BlogThe Craft of Writing

Conventions and Obligatory Scenes

What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of your chosen Genre?

Once you choose a Genre, there are a certain number of promises you make to the audience. These are the conventions and obligatory scenes. Conventions are “specific requirements in terms of the story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward.” While obligatory scenes are the “must-have elements to pay off the raised expectations of the conventions.”

That means that when you pick up a story, it must have certain elements in it. For example, a murder mystery better have a discovery of the body and the solution to the crime or you’ll be very disappointed having wasted your time on it.

In choosing to write a particular content genre, the conventions and obligatory scenes are not optional. Nor are they a “formula,” though many writers tend to stray away from using them in favor of being innovative. In fact, conventions and obligatory scenes, though necessary to the genre you choose, are a writer’s chance to be inventive and make their story unique. Unique conventions and obligatory scenes will thrill readers/audiences and make them want to read more of your work.

Put another way, conventions are like an empty coloring page outline or a place holder.

Those lines can be filled in by whatever you come up with and will be different based on a writer’s particular style. Often, conventions concern the cast of characters, setting, or method of turning the plot. Does your story require a best friend sidekick or a monster? Should it be set in a certain time period and last a certain about of time? What about using red herrings to lead the protagonist and reader off track to turn the scenes?

Basically, they are necessary components, but can be innovated however you’d like. For example, within the murder mystery, one convention is a clue-hunter. Without a clue-hunter or sleuth, you don’t have a mystery. Agatha Christie took this convention and innovated it. Thus, Miss Marple, an amateur sleuth, with a different background and personality, satisfied the convention but also turned the genre on its head.

Conventions of the thriller, the genre of our time as Shawn Coyne says, include:

  • A MacGuffin: the villain’s object of desire
  • Investigative Red Herrings: seemingly revelatory false clues
  • Making it Personal: the villain’s reason for going after that specific hero
  • A Clock: a time-limit on the events of the story
  • A hero, victim, and villain

Compare that to the obligatory scenes, which are like the crayons (or other materials) you can use to fill in your empty lines.

Obligatory scenes are the tools you have to use that can answer the questions of the genre you choose. Remember, that a scene must include an inciting incident, complications, crisis, climax, and resolution and must also shift from one end of a value spectrum to the other. Other than that, it’s up to you, the writer, how you’d like to use those tools.

Back to the murder mystery scene. If the clue-hunter is a convention, the obligatory scene that must occur in the beginning hook of your novel would be a “discovery of the body” scene where the sleuth discovers that a crime has been committed and needs to be solved. However you create that scene, it still must be “on screen” or in the direct view of the audience.

As for obligatory scenes for the thriller, according to Shawn Coyne:

  • An inciting crime: there must be victims
  • Speech in praise of the villain
  • The hero becomes the victim
  • The hero at the mercy of the villain
  • A false ending


Because scenes like the discovery of a body have been done so many times before, they are hard to innovate. People have been bombarded by stories since before they were old enough to recognize them. We’ve seen the lovers meet, first kiss, and lovers quarrel scenes so many times that many people assume romantic comedies can no longer be unique. The same is true for James Bond action movies. That said, I believe it’s just a matter of spending more time thinking about your story. Don’t just go with the first idea that comes to mind.

Obligatory scenes are only cheesy if a writer chooses not to spend the time necessary to come up with something new. They are not negotiable. By writing in a certain genre, you have to fulfill the expectations and promises you make that go along with it. The way to do so is by including the conventions and obligatory scenes. Just make sure to do so in a new way.

How do you figure out what are the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genre?

The short answer is to find an editor who knows them and can help you make sure you’ve included them in your work. The longer, and perhaps more rewarding, answer is to study books in the genre you want to write in. The more you study and analyze, the more likely it will be that you’ll know when you’ve written a cliche or you’re not paying off the promises you’ve made to the reader.

Want to write a thriller? A love story? Action? War? Whatever it is you want to write, read the top books in that genre (at least 10 different books). Watch shows and movies. Take those stories that are done well and ask yourself what they have in common. What scenes are there that move you as a reader? What characters have similar roles? When are the events taking place in the overall story? Take note. Then, use your notes to come at your story from a new angle. Trust me, your story will be better because of it.

Once again, this is only question you should answer before starting a new novel. Answering these questions will make it easier for you to push through the dreaded middle build. I’ll cover the rest in future posts.

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