This series of posts will teach you all you need to know about writing scenes. We’ll look at matters such as Scene and Sequel, scene structure, scene goals, and the like. The aim is to build a comprehensive starting point for any new author. In this post: scene goals.
Previously, we defined the term ‘scene’ by quoting author Jordan Rosenfeld: ‘Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.’
This definition is helpful: it reminds us to slow things down, zoom in on the action, and savour the significant drama presented on the page. Scenes are your story’s highlights.
We then went on to note the difference between the dramatic Scene*, which focuses on conflict, and the reactive Sequel*, which describe your character’s resulting dilemma. This is cause and effect in action – one thing leading to another.
* We’re using Scene and Sequel (capitalised, italics) to refer to these specific terms, and ‘scene’ (no capitals or italics) to refer to scenes in general.
The anatomy of a Scene
The dramatic Scene unfolds along the following lines:
Author Jack Bickham (in his book Scene and Structure) claims that Scenes should begin with your protagonist stating their intention. He refers to this as your protagonist’s ‘scene goal’. This prompts the question: will the protagonist achieve their goal? Posing this question creates suspense in your reader; they read on to find the answer.
For the scene to be interesting, your protagonist can’t just achieve their goal straight away; someone – or something – must block their path. Generally, this means the protagonist is confronted with an equal and incompatible desire – an antagonistic force who wants the same thing or, at least, to stop your protagonist from progressing.
Your protagonist and antagonist each have their objectives, and only one can win. Matters unfold along the lines of action and counteraction, feint and counter-feint, until, your protagonist’s actions provoke an unexpected turn of events. In other words: a tactical disaster.
A tactical disaster
This is the moment where the ‘scene question’ is answered. Most likely, your protagonist will not achieve their goal. Or, if they do, it will lead only to further complications. The disaster you visit on your characters should hit hard, moving the story forward while setting the protagonist back.
These disasters are moments of change. John Yorke (In his excellent book Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them) claims this is the real reason that scenes are chosen by the writer.
So, to deconstruct the dramatic Scene, we must first look at the issue of goals. Because, without goals, there simply cannot be a scene – or a story.
Let’s begin with:
What are scene goals?
Put simply, a goal is an outcome you’re going achieve with your action(s):
• I am going to lose weight.
• I am going to rob a bank.
• I am going to woo the girl next door.
• I am going to write an article on goals.
Note the commitment to action in these statements. Goals aren’t dreams (I’d like to lose weight) or pessimistic declarations (I wish I could lose weight); they’re specific statements of intent – aims that you intend to realise.
Why are goals important?
We previously noted Jack Bickham’s advice: make your protagonist’s goal evident from the outset. Otherwise, we’ll have no notion a) of what the protagonist is trying to achieve, and b) that we should be concerned with the outcome.[bctt tweet=”There are only three kinds of scenes: negotiations, seductions, and fights. —MIKE NICHOLS”]
Not only should the protagonist’s goal be clear, but it must relate to the plot. If you story is a hard-boiled thriller about corruption, it makes little sense to focus on your protagonist’s goal of stopping next door’s dog from chewing up his pogonias (unless this is a subplot, and the dog’s owner will prove relevant later on – but let’s save subplots for another day!)
Your protagonist may anticipate a hard time acquiring their goal, or they might be surprised to be blocked by antagonistic forces. In either case, achieving their goal cannot be a breeze – who’d want to read about that?
And this difficulty is your source of conflict. One character’s committed intention meeting an incompatible force. It is a game of high stakes. What happens if he fails? If he succeeds? His goal has to mean something. Otherwise, there is little chance of tension.
Generally speaking, your character’s goal will involve the acquisition of or an escape from something physical, emotional, or mental. This could require any action conceivable: finding, hiding, communicating, repairing, destroying, etc. For example:
• Physical goals: searching for a smoking gun; escaping from an enemy; destroying or repairing an object.
• Emotional goals: trying to win over a character’s affections; escaping from his father’s scorn.
• Mental goals: learning how to disarm an alarm; confronting a person about their behaviour.
Our goals are not random, and neither are your character’s. And this brings us to an obvious question: where do scene goals come from? To answer this, we need to zoom out and look at the big picture.
How do stories start?
Let’s recap on the basics. Stories introduce us to a protagonist. We’ll experience the story through their senses, their emotions, their thoughts and actions. They may be likeable – or not – but we’ll be invited to empathise with them. They are our gateway into another world.
Early in our story, something is likely to happen that throws the protagonist’s world out of balance; something which forces them to make a choice. It could be a mission, an opportunity, or a problem to solve. Whatever the circumstances, your protagonist will be given a goal to pursue – whether they like it or not.
This goal might remain consistent throughout the rest of the story, or it might evolve as things progress. Either way, if your protagonist is going to achieve this goal, they’re going to need a plan.
To understand this more thoroughly, let’s look at goal-setting in general.
How to set goals
You may have heard of SMART goals. It’s a system for making well-formed objectives, the aim being to foster focus, motivation and progress. There are different versions, but here’s my preferred take:
• Specific: the when, where, what, and why of the goal.
• Measurable: so you’ll know whether you are achieving your goal – or not.
• Achievable: the goal is not impossible our outlandish.
• Relevant: the goal is consistent with your needs, values, or circumstances.
• Time-based: there is a time-limit on your goal; it’s not just an open-ended dream with no urgency.
Some people think like this naturally; others think like this only in specific circumstances. Many of us rarely think like this at all. The SMART goal system helps those who lack motivation to think in goal-orientated terms.
How this helps your protagonist
As writers of fiction, we are advised: don’t write about wimps. Our stories can be about extraordinary people, or ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. These are people who are motivated – for whatever reason – and who feel ready to take action, even if reluctantly.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that your protagonist needs to sit down, at the start of their story, and hire a life coach! Rather, your story’s evolving circumstances will force your protagonist to start thinking in a goal orientated way. They need clarity – their goals can’t be fuzzy or nondescript.
A plan of action
Clear goals are all well and good, but to get anywhere you need some sense of the required steps. Otherwise, how will you know where to start?
In fiction, as in life, it’s not unusual for the protagonist to encounter a mentor figure – somebody to show them the way. Or perhaps your protagonist will set out to achieve their goal by themselves. In either case, they will have to break down their goal into a series of steps.
And these steps are the basis for our ‘scene goals’.
Example – Cool Runnings
Released in 1993, Cool Runnings is a feelgood Disney film based very loosely on a true story. It tells the story of Derice, who holds an ambition of being an Olympic champion – just like his father.
Things don’t pan out (they never do!) and he misses his chance at qualification. He begs for a chance to run again, which is turned down. Instead, he spies an opportunity to compete at the Winter Olympics in the bobsled competition. Unlikely as this goal is, his mind is set. He now has a series of tasks he must undertake.
- Find the coach, Irv, and convince him to come out of retirement.
- Recruit other members for the bobsled team and divide their responsibilities.
- Learn how to drive a bobsled.
- Raise the funds required to travel to Calgary for the Olympics.
- Adapt to the cold and learn how to walk on the ice.
- Qualify for main competition.
And so on… Derice’s main goal (compete at the Olympics) requires him to navigate a series of smaller goals (find and convince the coach, raise the funds, etc.) Some of these smaller goals can be achieved in one scene, whereas others take a few scenes to accomplish.
This is cause and effect in action once more: I want this, so I have to do that (and that, and that, and that). There might be wrong turns, false starts, defeats and reversals; but each step should contribute to the protagonist’s main aim in the story. It’s robots solving mazes.
Your protagonist’s goal could be anything – woo the girl, find the MacGuffin, become king of the world – just so long as it’s concrete. However, this gives rise to another question…
Why do heroes bother…
Why bother going to all this trouble? Why not just have a cup of tea and let somebody else get on with it?
Ultimately, the protagonist must feel they don’t have a choice. They may even try to refuse the call, but something will compel them to take action. Let’s look at the various influences on your character’s goals.
According to Jack Bickham, stories truly start when a significant change threatens the protagonist’s ‘self-concept’, which is our mental image of who we think we are. Bickham gives the example of ‘an efficient secretary’ (her self-concept) who’s feeling threatened by ‘new and confusing computer equipment’.
In this story, our secretary will try all kinds of tactics to regain her self-concept: learn the new systems, confront her boss, even quit her job. She will not, however, revise her self-concept to accommodate her new circumstances. Bickham writes: ‘self-concept is so deeply ingrained, and so devoutly protected, that most people will go to almost any lengths to protect it as it stands today.’[bctt tweet=”Somebody’s got to want something, something’s got to be standing in their way of getting it. —Aaron Sorkin” via=”no”]
In this model, your protagonist’s goal is to ‘fix things’. This raises the ‘story question’: will your hero put things right? To Bickham, this is another source of tension. It is a question you answer only at the end of your story.
This idea of ‘fixing things’ is echoed by John Yorke. He writes, ‘when something happens to a hero at the beginning of a drama, [it] is a disruption to their perceived security. Duly alarmed, they seek to rectify their situation; their ‘want’ is to find that security once again.’
Perspectives on self-concept
It’s interesting to look more deeply at the idea of a self-concept. One model from Neuro-linguistic Programming, the Neurological Levels model, describes it as having various levels:
Both NLP and this model have their critics, but it’s useful from a story point of view. The basic premise is that each level is ‘organised’ by the level above it. So, our beliefs affect our skill, which affects our behaviour, which affects our environment, and so on…
Our self-concept can be threatened on various levels. Our environment could be changed, or our behaviour inhibited or controlled; our skills could be outlawed, or our beliefs and values challenged. Even our sense of identity could be under threat, as with Bickham’s efficient secretary. This model allows us to see the various perspectives involved.
KM Weiland notes that characters might possess life goals that are entirely separate from the immediate plot of the story. She writes: ‘Sometimes life goals don’t affect the plot at all. Other times, life goals can only be enabled if the plot goal is met. And, other times, life goals will stand in the way of the plot goal.’
An excellent example for the latter might be George Bailey in the 1946 film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. His life goal is to get out of Bedford Falls, because he holds an ambition: to do big things. (And of course, this ambition is realised later in the story, albeit in a different way.)
Wants versus needs
So, story is about a character’s pursuit of their goal? Not exactly (if anything, that seems to be a definition of ‘plot’). Yorke notes that ‘what a character thinks is good for them is often at odds with what actually is.’ This conflict gives rise to a battle between what the character wants and what they need.
Your protagonist won’t always achieve their goal, but – according to Yorke – they should get what they need. This is change, and change is what your story is actually about.
Five take home points
• Goals are a concrete outcomes you’re committed to achieving via your action(s). The best goals tend to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based (SMART goals).
• Early in your story, an event will occur, presenting your protagonist with a goal to pursue. It could be a mission, an opportunity, or a problem to solve. This is his ‘story goal’.
• To achieve this story goal, your protagonist will have to break it down into a series of steps. These steps are the basis for each of your protagonist’s ‘scene goals’.
• Protagonist’s are motivated to achieve their goals to protect their ‘self-concept’ – an ingrained self-image that people will often protect at any cost.
• Story is not just about a character’s pursuit of their goal. It is about the conflict between what the they want and what they need. Story is about change.
In the next post of this series, we’ll look at conflict. I look forward to it!
Do you have any helpful tips or techniques for writing scenes? If so please share in the comments below. Comments are encouraged!
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