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. They 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.
Conventions are not obligatory scenes, which I’ll cover next. Rather they are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward (minor revelatory turning points that must be there but can be weaved into the story at the writer’s discretion). For example, the Gothic mystery would require the convention of being set in or around an ancient castle circa 19th or late 18th century.
The mystery genre, as do all others, evolves as new writers try out new kinds of conventions.
Agatha Christie took a tried and true convention (her brilliant master sleuth Hercule Poirot) and freshened it up when she created the amateur sleuth Miss Marple. But you’ll notice that Christie did not eliminate the central clue-hunter from her Story. She just changed the personality and background of the investigator. She abided the convention, but innovated its execution.
To go back to the joke analogy as emblematic of Story, a convention in a “knock-knock” joke would be having the punch line revealed as a play on words.
Orange you glad I didn’t say Banana?
The convention of the knock-knock joke is satisfied with punch line word play. It can change from Banana to Orange or from Boo to Boo Who and we still “get it.” Doesn’t matter as long as there is word play.
Don’t cry… it’s just a Knock-Knock joke.
The “knock-knock” and “Who’s there?” statements of the joke are obligatory. They have to be there. Literally. In their exact form. These obligatory elements are so familiar and identifiable to the listener/reader that they immediately induce an expectation. Once we hear “Knock-Knock,” we expect the convention of that particular joke’s form…the fun play on words payoff. If we don’t get the play on words convention, then we’ll be confused. We won’t laugh. The joke will die. It won’t work.
Similarly, not providing the listener the actual “Knock-Knock” and “Who’s there” obligatory elements for the joke is ridiculous right? The punch lines, Orange you glad I didn’t say Banana or Don’t cry…it’s just a Knock-Knock joke, mean nothing without the obligatory set up of “Knock-Knock” and “Who’s There.”
Whenever you start mulling whether or not to include a convention or obligatory scene in your Story, think of the “Knock-Knock” joke and what it would be like without a play on words punch line or the actual formal response “Who’s there?”
While conventions of particular genres often concern a Story’s cast of characters (the best friend sidekick in a Love Story or the Monster in a horror Story), setting (the labyrinthine castle setting in a Gothic romance) or method of turning plot (red herrings in a mystery/crime novel), obligatory scenes are the must-have elements to payoff the raised expectations of those conventions.
They are the equivalent of the place marker statements, “knock-knock” and “who’s there?” in a knock-knock joke.
Back to our hypothetical mystery novel, what obligatory scenes would you expect if I told you I’d written one?
- You’d expect a “discover of the body scene.”
- You’d expect an eventual confrontation between the investigator and the murderer—what I call the “J’accuse” scene.
- You’d expect an ending scene that clearly results in justice (the murderer pays for his crime), injustice (the murderer gets away) or irony (the investigator gets his man, but loses someone or something in the process or the investigator does not get his man, but the loss results in a greater good).
So what happens if I fail to deliver even just one of these obligatory scenes from the above list?
I haven’t written a mystery novel. I’ve written a book that doesn’t work.
There is nothing more infuriating to blue-collar novelist pros than listening to amateurs who obviously haven’t done the work necessary to know their art form. You can’t help but lose respect for them. It’s akin to your cousin Lou who makes “Pot-au-feu” without meat or vegetables calling himself a French chef.
In order to write a professional novel, you must know the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genre. (I’ll detail those of the thriller genre down the road when I dive into creating The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs) If you don’t know the conventions and obligatory scenes for your chosen genre/s, learn them.
How do you do that?
Read the top novels in the genre (yes the most commercially successful ones) and write down what they all have in common. And “literary novels” are of a genre too… If you are going to write a Testing Plot Internal Genre novel about endurance and tenacity, you better read The Old Man and the Sea and Deliverance.
Once you know the requirements of your genre, how do you go about writing its obligatory scenes?
Obligatory scenes are the most difficult ones for a writer to crack—the discovery of the dead body scene, the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, the first kiss scene, the attack of the monster scene, etc. The reason is that these scenes are easy to devolve into cliché. They’ve been done to death and to come up with something fresh, surprising, and without a Deus ex machina is an extremely difficult task. [A Deus ex machina is when someone or something appears solely to rescue a protagonist in peril or solve a prickly story problem. It derives from Ancient Greek theatre when playwrights were allowed to end their shows with actors playing Gods settling all loose plot ends]
A lot of writers have contempt for obligatory scenes for the very reasons I described above. They don’t want to write them because they find them cheesy. A few even insist that their work is so intellectually challenging and above “genre,” that their revolutionary technique frees them from having to fulfill these obligations. They’ll tell you that their work is more of homage to a genre, not really part of the genre, etc. Which is complete Bullshit.
Whether their book is an homage or “above genre” matters little.
If their global inciting incident is one associated with a particular genre and they don’t innovatively pay it off in the way that the genre demands, the book won’t work. People won’t buy it. And those that make the mistake of buying it will tell all of their friends not to make the same mistake they did.
Other writers (some call them Hacks) love genre because they think they can just recycle old scenes from the genre’s vault to fulfill these obligations. But if you just rehash something you saw on a Mannix episode from the 1970s, you will sorely disappoint your reader. They may not have seen that particular episode, but they will easily be able to tell that what you’ve written is unoriginal. If you’re re-using the set up and payoff of a particular obligatory scene from the past, chances are someone else has too.
Remember that the earliest readers in a particular genre are experts.
When I ran mystery programs at the major publishing houses, you can be sure I was aware of the thousands of hardcore crime readers. I couldn’t help but run into them at conventions and specialty bookstores.
These readers are desperate for innovation. Their first question to any editor is always “what’s new?” These core 2,000-4,000 readers will give new writers a shot. If the writer creates something unique, they’ll find that the aficionado will buy the next book too. And the book after that if the second one is a well crafted as the first. This is how careers were made back in the day. Still are even with the big publishing houses abandoning core story categories for the big book blowout bestseller opportunity. There’s a reason why Amazon.com’s most successful publishing programs all involve the core genres.
But even if the writer is rewarming old Rex Stout plotlines somehow makes it into a big house without being found out, rest assured these first readers will know. They pride themselves on their expertise and if they find you lacking, they’ll tell their fellow mystery junkies to skip the book. It’s “meh,” not worth the time. They won’t brag about having a first edition of your first novel. They won’t look forward to your next book. They won’t give you another chance.
But what about those hugely successful novels that defy what I’m saying? What about those books that don’t deliver fresh obligatory scenes and are still huge bestsellers?
Sometimes, an influential group of readers (usually critics) fall in the love with a book or just its prose and talk it up incessantly. The sophisticated and The New York Times reading metropolitan cocktail crowd (a dying tribe if there ever was one in the new connected age of “Weird”) hears the chatter. Wanting to be “in the know,” the swells repeat the hubbub and quite a number of books are bought and displayed on coffee tables across the country. But many if not most go unread.
Writing for that kind of attention is not going to fill the hole in your soul. It’s certainly not a business plan. Again, it’s like buying a Lottery ticket.
Instead write for the genre nerds desperate for new stories. They won’t desert you when you push the envelope too far, either. The fact that you even know where the envelope ends will warm their hearts.
Brace yourself, in the next posts we’ll dive into Genre categories.
For those of you who can’t wait, go to the resources section now and check out my poorly constructed infographic called GENRE INFOGRAPHIC. Rest assured I’m having an artist recreate it so that it actually is aesthetically pleasing for the final book. And Steve and I are thinking of creating some posters for it and The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs too. If we did, do you think people would want them?
For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.