your analogy of the empty frame. As much as people like to joke around about Hallmark movies, they completely understand their conventions and they hit them every time. It may not feel very fresh or original, but they make sure every picture frame their target audience expects, gets filled. And they never leave any empty. I also think target audience plays an important role. Who is happily reading your kind of book? You usually don't want to abandon their expectations to please the outliers.

      It is a generalization, but yeah, generally speaking, it's almost always better to meet those expected conventions than avoid them. Generally speaking, something there is better than nothing.

      I think you bring up a good point about being afraid it won't be as good as others. I think that was also one thing I would worry about when I'd try to avoid writing them. I have also seen other writers avoid it for the same reason. For some reason it can seem so difficult or even . . . unfun? to work on the convention sometimes. I know for me, it sometimes feels less "magical" . . . but then the story feels less magical without it, so . . .

      Anyway, thanks for the added insight.

    2. Thank you for responding! I'm usually too intimidated to comment on articles, because you're never really sure if the writer actually wants to partake in discussion, and have often felt a little raw and exposed to have been screaming into the void. A lot of the time you just end up feeling like a nuisance. Hopefully anybody reading this will feel encouraged by your quick response to engage in future posts. Thanks again!

    3. Yeah, that's true! Screaming into the void is kinda weird. I try to comment if I'm not overloaded with work.


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