Elements of Scene Beginnings: Goal

As discussed in the last post, despite the fact that, as Deborah Chester says, “authors do a bit of what I call scene positioning” at the beginning of scenes, “the scene actually begins with the protagonist’s goal.”

What is a Scene Goal?

A scene goal, or what Jordan Rosenfeld calls an ‘intention’, “is a character’s desire or plan to do something.” It is “a job that [Character] wants to carry out and that will give purpose to the scene.”

In pursuit of their “story goal–to resolve the big problem that defines the whole novel–the point-of-view character creates a scene goal, which will advance his or her cause toward reaching that story goal,” says Elizabeth Lyon.

“This goal represents an important step in the character’s game plan,” says Jack Bickham, “something to be obtained or achieved which will move him one big step closer to attainment of his major story goal.”

Why should I fuss over a scene goal?

Jordan Rosenfeld says, “When a character doesn’t have a goal in a given scene . . . you create confusion in the reader, lack of concern for the character, or boredom,” says Ms. Rosenfeld. “Characters who have goals in every scene carry a story forward with momentum and confidence. Readers feel taken in hand. Goals drive scenes and plots. In their absence, tension slacks.”

Types of Goals

“Ever and always, in scene, [Character] must want something,” says Dwight Swain, and “something” always falls into one of three categories: (1) Possession of something . . . a girl, a job, a jewel; you name it.  (2)  Relief from something . . . blackmail, domination, fear.  (3)  Revenge for something . . . a slight, a loss, betrayal.”

“Goals can take a number of forms,” says Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, “A goal in a scene could be an object, such as he’s trying to get the diamonds that she keeps in the safe in her bedroom. A goal could be a more abstract ideaHe’s trying to get cooperation to put together a deal of some sort to raise money.  It could be an internal goal: A character is trying to come to some understanding or knowledge of himself.

“Most character objectives, particularly at the scenic and beat level, are behavioral,” says Will Dunne, “They reflect the desire to affect another character in an important way. While countless behavioral objectives are possible, all fall into four basic categories: to make the other character feel good, to make the other character feel bad, to find out something important from the other character, or to conince the other character of something important.” Further, “Some objectives are physical. They focus on not another character but on [completing] a physical task.

“Goals are of two kinds: goals of achievement, and goals of resistance,” says Mr. Swain, “The first is explicit . . . the second, implicit.”

How do I figure out a scene’s goal?

“The goal for a scene may occur in the scene, or it may be obvious from some previous scene,” says Rubie and Provost.

In a first draft

Robert McKee says, “In each scene a character pursues a desire related to his immediate time and place. But this Scene-Objective must be an aspect of his Super-Objective or Spine, the story-long quest that spans from Inciting Incident to Story Climax.”

“The scene goal is a target that provides the scene with direction and organization,” says Ms. Chester, “What–in this place, at this moment–is your protagonist trying to do?”

Whatever it is your character sets out to do, learn, or gain is the goal of that scene,” says Ms. Rosenfeld, “Goals will arise organically from the character’s desires (internal experience), and they will arise as a result of the plot events (external events).”

In revision

Rubie and Provost say, “When you get to the end of the scene, ask yourself, What does the character have now that he didn’t have at the beginning of the scene? and then, How does he feel about that?”

Should I state the goal at the beginning of the scene?

All the craft masters agree that you and your character need to know the goal at the outset, but whether the reader needs to know it too depends on who you ask . . .

No, reader doesn’t necessarily need to know the scene goal

“You may find it useful in your first drafts to be blatant about a scene’s goal,” says Rubie and Provost, “Try to state the goal in the first sentence. . . . After you write that scene, it’s possible you can remove that overt statement and make the scene subtler.”

“The readers don’t always need to know what that goal is at the launch–that may become clear as they move into the middle [of the scene],” says Ms. Rosenfeld, “But the protagonist has to be driven by that goal from the beginning, so you must know what it is as you launch.”

Yes, reader needs to know the scene goal . . .

“Good novelists never write a scene where the goal is vague or ambiguous,” says Mr. Bickham, “They never make the mistake of trying to be subtle about it. The reader has to know what’s wanted in no uncertain terms. So good writers leave no doubt about it. They write so the goal in every scene is perfectly clear, specific, and obtainable now. It’s obvious, but so many new writers would like to be subtle or clever, when all one needs to do is to be clear and specific. This is no place to be subtle.”

Readers “won’t know what the scene is about until we know what the character wants in that scene,” says Steven James, “The clearer the goal, the more readers will be able to worry about whether the character gets it.”

And Rubie and Provost do a little backtracking: “Sometimes a scene that isn’t working can be fixed easily by putting the goal in the right place.” Meaning, at the beginning of the scene. And in fact, Rubie and Provost go on to say a lot more in support of making the goal clear to the reader . . .

. . . because goals help the reader keep score . . .

“Primarily, however,” say Rubie and Provost, “make sure that from the outset of the scene your reader understands how to read the scene, in other words, how to keep score by understanding what the character’s goal is in that scene.”

Rubie and Provost say that stories are like watching a sports game.  “If no one knew what the players were trying to accomplish, it would be impossible to keep score. The game would lack drama and make no sense. And if you didn’t keep score, you wouldn’t bother to stay long at a tennis match, because there wouldn’t be an ultimate goal–a winner. The same is true with your story. If the readers don’t understand what your character is trying to achieve, they don’t know whether your character’s gotten closer to her goal or farther away from it. [Without a clear goal,] Readers don’t know how to keep score.”

. . . but there’s an exception

James Scott Bell says, “The exception to this [rule that the reader needs to know the scene’s goal at the outset] is when the action in the scene is meant to be a surprise.”

I’m convinced…so how do I state the goal?

“You can do this explicitly or implicitly,” says Mr. Bell. “You use the implicit opening when, from the scenes preceding, it’s obvious what the character is feeling and thinking.”

Mr. Bickham agrees: “The scene begins with a stated, clear-cut goal.  Sometimes the characters can carry over this clear-cut immediate goal from the previous scene, and sometimes he can think it, going in.”

Goals “can be delivered through dialogue, an internalized intention, or implied through the character’s actions,” says Ms. Chester.

Mr. James gives us six ways to clarify the scene goal for the reader:

  1. “Have the character state what he wants. . . .
  2. Indicate it indirectly [through dialogue]. . . .
  3. Have another character ask the person what he wants. . . .
  4. Reveal what the character wants through his thought. . . .
  5. Simply tell the readers [in narration]. . . .
  6. Show readers the goal through the character’s actions.”

Other Goal Considerations

Make it Clear

“Make it clear,” says Ms. Chester, “because there’s no need to conceal it from readers.”

Mr. Bickham agrees: “The goal must be stated specifically, clearly.”

As does Cheryl St.John: “The goal must be specific and concrete—simple enough to state in one sentence.”

“You want the goal to be simple to understand because a scene is simple–it’s one small piece of your story,” says Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, and “A goal should be objective so your reader can easily visualize what success looks like.”

Make it Actionable

“It needs to be specific and obtainable now,” says Ms. Chester.

“A goal is not a goal until it’s specific and concrete and immediate enough for you to take some sort of action toward achieving it,” says Dwight Swain, “The essence of goal choice is decision to act. Your character’s decision. Ideally, this decision should focus on a target so explicit that you might photograph your hero performing the act to which he aspires. If you can’t, the goal isn’t yet specific and concrete enough.”

“A concrete goal puts the protagonist in action,” says Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld, “and the reader reacts to what the character does rather than merely following her internal monologue.”

Make it Relevant

“It should relate to either the central story goal or to a subplot’s goal,” says Ms. Chester.

“Character goal should emerge organically from the story or be imposed by the antagonist,” says Ms. Rosenfeld.

“It doesn’t matter exactly what she wants so long as the reader understands what she wants and why she wants it and it relates in some way to the novel’s big goal,” says Carolyn Wheat.

“[Y]ou can trust your reader to assume your character does all the sort of basic things we all do to feed, bathe, clothe ourselves, and more,” says Ms. Rosenfeld, “So a scene goal should be about more than those basic behaviors unless there’s a unique or plot-relevant reason.”

“Compelling goals drive the plot forward and provide new information,” says Ms. Rosenfeld. “It’s crucial to keep in mind that every scene must reveal something new to the readers, and your protagonist must have a goal or intention to facilitate that.”

Make it Immediate

“Keep the goal a short-range proposition,” says Mr. Swain, “Make it something that the focal character can logically strive to achieve in a relatively limited, time-unified, face-to-face encounter.”

“A goal that can’t be achieved within the scene kills the tension for that scene,” says Ingermanson and Economy.

Make it Relatable

Mr. James says to ask yourself: “What does my protagonist want to achieve or accomplish? Is that something my readers will either identify with or cheer for? If not, can I reshape the character’s desire so readers can relate to it on a more personal or emotional level?”

Make it Difficult

“A trivially easy goal won’t keep your reader up late flipping the pages,” says Ingermanson and Economy.

“Compelling goals deepen the reader’s understanding of the character, and challenge them to become stronger,” says Ms. Rosenfeld.

Make Sure it has Stakes

“In every scene,” says Ms. Rosenfeld, “your protagonist should be motivated by two things:

  • The protagonist’s intention for the scene. A scene intention is ultimately a goal or decision your protagonist makes that drives the direction of the scene. . . .
  • The protagonist’s personal history. . . . And while you can certainly show insight into your protagonist’s nature or history through reflective flashback scenes or summary dialogue, characters are always demonstrating backstory in words and deeds, and it’s best to integrate that backstory rather than reveal it through lengthy narrative summaries.”

“You can tell the reader that your lead character wants almost anything,” says Mr. Bickham, “as long as the character defines the goal as vital.”

“Show clearly that the viewpoint character considers the oncoming scene as vitally important,” says Mr. Bickham, “Have him say so, or think so, or both! Never allow a lead character to enter a scene with a lackadaisical attitude.”

“If your character doesn’t want something badly enough, again, the scene won’t work because there will be no emotional power driving it,” says Rubie and Provost, “The reader has no real reason to be interested in the outcome of the scene (or, ultimately, the story) because the character doesn’t really care enough about what’s happening. There’s a direct relationship between a character’s emotional need to achieve a particular goal and the reader’s active interest and involvement in the narrative. If the character doesn’t care what’s going to happen in the narrative, neither will the reader.”

“Each scene makes a promise to the reader,” says Raymond Obstfeld. “The promise has only one function: to tease the reader into being compelled to see how the scene turns out. . . . The main method of increasing the promise value is by increasing the stakes. . . . The higher the stakes, the greater the intensity of the promise and, of course, the bigger the payoff must be. . . . The two principal ways to increase the stakes are through character and plot. . . . Plot focus is on what will happen, whereas character focus is on who it will happen to.” “By enhancing either or both of these elements, the stakes go up and so does the promise.”

Ms. Rosenfeld gives us a checklist for determining whether our scene goals are compelling.  “The answer to all of these questions should be yes.  Does the goal:

  • emerge from the inciting incident, a prior scene, or the antagonist throwing out an obstacle?
  • have some kind of physical, emotional, or spiritual stakes for your protagonist or their allies?
  • take your protagonist one step deeper into the plot, or add a new development?
  • meet with an obstacles so it is not too easily achieved?
  • cause some sort of change or complication in your protagonist’s life once it is achieved?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you now have a starting point to go back and tweak or fix the goal.”

All In-Scene Characters Should Have Goals

“Keep in mind that all your characters have goals, no matter how obscure the characters may seem,” says Rubie and Provost, “Characters without goals, however minor, disrupt the flow of the narrative, forcing the audience’s attention away from what’s important.”

“Every character in every scene in your screenplay must want something,” says Michael Hauge, “This desire will determine the character’s actions and dialogue. . . . If possible, put the characters’ objectives in the scene in opposition. Emotion grows out of conflict, so whenever a scene involves two characters at cross-purposes, the emotion rises.”

“Scenes can often be strengthened (1) when the two people carrying on the conversation desire different things, specifically objectives that are in conflict with each other, or (2) when they desire the same thing but must work together to overcome something that’s currently keeping them both from accomplishing it,” says Mr. James.

“Everyone and everything is in the scene for a reason,” says Rubie and Provost, “and everyone in the scene has his own agenda.”

One more thing: Scene Goals are Related to the Main Story Question . . .

“Make sure that the stated scene goal is clearly relevant to the story question,” says Mr. Bickham, “Don’t just assume that the relevance is obvious. Spell it out.”

“The goal of each scene should relate clearly to the central story question,” says Ms. Chester, “When there’s no relationship, the scene seems like a random event. Too many random scenes causes readers to lose the connection … and lose interest.”

. . . and Form Their Own Scene Question

“Scene goals are smaller objectives designed to achieve the main story goal. And, in turn, each scene goal becomes its own scene question which must be answered at the scene’s conclusion,” says Ms. Chester.

“Just as a story starts with statement of a character’s longterm goal, so every scene starts with a character, the viewpoint character, saying very specifically what he wants to accomplish in the confrontation that is about to take place,” says Mr. Bickham, “This subsidiary goal relates–is a stepping stone somehow–to the long-term goal. So just as the reader forms a story question from story goal, and worries about it, he also forms a scene question, realizes the link between this stated secondary goal and the big goal and worries about the scene question, too.”

More about scene questions in the next post . . .

Best books on Scene Goals

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