Structuring Your Story's Scenes: Options for Goals in a Scene

Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 3: Options for Goals in a Scene

The story as a whole and every scene* within it begins with a goal. Your character wants something—something he will have difficulty accomplishing. What he wants frames the plot on both the macro and micro levels. What he wants defines him as a person, and, by extension, the theme of the book as a whole.

The possibilities for scene goals are endless—and very specific to your story. Your character can want anything in any given scene, but within that universe of options, you must narrow down the desires expressed within your scene to those that will drive the plot. Wanting to buy pink carnations for Mother’s Day is a worthy goal, but if your character’s mother is a nonexistent player in your story of a nuclear war, it’s not going to belong in your story—and certainly not as a scene goal.

Scene goals are the dominoes I’m always talking about. Each goal is a step forward in your story. One goal leads to a result that prompts a new goal and on and on. Bing-bing-bing—they knock into each other, one domino after another. If they don’t—if one goal is out of place in the overall story—the line of dominoes will stop and the story will falter, perhaps fatally.

Plot Goals vs. Scene Goals

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryYour character’s overall plot goal will be a dilemma that will take the entire story to solve. He may want to become President, he may want to rescue his kidnapped daughter, he may want to marry the girl next door, or he may want to find healing and a fresh start after the death of his father. If we break this overall, story-long goal down into bite-size pieces, we find that it’s really made up of one small goal after another.

Your character may not even start out knowing that he wants a fresh start or that he wants to marry the girl next door (although it should be immediately evident to the reader by implication if nothing else). But in the very first scene, he’s going to know he wants something. Maybe he knows he wants the neighbor girl’s dog to stop chewing his petunias. Then he knows he has to meet her and convince her to chain up her dog. Then he knows she’s infuriatingly cute. Then he knows he wants to go out with her. Then he knows he has to overcome his bad first impression. Then he knows he should buy her flowers. Etc., etc., etc. Before you know it, all these little scene goals will have led you right up to the overall story goal.

The most important factor to keep in mind as you identify each scene goal is its pertinence to the plot. Subplots may provide opportunities for goals that aren’t directly related to your primary goal of marrying the neighbor girl, but they, too, must eventually tie into the overall plot in an impactful or thematically resonant way. If the accomplishment or thwarting of any given scene goal won’t affect the overall outcome of the story, it’s probably not pertinent enough.

Options for Scene Goals

Scene goals will manifest in wildly different ways. Your character may want to burn a packet of letters, take a nap, hide in a closet, or sink a boat. But most scene goals will boil down into one of the following categories.

Your character is going to want:

1. Something concrete (an object, a person, etc.).

2. Something incorporeal (admiration, information, etc.)

3. Escape from something physical (imprisonment, pain, etc.).

4. Escape from something mental (worry, suspicion, fear, etc.).

5. Escape from something emotional (grief, depression, etc.).

His methods of achieving these things will often manifest in one of the following ways (although this list certainly isn’t definitive):

1. Seeking information.

2. Hiding information.

3. Hiding self.

4. Hiding someone else.

5. Confronting or attacking someone else.

6. Repairing or destroying physical objects.

Partial and Overarching Goals

Although scene goals will always be short-range (as opposed to the long-range plot goal), they won’t always be confined to and completed in a single scene. Sometimes your story will demand overarching goals that span several scenes. For example, your character may know in scene #3 that he wants to go out with the neighbor girl, but this isn’t a goal he can accomplish in just one scene. He may not achieve this particular goal until scene #11.

That’s where partial goals come into play. Just as scene goals build up to the overall story goal, partial goals build up to fulfill overarching goals, which themselves eventually lead up to the overall goal. In our example, the character’s journey to reach this particular overarching goal might include partial goals such as purposefully bumping into the neighbor girl several times, getting her phone number, buying her flowers, and apologizing for yelling at her dog.

Overarching goals that require several scenes to accomplish do not negate the need for individual goals within each interim scene. But don’t limit yourself with the notion that each scene
has to be an island unto itself. Each scene is just a small part of the larger whole. Since everything must be integral, everything can’t help but be intertwined.

Questions to Ask About Your Scene Goals

Once you’ve identified your scene’s goal, stop and ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does the goal make sense within the overall plot?

2. Is the goal inherent to the overall plot?

3. Will the goal’s complication/resolution lead to a new goal/conflict/disaster?

4. If the goal is mental or emotional (e.g., be happy today), does it have a physical manifestation (e.g., smile at everyone)? (This one isn’t always necessary, but allowing characters to outwardly show their goals offers a stronger presentation than mere telling, via internal narrative.)

5. Does the success or failure of the goal directly affect the scene narrator? (If not, his POV probably isn’t the right choice.)

Scene Goals in Action

Let’s examine a few scene goals in action. Just for continuity’s sake, I’ll be using examples from the same four books and movies I used in my Secrets of Story Structure series.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: Mrs. Bennet’s goal in the first chapter is to convince her husband to call upon the newly arrived Mr. Bingley. Even though she’s not the story’s protagonist, she is the primary actor in this first scene, so it’s appropriate that the first goal belongs to her. The chapter offers a wonderful opening goal, since it not only presents a short-term scene goal, but also perfectly frames the story’s overall goal.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: The angel Joseph’s goal in the first scene is to find an angel he can send to George Bailey’s aid. Like Pride & Prejudice, the movie opens from a perspective outside the protagonist’s, but it presents an instant and accurate picture of the overall story goal (i.e., save George Bailey by helping him understand his life is worth living).

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: The book opens with several short scenes indicating the goals of people other than the protagonist (used, once again, to frame the plot’s overall focus). Ender’s first goal is to avoid the bullies and make it to the school bus without incident.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: Both the overall story goal and, by extension, the first individual scene goal are introduced in the movie’s opening shot with the revelation of Jack Aubrey’s orders to find and destroy the French privateer Acheron. The movie establishes this goal quickly by allowing readers to directly read the orders, then jumps into the first scene with the officer of the watch glassing the sea in search of any anomaly that may prove to be their quarry.

Once you have a proper goal in place, the rest of your scene will likely flow easily and organically. So long as each scene is inherent to your story and moves the plot forward, you’ll be on course to achieve a solid and cohesive novel.

*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Options for Conflict in a Scene.

Tell me your opinion: What is your characters goal in your current scene? 

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’ve been reading the entire series, but this one is particularly helpful. I’m just finishing up the first draft of my YA contemporary fantasy and am thinking back to make sure I’ve hit all the necessary notes. Thank you for a valuable post, once again!

  2. Just want to say really enjoying the series on Scenes. I’ve read in many places each scene has to have a conflict/goal, etc, but often got confused by thinking of goals that were too big (story goals as opposed to scene goals). This post was very helpful in explaining this!

  3. @Angelica: I find focusing on Scene structure particularly helpful in the outlining and revising stages, since they’re both left-brain, logical exercises.

    @Brenda: Really, a story is just a mosaic: lots of little pieces (scene goals) that build to one big picture (story goal).

  4. Every scene in my story has a well defined purpose. Some of those purposes are deepening characters or the story world, or setting up and foreshadowing future events. Those scenes may not necessarily make obvious how they progress the plot or what the protagonist’s goal might be at that moment. As the scene progresses, however, if the protagonist did not begin with a goal, he creates one that provides the opportunity for the deepening or foreshadowing.

    For example, in one scene the protagonist is just hanging around, doing nothing. When he sees an opportunity, he decides he wants to help. What he learns instead is if you startle a hunter, the hunter’s reaction can be unpleasant. How hunters react to being startled is important to the plot later, so not only have we deepened the characters, we have foreshadowed the future.

    Sometimes, scene goals can be subtle, but they are always fun, or frightening.

  5. Scene goals don’t always have to be big – or obvious – but we will usually get more bang for our buck if we’re able to make the scene goal obvious to the reader, and the sooner the better. But as with everything in fiction writing, we just have to play things by ear to find the options that best fit each specific scene.

  6. Depends on the character. In part one, the younger twin sister who graduated high school wants to cope with the break up of her boyfriend. In part two, a young man is forced in search of food and tech fragments. Parts one and two are loosely connected by the world I’ve built in a political plot.

  7. When structure scenes, would it be considered tacky to give each scene sort of a premise sentence?

    I’ve came to a point where I realized, why not try writing multiple premise sentences if one sentence only carries me up to around 30 minutes of writing time?

  8. Are you talking a sentence for yourself, in your outline, or a sentence to start each scene? Either way, it shouldn’t be a problem. Readers need to know what the character’s goal is as soon as possible, so stating that outright is rarely problematic.

  9. Well more like stating the scene goal in the outline. Although I do try to keep the goal concrete, for example character x needs to return home to retrieve her wallet, as she forgot to bring it to work. Its sort of like concrete goals for video games.

  10. When it comes to outlining, I highly recommend doing just that. If you can plot out each scene’s arc – goal, conflict, disaster – as well as the sequel’s arc, you’ll be way ahead of the game in constructing a solid plot from beginning to end.

  11. It makes outlining fun, when you can figure out when to make everything that can go wrong, do go wrong. Like one that has to go to work, accidently get tossed through a portal. As a character I would think, “Hey, I didnt intend that for my day!”

  12. Ah, yes, our poor suffering characters!

  13. Thank you for this! I’ve been struggling to kick off my whodunit. I know my victim, detective and killer(s). My character questionnaires are done. The setting needs work but I have ideas. And the list of things I know will happen is underway. But I was hard pressed to get the first scene going. Now I know the goal can play out over several scenes. So, so helpful to know!

  14. I agree on everything you’re saying but there’s just one thing that’s bothering me. What if the character doesn’t have a goal in that scene?

    For example, my MC (Danielle) is just going about her normal day and she has to go to school. I assure you, I’m not going to write an entire scene on her school day. However, the scene introduces an important character in the early chapters. I can’t omit this in any way because this is a vital scene.

    It feels as though I’m skipping the goal and going straight to the conflict. Unless her goal is to go to school but this wouldn’t really contribute to her overall story goal – which reminds me of another question. Not related to this particular post but if my overall story goal is established at the first plot point is that too late? If so, would I have to have another goal early on in the act which then is replaced by the new goal at the first plot point?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Remember, conflict is nothing more or less than an obstacle to the character’s scene goal. If he doesn’t have a scene goal, then there can be no conflict. Examine your existing scene conflict and see if you can figure out why it is an obstacle to your character–that’s where you’ll find your scene’s true goal.

      • “I’m skipping the goal and going straight to the conflict” – or the disaster.

        Danielle is reminded of her past immediately when she meets the new teacher in this scene. Not only that but, to her, he seems to be focusing on her more than anyone.

        This scene occurs just after she is almost kidnapped. Suppose her goal was to “get through the school day without any complications” or “without getting worked up” due to the recent events, her conflict would be the teacher because he is reminding her of the those particular events and working her up. Then the disaster would occur at the end of the chapter where she hears about her best friend’s accident (or rather, right before she does).

        Does it seem like a strong(ish) structure?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s definitely functional. I would suggest brainstorming a little to see if you can come up with a stronger goal, but if you can’t, this does work.

          • I had a look like you suggested and had some ideas. I already had two and a half chapters written before I read this series so I decided to shuffle the events of my second chapter around a little to fit the structure.

            Her goal in chapter 2 is to go to the police. Initially, I made sure she achieved that goal. But your advice got me thinking – what if she didn’t? Then her goal in the next scene would still be to go to the police, but after school and with her best friend instead of her best friend’s brother. This is conflicted, but only slightly, by her best friend’s singing lessons which also take place after school. The disaster is then her best friend’s accident, therefore her goal remains unachieved.

            Although the teacher’s introduction does not conflict the goal directly, it does conflict future goals.

            Thanks a bunch!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Sounds great! Good job on digging deeper. 🙂

  15. Very useful notes, but I’m really struggling with the idea of goals. In my middle-grade fantasy, the protagonist is a reactionary figure (deliberately so). In fact, the 1st plot point is his realisation that he has been called to a mission. From there, I think the the scene/sequel progression will be much easier.

    It’s the beginning I’m struggling with. Something significant happens to the MC in the hook and I guess his goal – though not that clear to him – could be to understand the significance. However, I’m then struggling with the progression of conflict, disaster, reaction, etc. until the mission – and his role in it – is made clear by the mentor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Think of it this way. Even though the character’s main story goal will never become 100% clear until the First Plot Point, the character will always want *something* from the very beginning. This is usually a “larger” desire that then ties into the main story goal in some way. But this desire will be what will influence and drive his scenes all the way through the First Act.

Trackbacks

  1. […] from Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 3: Options for Goals in a Scene. And I believe the inciting incident in this example was the girl next door caught chewing up the […]

  2. […] Goal: Luke goes looking for Artoo, who is on a mission to give Princess Leia’s message to Obi-Wan. […]

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