The Obligatory Scene

June 3rd, 2008

Since I mentioned it down in “Reaching the End”, I thought I should discuss this concept a bit more. There are some scenes in a movie, play, or story that the readers want to see and will feel disappointed if they don’t see them. Sometimes these scenes are not strictly necessary to that elusive beast, The Plot, but that doesn’t matter. Readers will feel cheated if they’re not there.

Consider the end of THE RETURN OF THE KING. It would have been possible for Tolkien to leave out the bit where the ring goes into Mt. Doom. He could have kept the point of view on the battlefield with the other main characters, waiting and hoping — until suddenly, off in the distance, the volcano blows. Someone could cry “Frodo’s done it, he’s destroyed the ring!” I suspect a great many readers, myself included, would have muttered something most unflattering to the author at that point and perhaps even flung the book across the room.

Obligatory scenes can occur at other places in a book than the end, of course. Another example from a fantasy novel: two characters are riding toward an important destination. Alas, the only road runs through the mountains in a pass known to be infested by bandits. What’s more, the enemies of the two characters are probably waiting there to ambush them. They head into the pass. Chapter Break! They are riding out of the pass, quite beaten up, to be sure, and talking about what a stiff fight they had, there in the pass. Why the editor allowed this writer to get away with this lapse, I don’t know. I sure wasn’t impressed enough to read another book in that series.

Nor does the obligatory scene have to be a large or violent confrontation or action sequence. It can be a simple emotional moment or a conversation. For instance, in real life history, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I never met. On stage (Sardou, I think) and in many movies, they have met, because hell, they really should have, and the audience wants to see it.

18 Responses to “The Obligatory Scene”

  1. Brendan Podgeron 04 Jun 2008 at 2:29 am

    One good thing about modern writing is there is no excuse for leaving out the Obligatory. A writer can shift from one character to another as needed. While Frodo and Sam are hiking through a boring bit of marsh we can watch Gimly enter Fangorn Forest and find out why his horoscope told him that today was the day to announce “I didn’t want to be a barber anyway. I wanted to be a lumberjack.”

  2. Fozon 04 Jun 2008 at 7:38 am

    For me, the tricky thing with obligatory moments is in working out the difference between what I want to see, what the reader will want to see, and what actually needs to happen. In a few recent scenes I’ve forged ahead with the intention of skipping over certain events, but I never quite can. The scene stalls, and I have to go back to the drawing board, thinking about how and why I can’t just let the thread drop and move on. At the moment, I’ve realised I need to have my villain make an appearance, which I hadn’t planned on – I mean, *I* know what he’s doing in the interim, but clearly no-one else does, and from reader feedback, people are clearly going to be curious, even if, plot-wise, he doesn’t need to be there until closer to the end. So now I have to script a dream-sequence that pulls him in, disregarding the much less relevant scenes I’d been going to have while still including the few choice tidbits of information that would have justified them originally.

    Sounds like fun! :)

  3. Stacyon 04 Jun 2008 at 9:18 am

    What if the scene is obligatory, but just not in chronological order? I recently read a book where there is a large section of backstory that is necessary, but could have come in much later in the book and been more effective. Personally I’m struggling with a scene in the novel I’m writing that seems to be obligatory but simply doesn’t fit in the story structure if it happens when it happens – it only fits as a flashback later. So as usual the postings here are terribly topical and a huge help.

  4. Lois Tiltonon 04 Jun 2008 at 9:45 am

    Of course the criteria for what scenes are really Obligatory may vary with the reader.

    I recall how many romance readers reacted to the ending of Bujold’s Shards of Honor. To them, it was missing the Obligatory scene where the lovers fall into each others’ arms and consummate their romance. Me, I thought the ending was just fine, and I would have considered such a scene superfluous.

  5. David Louis Edelmanon 04 Jun 2008 at 10:30 am

    I don’t think Tolkien was under any obligation to show the Ring going into the fire at Mount Doom.

    What he did need to show us was the culmination of the character arcs he had set in motion. We needed to see Frodo get to the end of his journey and fail. We needed to see Sam stay his hand and not kill Gollum when he has the chance (a crucial bit that Peter Jackson left out). We needed to see Bad Gollum win that battle of multiple personalities. And we needed to see that even evil is part of the divine plan (i.e. the Ring would have never been destroyed if it weren’t for Gollum; it’s the charity and generosity of others that kept Gollum alive to the end; etc.).

    Now it’s a nice trick on Tolkien’s part to have all that stuff happen right at the Cracks of Doom. But I can imagine an alternate Return of the King where all of that stuff happens outside the mountain and you never see the Ring eat lava.

    A lot of people seem to think that the plot carries obligations of its own. But really I think the actions in the story are only important insofar as they further the themes and character developments the author has set up.

  6. Charleson 04 Jun 2008 at 11:42 am

    David,

    Frodo is an excellent example of a character arc to me. He isn’t someone who goes through an amazing adventure to then – at the end – do a “What did you learn, Dorothy?” recap.

    You watch Frodo slowly succumb to the powers of the ring through out the story and you really feel how reduced he feels once the ring is gone and he is left only with his wounds.

    Also, to go to another LOTR moment – while it is always neglected – the scene early on with Farmer Maggot is important in that it puts into perspective what Frodo is afraid of at the beginning and contrasts itself against what Frodo very quickly has to face from the Black Riders hunting him through the Shire all the way to Mt. Doom.

    Taking that step to overcome his fear of Farmer Maggot is Frodo’s first step in growth and in a small way helps him deal with what is to come as mentioned above.

    Now, I wouldn’t categorize the Farmer Maggot scene as an obligatory one, I feel it is important for character development.

  7. Ozzyon 04 Jun 2008 at 8:32 pm

    I have the same problem as Foz: what I want to see, what needs to be seen, and what the reader needs to stay interested. I think I tend to show too much–conversations between the characters that have zero to do with the plot or an overabundance of description. Though, I know scenes like these can also say a lot about the character/character relationships without explicitly stating it. Quantity doesn’t always equal quality…hm, a balance needs to be found, but really, how do you know what’s too much? Simple trial and error and experience and sort of ‘feeling’ your way through it and how it works with the rest of your story?

  8. Foz Meadowson 04 Jun 2008 at 9:10 pm

    Ozzy: my rule of thumb now is, if I get bored reading it in context, it should probably go!

  9. Carolon 05 Jun 2008 at 7:39 pm

    Ozzy I know what you mean. Keeping the balance is so important. I worry that I don’t have enough conversation, but when I go back and read it sounds better than i thought it did. I suppose evryone had a distinct style of writing that is just “them”.

    Have you read Celcilia Dart-Thornton? She is an aussie writer is is very very descriptive. Normally that type of writing can be too much but I love her writing, its very prose like, and its her personal style. I have read reviews which have dissed her writing (too much description), but I disagree with the reviews, feeling that the people missed the point on her writing, and her style. (I do have to be in a certain frame of mind to read her stuff, but when I do I get completely drawn in). I think everyone has their own style, which has to be taken into account with balance.

    Also, I agree that those obligatory scenes can’t be left out…for me its the small things that equal the bigger, better story. I need to get emotionally drawn in, and to do that you need to see those characters developing and interacting, and you just can’t miss those “important” moments. I like David and Charles comments about the character arcs in LOTR, maybe its these that define those obligatory scenes?

  10. Ozzyon 05 Jun 2008 at 8:07 pm

    Both of you have good points. Very true Foz, if I get bored reading it, how am I supposed to expect readers to stay interested?

    And Carol I’ve had that experience as well–when I go back and reread a passage I thought was crap, it doesn’t seem half bad the second time around. Though I always manage to find plenty to change and revise and rewrite :)
    I haven’t read anything by Dart-Thornton, but yeah, everyone has their own style. Too much description can certainly get in the way of the story, but it can also add so much (again the balance! argh!). I haven’t been writing for very long, I think I’m still getting used to my own ‘voice’ and am still working the bugs out of exactly how I want things to sound. It seems that with time and practice, that eye for balancing bits becomes something of a sixth sense.

  11. Beth S.on 05 Jun 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Katharine, I definitely agree. But what about an obligatory scene missing in context, but included later as a flashback? Obviously, the author must have a good reason for structuring it that way, but I’ve seen it done to good effect. It seems to work best when 1) the reader knows something is missing but has reason to believe he’ll find out what happened later, even if he doesn’t understand the reason for the delay at the time; or 2) the reader is not aware the event is missing, only discovering later that something happened behind the scenes.

    But the scenario you described–with the lead-up to and departure from a battle described, but not the battle itself…yeesh. That would irritate me no end.

  12. Foz Meadowson 06 Jun 2008 at 12:37 am

    Carol: I started reading Dart-Thornton’s first series, but stopped midway through the first book – not because of her writing style, but because I wasn’t enjoying her mythology. Maybe one day I’ll try again – who knows? :)

    Ozzy: I spent ages trying to write in a false voice and style, pretty much because I hadn’t realised that you were ‘allowed’ to write the kind of stuff I wanted to. It wasn’t until I stumbled on Neil Gaiman that I was like, ‘hey! You *can* have humour in quasi-straight, serious, real-world, present-day, mythology-grounded fantasy! Huzzah for the king!’ Or something.

  13. Janaon 06 Jun 2008 at 11:57 am

    I think I could probably do without many of the Obligatory walking-through-dangerous-woods-and-getting-attacked-by-bandits scenes I’ve read. Obligitory depends on the work in question, and sometimes it just becomes gratuitous!

  14. fritz freiheit.com » Friday link dumpon 06 Jun 2008 at 1:38 pm

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  15. Mark Denizon 10 Jun 2008 at 6:10 am

    Hi Katherine,

    I’m sending you a message here as I received a bounce back for your e-mail address on your site.

    I have a question regarding a possible commission for you and wonder if you could contact me at my e-mail address provided so that I can give you more details.

    Thanks in advance,

    Mark

  16. Debbie(aussie)on 27 Jun 2008 at 6:24 am

    I just wanted to leave you a note to tell you how much I love your books. I purchased Spirit Stone and read it in less than 24 hours, marvelous. I now await with baited breath for the final instalment(I think), but what will I do when dallandra, ebeony,et al are longer a part of life. Thankyou so very much for these beautifully written and charactarized novels. Thanks again Debbie

  17. Carolon 03 Aug 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Hi Katharine/Kit,
    (Never sure what to call you!!), Just wanted you to know I have finally finished Shadow Isle! Took me awhile, I took it with me on holiday (hubby and I went to France to follow the tour de France around) but didnt get much reading done there. It was great!! Thanks again, and I can’t wait for your final installment!
    You are such an inspiration to me, just wanted you to know.
    Keep up the good work!!
    Carol

  18. Mariaon 06 Aug 2008 at 10:55 am

    Hi Katharine!
    I found a Deverry-themed letter paper a friend of mine made me some time ago. Are you interested in a copy? Then I woul scan and e-mail it.
    All the best from Germany
    Maria

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