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What Are the Obligatory Scenes for Genre Fiction?
I’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:
- The Crime: A crime is committed—usually a murder.
- The Crime as Trigger: The crime must occur reasonably early in the story.
- 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.
- 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.
- Now It’s Personal: At some point, the investigation becomes personal for the investigator.
- Clues & Red Herrings: The investigator finds clues, but some clues are red herrings.
- J’accuse: The investigator uncovers/confronts/denounces the criminal.
- 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:
- Fate Worse Than Death: Something more than life is at stake. A fate worse than death is possible, such as torture or damnation.
- Monster: The villain is far more powerful than the hero, possibly even supernatural.
- Speech in Praise of the Villain: Early one, someone describes how insurmountably powerful and/or awesomely evil the monster is.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- All Magic Has a Price: There must be limitations to the magic/tech, a cost to using it.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- The External Problem: Something outside the heroine and hero keeps them apart.
- The Internal Problem: Some internal wound keeps the heroine and hero apart.
- The Draw: Despite the problems, something forces the heroine and hero to spend time together.
- The First Kiss: The heroine and hero express their attraction for the first time.
- The First Fight: The heroine and hero quarrel, but overcome their difficulty.
- The Commitment: The heroine and hero admit to loving one another or in some way commit to one another.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.