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Conventions and Obligatory Moments

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Earlier in another thread, I wrote about how learning about Conventions and Obligatory Moments has changed me from being a pure discovery writer into a Plantser, a Pantser who appreciates underlying story structure. Here's a little along those lines.





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 an investigator—a police officer, an amateur sleuth, a PI, a cat—will set out to solve the crime.
  • You’d expect certain stock characters to appear throughout the novel. The “Watson” to the novel’s Sherlock Holmes or the “prime suspect” for example.
  • You’d expect false clues in the plot otherwise known as “red herrings.”

These are a few of the conventions of the mystery genre (learn more about genre).

Conventions are elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled or so bored out of their skull that no matter how beautiful the sentences, they’ll quit reading.



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2 hours ago, kiwigummy said:

Conventions good. Structure good. Breaking genre expectations bad. Originality bad.


You can get away with a little genre-bending. That's how we get new flavors, Neo-Noir out of Noir (ex. BRICK, about a murder on a High School campus, investigated by a HS student), more gritty and realistic stories out of the Superhero genre (ex, THE DARK KNIGHT). But if you defy genre too hard, you just irritate your readers, like this tandem writing assignment featuring two authors, Marla and Neil, coming at the story from two wildly different perspectives:



First paragraph by Marla) "At first, Betty couldn't decide which kind of tea she wanted. The chamomile, which used to be her favourite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Bruce, who once said, in happier times, that he also adored chamomile. But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep her mind off Bruce. His possessiveness was suffocating, and if she thought about him too much her asthma started acting up again. So chamomile was out of the question. She'd switch to chai."

(Second paragraph by Neil) "Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Bruce Harrington, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Zontar 3, had more important things to think about than the neurotic meanderings of an air-headed, asthmatic bimbo named Betty with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago. 'A.S. Harrington to Geostation 17,' he said into his transgalactic communicator. 'Polar orbit established. No sign of resistance so far ...' But before he could sign off, a bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted a hole through his ship's cargo bay. The jolt from the direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across the cockpit."


Oh, and originality is always good, as long as it is in service of the story. But now we're talking about editing. 😉

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One early example of where I discovered the power of "obligatory scenes" was in a novel where I have a prisoner who is released on a technicality. I didn't have a scene where the prison warden interviews the prisoner at the time of his release. ll I knew was that the drama felt weak at a time where there should be resolution coupled with a threat from the warden to begin to rebuild the tension for the next part of the story. The story felt like it was missing something, and the realization that I had skipped such an important scene helped shore up the middle.  


Could I have achieved the same effect with a different kind of scene? Perhaps, but it fit the story so well. The familiarity of that kind of scene contrasted nicely to the surprise at finding out something new and menacing about the warden.


In a work in progress, I have a high school dance scene, which I would call an obligatory scene for many teen-centered novels. I stopped work on the book for weeks because that was the next scene coming up in my outline. It is not like the "Under the Sea" dance in Back to the Future, which was planned as a pivotal scene from the start of that movie. I could have done without the dance. I resented having to write it. I couldn't think of anything original to do with it. What was my problem? It lacked conflict. Then I decided to have the hero and heroine fight earlier that day and she ends up going alone, because the friends she needs for support will be there. I reimagined the scene and found multiple ways to draw in conflict, add humor integral to the story (magical cosmetics that have peculiar effects), and finally danger. I was able to pour my story, characters, and peculiarities into the scene and it ceased to be boring. In the end, my disgust at having to write that scene paid off. Something inside revolted at the thought of writing to conform to other people's expectations and I countered with imposing my mark upon that form. In the end, I enjoyed the result.

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