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How to Find Obligatory Scenes and Conventions

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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.)

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.


To learn how to put storytelling theory into practice, subscribe to UP (the Un-Podcast) with Valerie Francis and Leslie Watts.


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About the Author

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 become better storytellers. To learn how to put story theory into practice join Valerie's inner circle: valeriefrancis.ca/innercircle