Yesterday I talked about character goals and how they drive both your characters and your plot. Today, let’s talk scene goals.
My all time favorite how-to write book is one I find very few people are familiar with — Scene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing), byJack Bickham. Mr. Bickham, a protege of Dwight Swain, has the talent to take Swain’s great lessons — which I’ve never been able to slog through — and present them in simple and concise ways for people like me who find non-fiction tedious, even when the topic is something I’m passionate about.
So here, in a nutshell, okay, a blog post, is one of the most important things I have ever learned about crafting a scene, which I learned from that book.
Every scene must have a goal.
Simple, right? Think about it, though. Every scene must have a goal. What exactly does that mean? The writer might have a goal to move the characters through the doorway and on their next stage of a journey. Big deal.
However if you take the point of view character in the scene and determine what he wants — referencing Tolkien here of course — Frodo wants to get away from the lake that is giving him the willies and get through the gate into Moria in order to get on with his journey to destroy that darn ring. Now we have a goal worth reading to see how it turns out.
But what happens if they arrive at the doorway, Gandalf says a magic word, the gate opens and there’s no more worrying about the willies produced by the lake? Your reader yawns, puts the book down and goes to sleep.
Every scene must have a goal…
and a disaster.
Consider what happens if, instead of success in reaching Frodo’s goal, there is a disaster? Now Frodo’s got trouble on his hands (and a weird lake at his back).
What do I mean by disaster? Bickham says there are three possible disastrous outcomes for a scene goal:
No, and furthermore…
Taking up Frodo again, a “yes, but” disaster would be: Yes, they get through the door, but something follows them through (which actually happens in the form of Gollum but that isn’t revealed right away so it doesn’t really rank as a disaster for this scene). Or yes, they get through the door, but there’s a new challenge on the other side (which also happens, but is a separate scene, so that’s another goal/disaster combo, and doesn’t really work for this scene).
A “no.” disaster would be simply, No, they don’t get through the door. Trouble of an indeterminate sort… though there is that creepy lake they are sitting beside.
A “no, and furthermore disaster”, which are my personal favorites, would be no, they don’t get through the door, and furthermore they are attacked by a monster from the lake.
Tolkien does let them through the door, but not without some long moments of will they/won’t they figure out the password, so it looks like a no, and furthermore there’s something in the lake to be concerned about disaster. Ultimately it turns out to be a Yes, but disaster, because they do get the door open, but the lake monster grabs Frodo at the same moment. Personally I was glued to the page, rooting for Frodo to escape during the end of that scene.
Do you know what your pov character’s goal is in every scene? It doesn’t have to be stated explicitly on the page, but you the writer needs to know what it is, so you know where you are going in the scene. Possibly more importantly, the reader needs to know what’s at stake for the pov character in every scene. She might not be able to say what it is, but if you were to ask a reader what she was worried about in a scene, or what is it that she had to find out that kept her turning the pages, she’d tell you what the scene goal was.
So get to it. Figure out that scene goal. And if the current pov character has a wimpy scene goal, see if there’s another character with a more interesting goal and try the scene from her pov. Then drop that disaster on her head. You’ll have a page turning scene (which is reader speak for great pacing) on your hands.