How to Find Obligatory Scenes and Conventions

In Part 2 of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, Shawn Coyne states that all of the content genres have obligatory scenes and conventions and that a writer must include them in her Story in order to satisfy reader expectations.  While he doesn’t explicitly list them all out in any one location, with a little detective work you’ll discover that in the three years since the book’s publication, he has covered quite a few of them in the Story Grid blog and podcast.

Obviously, he’s looked at the thriller in detail and since thrillers are a combination of horror, action and crime, that means we also have at least some of the obligatory scenes and conventions for those three genres. He has written an entire book on the Love Story in which he teaches everything you ever wanted to know about that genre, including the obligatory scenes and conventions. He outlined them during a recent podcast episode too. He’s also reviewed the Redemption Story and Big Idea non-fiction Story.

For the rest, while we know them intuitively, we still need a way to articulate them. That’s where this article comes in.

Obligatory scenes and conventions

When famous writers are asked to give advice to emerging authors, they invariably say to read more. That’s because by reading more you sub-consciously absorb all of the aspects of the genre (obligatory scenes and conventions, global value spectrum, objects of desire and so on). At Story Grid, we’re about finding practical approaches to storytelling, so in this article I’ll share my method for discovering the obligatory scenes and conventions of a content genre.

By happy coincidence, the day before this article was due Shawn discussed his own approach for finding obligatory scenes and conventions on the Story Grid podcast. It’s a fantastic episode.

The steps I follow are fairly simple, but they do require time, patience and elbow grease.

Believe me, the return on investment will be beyond your wildest dreams. If you know anyone writing in the same genre as you, I suggest you do this exercise together. I’ve been studying with four other Story Grid Editors since May, 2017 (we complete the foolscap for a movie every week) and our understanding of Story has taken a quantum leap. We have no intention of stopping any time soon, in fact we’re turning our sessions into a podcast that will begin airing in January, 2018. More information will be coming soon so make sure you’ve signed up to the Story Grid mailing list.

Three Simple Steps

STEP 1. Decide What Kind of Story You Want to Tell:

In other words, which of the content genres do you want to write in? Will you use both external and internal content genres? If so, which one will serve as the global genre? You might know the answer to this before you’ve written one word of your novel. Or, it might take a few drafts for you to figure it out. That’s okay.

Since this is our last post prior to Christmas, let’s say that we want to write a novel like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, a Story in which a rotten old curmudgeon becomes kind and generous. Since we’re focusing on the change within a character, we know that one of the internal content genres will be the global Story genre. If we consult Shawn’s book, we’ll see that when a bad guy reforms, the Story falls into the Morality > Redemption genre.

When you’re going through these steps, deal with only one content genre at a time. If your novel has both internal and external content genres, deal with them separately.

For more information on the content genres, look at The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know Part 2, chapters 24 and 25, or click here.

STEP 2. Find Other Stories Like the One You Want to Tell:

We already have A Christmas Carol on our list, and Shawn gives Drugstore Cowboy as another example of a Redemption Story.

Remember, the obligatory scenes and conventions are specific to the genre, not the medium. So you can study both films and novels. Films are definitely faster and are what we’ll be using in this analysis.

To find other titles you can ask fellow writers to help you brainstorm Stories about bad guys who reform. You can look at the filmography of your favorite actor, or check the list of past Oscar-winning films. You can research a list of winners for the Pulitzer Prize, Giller Prize and Booker Prize, you can visit your local bookstore and ask the staff for recommendations or you can scroll through Netflix titles. I also suggest you go back through the Story Grid podcasts and blog posts. Shawn often gives additional examples for the content genres.

You’ll end up with a long list and will have to go through them one by one to determine if they actually are Redemption Stories. In doing so, you’ll be deepening your understanding of all the internal content genres because you will have to think carefully about each of them and what they mean. This is priceless knowledge that you wouldn’t otherwise get if the list of obligatory scenes and conventions had been given to you.

When I ran through the sources I listed above, I came up with a dozen films from which I chose Gran Torino, The Verdict, The Legend of Bagger Vance and Kramer v. Kramer. Each of the six films share the Morality > Redemption internal content genre, but they have different external content genres. This gives us an opportunity to study how the Redemption plot changes with each external genre pairing. Again, something we wouldn’t have thought to do if the list of obligatory scenes and conventions had been given to us outright.

STEP 3. List Everything They Have in Common:

This is where many writers crash headfirst into Resistance. It’s the time-consuming grunt work that we don’t want to do — that’s why we want Shawn to do it for us!

Here’s the thing (and you may not want to hear this): unless we study a bunch of examples from our chosen genre, a list of obligatory scenes and conventions will be next to useless. We need to see them in action. We need to study how other writers have tackled them and we need to understand how the external genre pairing affects the presentation of them.

When Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were writing the screenplay for Hot Fuzz, they watched 138 films to learn the core components of a thriller. (Too bad The Story Grid wasn’t available then.)

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The good news is that it’s not as overwhelming as it sounds. All we have to do is break this step down into smaller, more manageable, pieces.

“When you begin to make a list of conventions and obligatory scenes for the genre(s) that you want to explore, write down everything that you know to be true about that genre. No matter how obvious. The little things are hugely important.”  Shawn Coyne, Story Gridding The Tipping Point

STEP 3(a): Make a list of everything we know to be true about Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (the Alastair Sim film version), no matter how small.  We’ll focus on Scrooge because we want to write about a bad guy who reforms. Below is the information I compiled as I watched the movie. It’s a laundry list to be sure, but it’s important to write everything down. This is like our first draft. We will edit it later. Here it goes:

A Christmas Carol

Scrooge is completely mean and selfish at the outset. He doesn’t care that a client can’t pay back a loan and may have to go to a debtors’ prison. Scrooge’s only concern is money, period. He wants to get as much of it as he can, and keep it all for himself. He won’t spend a halfpenny on an extra piece of bread, or have extra light in his home. He has no interest in making a donation to help the poor and destitute, stating that the taxes he pays to support the workhouses, prisons, etc. is sufficient. He says that if the poor would rather die “then they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population”. He ridicules his nephew Fred for being happy, for not having profited from Christmas, and for having gotten married. 

Scrooge is utterly alone. He rejects all attempts at personal relationships or positive interaction with his fellow man.

Scrooge is guided by four spirits (Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases past, present and future) who show Scrooge the error of his ways. 

Ghosts don’t really exist so it’s unclear whether the entire sequence of events is a dream or a hallucination. Even Scrooge doubts his senses and whether he is actually seeing Marley’s ghost. Scrooge is terrified but eventually confesses to believing that Marley’s ghost is before him.

Scrooge rejects his chance of hope/redemption. He doesn’t want to be visited by three additional ghosts. (Scrooge rejected Marley’s deathbed warning seven years prior too, just as he’d rejected his sister’s deathbed wish.)

Scrooge doesn’t want to go with the Ghost of Christmas Past and he doesn’t like revisiting the past which is filled with sadness. The schoolhouse looks lonely and deserted (even though the young Ebenezer is still within). Scrooge was rejected by his father (when his mother died giving birth to him) and exiled from his family. 

Scrooge is capable of love and kindness, and rejoices at the memory of his sister, Fan. He also rejoices at the memory of the Fezziwig party (Mr. Fezziwig in particular) and recognizes the contrast between Fezziwig and himself. This is when he feels the first inkling of shame. Scrooge was engaged to a poor and dowerless woman (Alice). The engagement was eventually broken when she called him out for loving money more than her. 

Scrooge is heartbroken when his sister dies in childbirth, even more heartbroken when he realizes that he did not honor her final wishes (to take care of Fred). He begs forgiveness and breaks into tears.

At one time Scrooge believed that money was not everything. However, after Fan dies he sees the world as a cruel and hard place. He leaves Fezziwig for a job that offers twice the salary and chance of promotion. He and Marley eventually take over the new company too (cut-throat and opportunistic). When Marley is on his deathbed, Scrooge refuses to see him until the workday is done. 

Scrooge begs to see no more of his past (it hurts too much).

Scrooge shows concern for Tiny Tim and asks whether he’ll live. He wants Tim to be spared, and is shocked when the Ghost of Christmas Present echos his words back to him (“if [Tim] is going to die then he’d better do it and decrease the surplus population”). The nameless, faceless poor become real through Tim. Scrooge feels undeserving of the Cratchits’ toast to him. Scrooge is also touched by visions of Alice and her generous acts of kindness. Like Tim, Alice and the people in the shelter put faces and names to “the poor” Scrooge had refused to help in the beginning of the Story.

Scrooge fears the future but doesn’t believe he can change. When faced with Ignorance and Want, his words haunt him again (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”).

Scrooge sees shadows of Tim’s death, the exchange at the beetling shop and the conversation between the businessmen, but doesn’t think any of this has to do with him personally. Upon realizing that the future shadows are indeed about him, Scrooge searches for hope – he wants to know that there’s a chance he can redeem himself. He asks for pity. He repents.

When faced with his crisis question (change, or be damned) Scrooge chooses to change. He pledges to change the shadows of the things that will be.

Scrooge rejoices when he wakes up Christmas morning and realizes he’s still alive. He’s giddy with happiness and gives Mrs. Dilber a raise and the day off. He buys the prize turkey for the Cratchit family, gives Bob a raise, promises to help him provide for his family and makes sure there is sufficient coal for the fire at the office. He begs forgiveness from Fred and his wife.

Scrooge is happy. He is better than his word and is a second father to Tiny Tim.

STEP 3(b): Organize this list into scenes and conventions. Summarize and combine ideas where appropriate and state the ideas in a generic way, in as few words as possible. We want a list that we can easily work with and apply to other Stories.

SCENES:

  1. Protagonist gets a wake up call (the Snap-Out-Of-It Scene): Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge and shakes him out of his comfort zone. In a series of progressive complications, the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future continue to open Scrooge’s eyes and help him realize what a miser he has been.
  2. Protagonist refuses the call: Scrooge doesn’t want to be visited by three ghosts and doesn’t want to go with the Ghost of Christmas Past.
  3. Protagonist faces an all is lost moment: Realizing that no one cares about him or will miss him when he dies, Scrooge collapses onto his headstone. He doesn’t believe he can change.
  4. Protagonist decides to change: At the graveyard, Scrooge asks for pity and repents. He pledges to change the shadows of the things that will be.
  5. Protagonist wins on one level, but loses on another: Scrooge saves his soul, but loses his money (ie., the only thing he’d cared about for years).

CONVENTIONS:

  1. A selfish protagonist at the outset: Scrooge is only concerned about his money.
  2. A spiritual guide(s): Four ghosts
  3. Unbelievable/Improbable external conflict: Is this actually happening, or is Scrooge dreaming? Even he isn’t certain.
  4. Protagonist haunted by his past: After the death of his sister, Scrooge makes a series of poor decisions for which he is ultimately ashamed. An additional note here: Dickens shows us Scrooge’s backstory and that he was kind once and is capable of love. I suspect this is a writer’s creative choice and not a convention but I’ll keep it in mind as I review the other five films and will track it as a point of curiosity.
  5. Help from an unexpected source: Tiny Tim, the most vulnerable and least powerful character in the Story, is the one who touches Scrooge’s heart the most. Through Tim, Scrooge understands that the needy are his fellow man.

STEP 3(c): Watch Drugstore Cowboy (protagonist is named Bob Hughes) because that’s the film Shawn recommends as an example of a Redemption plot. Determine whether the above list of scenes and conventions are in the movie and make changes as necessary. (Notice how the external genre influences the way the internal genre is presented.)

SCENES:

  1. Protagonist gets a wake up call (the Snap-Out-Of-It Scene): Officer Gentry tears Bob’s house apart looking for drugs.
  2. Protagonist refuses the call: Bob continues to steal.
  3. Protagonist faces an all is lost moment: Nadine overdoses.
  4. Protagonist decides to change: After Nadine’s death, Bob prays to God. He asks for pity and promises to change if he doesn’t get caught with a dead body.
  5. Protagonist wins on one level, but loses on another: Bob gets clean but loses his wife.

CONVENTIONS:

  1. A selfish protagonist at the outset: Bob is a drug addict, gang leader and criminal. Drugs are his only concern (more than his wife, his freedom, his mother, an officer’s life, a gang member’s life).
  2. A spiritual guide(s): Initially, the drugs which lead him down the wrong path. Later, God (and his promise to God) and Father Murphy who is himself an addict.
  3. Unbelievable/Improbable external conflict: Addict and small time drug thief in a motel, with the dead body of an underaged gang member, at the same time as a Sherrif’s convention. Bob walks past the police with the body in a garment bag, puts it in the trunk of his car and drives away unnoticed.
  4. Protagonist haunted by his past: David attacks him, sends him to hospital. Note: Bob was always an addict.
  5. Help from an unexpected source: Nadine, whose overdose inspires Bob to change. Gentry, who warns Bob twice that a fellow cop is out to get him and a neighbor who calls the ambulance.

STEP 3(d): Repeat step 3(c) with the remaining four films. I’ve created a PDF that shows my analysis of the obligatory scenes and conventions for all six films side-by-side. You can download it here but will need to watch each of the movies for it to make sense. Make sure you’ve got lots of popcorn.

Finding the obligatory scenes and conventions of a content genre takes time and practice. It’s worth it though. Once you’re comfortable with it, feel free to add more items from the foolscap to the lefthand column of the PDF I created. You can compare and contrast the global value spectrum, the core emotion and event, the objects of desire and even the controlling idea. In doing so, you’ll deepen your understanding of the content genres and will increase your ability to tell a Story that works.

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors, in all genres, become better storytellers.

15 comments on “How to Find Obligatory Scenes and Conventions

  1. Anthony says:

    Great work, Valerie. Let me take this opportunity to say thank you! Can’t wait for the podcast. Hopefully this will help the commenters who were demanding an exhaustive OS/C breakdown for every genre ever before they’d buy in to the principles. Lol. Turn pro, y’all. Turn pro.

    1. You’re most welcome Anthony! We’re excited about the podcast too. 😀

  2. Larry says:

    There is a second type of Redemption story. In this one, the protagonist has done wrong in some way in the beginning hook, feels shame or guilt about it, and spends the story trying to redeem himself.

    In this type, the character doesn’t have a change of worldview, but rather works to align his actions to his worldview. He does this intentionally, rather than being led by the circumstances of the story, as in _Casablanca_, _A Christmas Carol_ or _Leap of Faith_ (I haven’t seen _Drugstore Cowboy). Examples of this kind of Redemption story are _The Four Feathers_ by A.E.W. Mason and _The Sixth Sense_. _The Four Feathers_ has been adapted into 3 different movie versions, and one way to see what’s really obligatory is to compare what each screenwriter/director team has changed or omitted, and what they have kept the same as in the book.

    It seems to me that this type of Redemption story is the inverse of a Revenge story, and may have a mirror image of the C&OS of the Revenge story.

  3. Rachelle says:

    This is a great article. Thanks to Valerie Francis for sharing her Certified Story Grid Editor knowledge.

    1. Thank you Rachelle! 😀

  4. Outstanding article, thanks Valerie! I really can’t wait for the new podcast! I’m an addict of the Story Grid Podcast, and I experience weekly withdrawal after each episode when there’s more days left in the week than podcast; this new one will no doubt help me cope in the remaining days. I have lots of expectations! Lots to learn, lots to read and watch… Thanks for the guidance! BTW I’m struggling with choices between redemption and maturation in my WIP before I tackle on the second draft. If a love story has maturation plots built-in, I wonder, could one of the lovers be on a redemption plot instead?

    1. You’re welcome Nicolas, I’m glad you enjoyed it. We’re really looking forward to launching the podcast – stay tuned! Re your WIP, yes one of the lovers could certainly have a redemption story. When you start your first round of edits, focus on the global story and make sure you have all of the elements for that in place first.

      1. Nicolas Lemieux says:

        Thanks again, I’ll be listening (and story gridding).

  5. Valerie, thank you so much for the work you did for this article. It’s written very clearly too … so much so it’s made me realise my Middle Grade novel isn’t a Morality (Redemption) plot at all.

    It’s a Global Story of LOVE, but it doesn’t fit under Courtship, Marriage or Obsession because it’s a children’s novel. It’s Internal Genre is Worldview – Education = ‘learning to love can be the hardest lesson in life, but the rewards are infinite’. Does that sound right to you? I struggle with sorting it the Foolscap sheet, but won’t give up in it.

    I love The Story Grid! It’s given me a strong base from which to edit my first drafts now rather than just work instinctively.

    I used it to pull into shape the manuscript for my new historical novel with HarperCollins Australia, ‘Sweet Adversity’. It’s for 10-12 year olds, released in July 2018. Thank you, Shawn! You helped me over the line.

    But it’s always quite tricky to sort out External and Internal genre within The Story Grid petal for a children’s novel. I have to be careful I’m not artificially trying to fit a round peg into a square hole because the Genre Content in the Love Genre is only based on adult novels or screenplays.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on using the Foolscap page, especially, for children’s novels as many children’s authors are trying to use Story Grid. It would be fabulous if Shawn or you did a podcast on this topic. 😊
    Thank you!
    Sheryl

    1. Hi Sheryl! I’m a children’s author too (also middle grade) – so nice to meet you here. 😀 The Story Grid methodology applies to kidlit in exactly the same way it applies to adult fiction. No problem there at all. The Love Story in SG terms, refers to relationships where there is sex or the possibility of sex/an intimate connection of a sexual nature, so for middle grade fiction I’m guessing you’re not writing a love story. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the sweet romances (like the Sweet Valley High series) where characters are dating. Those are all courtship love stories but are for a slightly older audience (12-15). You could have a love story sub-plot that deals with crushes, of course.

      WRT the internal content genres, the majority of middle grade fiction falls into the Worldview > Maturation. There are loads of exceptions of course (Billy Elliot is Worldview > Education for example), but that’s the most common in my experience. It makes perfect sense when you think about the age of the readership. The characters, like the readers, are trying to make sense of the world. They’re growing up/maturing and leaving behind their naivete. YA is often Worldview > Maturation too, but the global value spectrum is wider and usually starts at the negation of the negation (i.e. naivete masquerading as sophistication), the MG stories the value shift tends to start at the negative of naivete. Again, there are lots of exceptions. I’m speaking very generally.

      Nailing your global genre is job number one. Stand way back from your story and ask yourself what it’s really about. What is your main character like at the beginning of the novel, and what is he/she like at the end? What does he want? What does he need? Is your story primarily about the character’s want (external genre), or his need (internal genre)? If you want to chat about it more, feel free to book a free 30-minute consultation with me through my website (www.valeriefrancis.ca). Good luck with your novel!

  6. Jim Starr says:

    First off, you guys have created what I believe to be the best resource anywhere for our tribe (or at least for those of us who are willing to go all nerdy for the greater good). Like Tim has said several times, there are all kinds of things out there about writing, but this one goes so much farther, for reasons everyone here already understands. Thank you.

    So I have a question for anyone on the team who happens to be sitting around looking for something to do on Christmas Eve.

    Now that I’m hip-deep in the system and applying the micro-to-macro-and-back-to-micro workflow, I’m wondering if the same process Shawn recommends–massaging a single novel through the various Story Grid tools–could also be applied to my 3-volume series as a unit.

    For reasons that are anything but intentional, I now have a first draft done for each of those three parts, and I’m already seeing how edits to the first will, of course, ripple into the second and third, and even back in reverse. Since I’ve heard it said that some of the same dynamics we apply to a single novel could be applied to a three part story, at least in terms of arc, I’m thinking that before I get too far on any one of the three, I might want to do a spreadsheet/foolscap/story grid analysis of the 3-part unit.

    Like, is it possible that Part 1 could be the Beginning Hook, Part 2 the Middle Build, and Part 3 the Ending Payoff for that reader who goes the entire series? Or something like that?

    Or am I just all sugared up?

    1. Hi Jim! Yes, of course the Story Grid methodology can be applied to a trilogy. I’m applying it to my children’s series which spans a number of books and my women’s fiction novels (which I’ve designed as one story told in several parts). Note however, the middle build is usually half of the story so when you’re doing the spreadsheet/foolscaps, you’ll find that the BH, MB and EP won’t necessarily break down neatly into books 1, 2 and 3. The trick I find is to have a story contained within each novel, but then have another, bigger story spreading over the 3 books. Have you read the Harry Potter series? This is what JKR did. Each book is a complete story, however it contains elements of broader Harry v. Voldemort story as well. Make sense?

  7. Jack Lewis says:

    Hello Jim! I wonder if the Five Commandments might not be more appropriate for your situation. Shawn has suggested the Resolution of a given scene can serve double-duty as the Inciting Incident of the next scene. On the Global scale, Tim’s novel ends with his well-meaning protagonist causing events which lead to a whole new set of problems. The new problem serves as the Global Inciting Incident for the next book in the series.

  8. Great post, Valerie. Thanks for putting it together. 🙂 I’m excited about the new podcast. There are so many podcasts on marketing and publishing…Another deep exploration of craft will be very welcome!

    1. You’re welcome Slade! 😀

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