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