June 12, 2015

What Are the Obligatory Scenes for Genre Fiction?

Writing CraftI’ve been reading The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne. It’s a meaty book on writing, from the point of view of an editor who has an eye for highly popular, commercially successful books.

His method is similar to Scott Bell’s Save the Cat outlining method, and since I’m a fan of that, I found this highly useful as well. My biggest takeaway is the concept that any given Genre has certain Obligatory Scenes along with its usual conventions.

For instance, he lists the Obligatory Scenes for a Mystery. My order is a little different than his, and I’ve added my own nicknames to the steps:

  1. The Crime: A crime is committed—usually a murder.
  2. The Crime as Trigger: The crime must occur reasonably early in the story.
  3. The Criminal Mastermind: The criminal must be clever enough to have hidden his identity sufficiently that it’s not obvious from the start who committed the crime.
  4. The Detective: The investigator must be clever enough to solve the crime. If he’s not a professional (cop, PI), he must have some special skill or knack that helps him uncover clues others miss.
  5. Now It’s Personal: At some point, the investigation becomes personal for the investigator.
  6. Clues & Red Herrings: The investigator finds clues, but some clues are red herrings.
  7. J’accuse: The investigator uncovers/confronts/denounces the criminal.
  8. Justice Theme: The ending results in justice, injustice, or ironic justice.

In a Medical Drama, like House, the Obligatory Scenes are exactly the same, but the “criminal” is a disease and the “detective” is the diagnostic doctor. The “suspects” are not being accused of a crime, but they are people who must be interrogated to find clues about the true identity of the mystery disease. As in any other mystery, many of the suspects lie to protect themselves for various reasons, leading to red herrings.

For Horror, he lists these Obligatory Scenes:

  1. Fate Worse Than Death: Something more than life is at stake. A fate worse than death is possible, such as torture or damnation.
  2. Monster: The villain is far more powerful than the hero, possibly even supernatural.
  3. Speech in Praise of the Villain: Early one, someone describes how insurmountably powerful and/or awesomely evil the monster is.
  4. Hero at the Mercy of the Villain: There’s a scene near the climax where the protagonist seems to be utterly powerless against the villain.
  5. Double Ending: There is a false ending where the villain seems defeated, but isn’t, followed by the real defeat of the (real) villain.

Thrillers, he says, are a combination of both these kinds of Obligatory Scenes.

Those are the genres he’s most familiar with, so unfortunately, he doesn’t give his take on other genres more of interest to me, such as Romance, Fantasy, or Science Fiction. So I’ll try my own hand at it.

For Science Fiction/Fantasy we’d need:

  1. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: We must learn early on that this universe differs from ours because it has some magic/tech that our universe does not.
  2. Rules of the Universe: We must have some insight into how the magic/tech works—not the mechanics of it, but the global rules, such as who can use it, what it allows, etc.
  3. All Magic Has a Price: There must be limitations to the magic/tech, a cost to using it.
  4. Magic Makes Trouble: The magic/tech must shape the character and/or society in a way that drives the plot. The magic/tech or the society it enables, creates the problem.
  5. Magic Aides the Hero: The magic/tech must also be relevant to how the problem is solved. (Even if the solution involves destroying it, as in Forbidden Planet, or being destroyed by it, as in 1984.)

Hm. I’m not sure if those are really Obligatory Scenes, in the same way that “Hero At the Mercy of the Villain” is a scene. I think there’s a real danger in both fantasy and science fiction of making those “telling” rather than “showing” scenes. Hence, the dreaded infodump: a pitfall for any novel, but speculative fiction especially. It is better if each of the above Obligatory features of sff are crafted as scenes.

If many of the usual scenes one might expect are missing, it’s because we often conflate Fantasy (especially) with a Quest plot. A Quest plot or an Epic plot has its own Obligatory Scenes and conventions, such as the Search for the McGuffin or Acquiring the McGuffin, the Final Stand Against Evil, etc.

But not all Fantasy, and certainly not all Science Fiction, involves a Quest or need be Epic in scale. I do think all fantasy & sf, even odd forms such as Literary Fantasy/SF, need to have the five features I’ve listed.

I’ll give Romance a shot. I think it’s easier, ironically, because there are more strict requirements.

  1. The Cute Meet: Meeting the each other is an unusual, even life-changing event, or occurs during some life-changing event. (If they knew each other long ago, this is replaced by an Unexpected Reunion. Sometimes, the Cute Meet is included too, as a prologue or a flashback.)
  2. The External Problem: Something outside the heroine and hero keeps them apart.
  3. The Internal Problem: Some internal wound keeps the heroine and hero apart.
  4. The Draw: Despite the problems, something forces the heroine and hero to spend time together.
  5. The First Kiss: The heroine and hero express their attraction for the first time.
  6. The First Fight: The heroine and hero quarrel, but overcome their difficulty.
  7. The Commitment: The heroine and hero admit to loving one another or in some way commit to one another.
  8. The Betrayal: Despite their commitment, either the external force or internal force keeping the lover apart threatens to separate them forever. There seems to be no way to overcome this.
  9. Love Conquers All: The heroine and hero overcome the betrayal, proving the strength of their commitment (even, in a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet, or a romance without a HEA like The Titanic or The Notebook) despite death). In other almost-romances, or romances involving very young teens, an ambiguous “happily ever after for now” is acceptable.
  10. The Happily Ever After (HEA): In a true sits-on-the-romance-shelf genre Romance, as opposed to a strongly romantic story that might end tragically, the hero and heroine remain in love, remain together, and remain alive: they live happily ever after. Their HEA may be confirmed in an epilogue, or whenever the couple shows up in later books (about other couples) of the same series.

Just as Coyne says you can figure up the Obligatory Scenes for a Thriller by combining Mystery, Action, and Horror requirements, so you can figure out the Obligatory Scenes you’d need for a Paranormal Romance by combining the Fantasy and Romance requirements.

For instance, you still have a Cute Meet, but it should also let the reader know that magic exists in this world. (For instance, she finds a lamp and a sexy, overpowering Genie appears, offering to be service her every whim; or she is a werewolf hunter saved from a werewolf ambush by a mysterious hunk.) You will still need an External or an Internal problem, and it should be caused by magic. (For instance, the Genie despises her for enslaving him, but she has no way to free him from the spell; he doesn’t want to tell her that he’s a werewolf too.)

Knowing the Obligatory Scenes is not the same as having an outline for a novel. Not even close. These are simply the minimum requirements needed to center a novel within a certain genre.


Buy The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne

Tara Maya

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Lissa Johnston - September 4, 2016 Reply

Hi Tara!
Good article. I listen to the Story Grid podcast and have read much of Shawn’s website. I am considering buying his book. My main question before I buy is how much does he go into obligatory scenes and conventions? You mention the three genres he provides. Are these the only three? I would love to find a resource that lists more than three. I’m interested in Adventure and Dystopia in particular, but all of the fiction genres interest me. I could cobble some together myself, but Shawn has a great deal of credibility on this topic IMO and I would rather have it from a pro.


Laina - December 27, 2016 Reply

Thank you for listing the obligatory scenes for romance novels! I am a beginning novelist and also reading the Story Grid, so this list is helpful in getting me started with planning my next novel!!

Sef - March 14, 2017 Reply

Thanks so much for this! I’m reading the Story Grid and was frustrated that my genres had no example obligatory scenes to get me started. Your suggestions are great!

I agree with you about fantasy and quest. I’m also going to go back to Blake Snyder’s short list of story types, because although my genre is fantasy, I think it’s story type is not, well, not quest anyway. Anything that can help me nail my genre is great at this stage! -Sef

Heidi Bancroft - April 24, 2017 Reply

Thanks for setting these out! I’m also much more interested in SF, fantasy, and romance than Shawn Coyne, though I think the Urban Fantasy genre I’m going for is most enjoyable (to me) when it also combines a pretty classic mystery in there as well. Again, thanks for the useful info!

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Nate Green - May 23, 2017 Reply

I’ve been listening to the StoryGrid podcast for a while now. I’m trying to apply some of what I’ve learned to plotting my next novel, but it turns out I haven’t learned as much as I thought I had. This is a great summary of the obligatory scenes and I especially appreciate your take on the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Thanks!

    Rachelle - September 14, 2018 Reply

    Story Grid considers Science Fiction and Fantasy as a category meant to direct readers to the type of book they are looking for in a bookstore. Story Grid considers Science Fiction and Fantasy as setting since they really don’t tell you what KIND of story you are writing. Settings do not have obligatory scenes and conventions. But genres do. There are 12 content genres listed by Story Grid. Every Sci-Fi and Fantasy story would fall into one of the 12 content genres. The internal genres are Morality, Status, and Worldview. The external genres are Action, Crime, War, Horror, Western, Performance, Love, Society, and Thriller. Hope this helps. Certified Story Grid Editor, rachelleramirez.com

Andrea - October 27, 2017 Reply

I’m trying to find out what the obligatory scenes are for a memoir. Any insight?

    Tara Maya - October 31, 2017 Reply

    It’s a great question, but all I know is that it’s much harder to write a memoir than most people think! I suspect that it involves finding a story arc within the reality of your own real life story; that’s what determines what to include and what to leave out. But I’m no expert. If you do find some resources about this, I’d love to know what you discover.

    Savannah - December 20, 2018 Reply

    Hi Andrea! When writing a memoir, you still want to ask, “what kind of story am I telling?” In other words, what’s the genre? What’s your memoir about? Does it focus on a romantic relationship? Trying to achieve a certain status in your career? A performance event? A murder? Then, once you’ve determined your external and internal genres (if you have both), you can use the obligatory scenes and conventions from the same fiction genres as a framework. Hope that helps!

    Rachelle Ramirez - January 27, 2019 Reply

    All the basics of the memoir can be found at https://storygrid.com/secrets-of-writing-memoir/. The trick is to figure out which genre you are writing. Is your story a worldview arc? Status? Morality? Performance? The links are within the article to point you to all the conventions and obligatory scenes.

Paul Curson - February 6, 2018 Reply

Thank you Tara. Great grist for the mill.

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