Goal-driven scenes are akin to the classic joke setup, “A _____ and a _____ walk into a bar …”
A _____ and a _____ walk into a bar. The scene begins with the entrance of the protagonist and antagonist.
The first guy says … The first guy, our protagonist, lays out what’s on his mind—his immediate agenda, or the scene goal.
And so the other guys says … The antagonist throws a curveball, a turning point that disrupts the expected flow.
… [punch line]! Surprise! Something new is revealed or happens that makes everything collide in an unexpected way.
In a joke, we laugh because the poor first guy has encountered something completely expected. In a scene, we turn the page to find out what the first guy does next. It’s cause and effect, action and reaction—the foundation of every novel.
Here’s how goal-driven scenes work.
Goal Establishing a clear scene goal draws readers into whatever the character will spend the scene attempting to accomplish, usually some incremental step toward the central story goal.
Turning point But something doesn’t go as anticipated, and the character is halted by a conflict, obstacle, reversal, or complication. This interruption, the scene’s turning point, throws a monkey wrench into what readers and the characters were hoping for or expecting.
Change Things are different now, because the turning point has changed the character’s original plan or course of action. How will this scene affect what’s next?
1: Establish the Scene Goal
Scene goals are incremental steps toward the ultimate story goal. They’re the viewpoint character’s immediate agenda. What’s on their mind? What did they get up today to accomplish? Unless you’re writing some variety of mystery or thriller, this agenda should be made clear to readers right away.
In a renowned memo to the writers of The Unit, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet underscored the necessity of clear scene goals.
Every scene must be dramatic. That means: The main character must have a simple, straightforward pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene. This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to failure—this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.
Issue: Failing to get the character emotionally engaged with the scene goal. Scene goals are serious business. If your character isn’t invested, readers won’t be either. The scene will flop, bereft of stakes and dramatic tension.
To clearly establish a scene goal, show readers what the character plans to do and why it matters to them. Properly done, this process hooks readers into the scene, rallying them to root for the character and keep reading to see whether they triumph or fall flat in their efforts.
Issue: Forcing a new scene goal with every scene, or keeping the same scene goal throughout the story. Because scene goals represent incremental steps, they’ll evolve as the story progresses. In fast-paced sections of the story, your viewpoint character’s immediate agenda may shift every scene. The bigger and more challenging a goal, the longer it will take to accomplish, and some goals will require multiple scenes to accomplish.
2: Interrupt With a Turning Point
The turning point is the peak of a scene. It’s the whole point of the scene, its raison d’être.
At a scene’s turning point, things stop unfolding the way the character had hoped or expected. They now face some new problem, conflict, or obstacle.
While this point in a scene is often described in terms of conflict, it’s often not about conflict at all. Although conflict is fundamental to every story, it’s not a necessity in every scene. Framing the peak of a scene as a turning point, rather than outright conflict, allows for more nuance.
A scene turning point can take the form of a complication, obstacle, or reversal. These terms are mostly self-explanatory, but let’s touch on what’s meant by a reversal. Renowned screenwriting and storytelling master Robert McKee identifies two types of scene reversals:
1. Reversal of power The relative power of the viewpoint character and another character in the scene swaps.
2. Reversal of expectation The viewpoint character enters the scene expecting one thing, only to encounter a different outcome.
Some of the most common scene writing problems are related to trouble in this turning point phase.
Issue: Failing to directly relate the scene turning point to the scene goal. For example, if Camille’s objective is to covertly retrieve a secret code from her coworker’s files, it wouldn’t make sense for the scene’s turning point to be returning home to find her apartment flooded due to a burst water heater in the unit above. This is definitely a nasty setback for Camille, but it doesn’t have any bearing on the pursuit of the secret code; that plot thread is left dangling.
Instead, imagine Camille poised to steal the secret code form her colleague’s office when the receptionist rushes down the hall with word of an emergency call from Camille’s landlord. This turning point directly affects the scene goal of obtaining the secret code. Just as Camille anticipates snatching the code, she’s yanked away.
Issue: Centering the scene turning point on an entirely internal dynamic. The scene turning point of a goal-driven scene demands the involvement of the viewpoint character with another person, thing, or event. Internal conflict alone isn’t enough to sustain a goal-driven scene, though it’s a powerful catalyst in reflection scenes (a topic for another day).
Issue: Mistaking the most exciting moment of the scene as the scene’s turning point. Think of the turning point as the peak of significance in the scene, not necessarily the most intense or dramatic moment. It’s the apex of tension in regards to the thing that matters most to the viewpoint character. It’s a crucial moment in the pursuit of the scene goal.
Issue: Rushing through the scene’s turning point. As the peak of a scene, the turning point is the juiciest part to readers. Give readers time to appreciate it. Sink into character interiority, allowing readers to savor their entanglement in the turning point. Unravel the character reactions one sticky finger at a time. While there may be times when you want to sweep into the next scene for shock value or chop things off to create a cliffhanger, in general, readers relish the opportunity to appreciate the character’s predicament. (Contrast the writing at this point in the scene with the first and last phases, which could require only a paragraph or pointed sentence to effectively convey.)
3: Demonstrate Change
The final phase of a goal-driven scene is the outcome, a moment marked by unexpected twists or the heralding of change. This phase of a scene is sometimes referred to as the scene “disaster,” but that needn’t imply an actual catastrophe. What’s important is the implication of impending change.
At this point in the scene, the viewpoint character either achieves the scene goal or encounters an unforeseen development. It’s now clear that whatever readers and the characters expected the beginning of the scene, something else has come along to add new developments.
Issue: The outcome or change phase at the end of a scene should rarely create a resolution. Resolution leads nowhere; with matters settled, the story momentum stops cold. Instead, pump forward momentum into the story. Because of this scene, what must the characters do next? This creates an emotional springboard toward the next scene.
The Action-Reaction Dynamic
To sum it up, the structure of a goal-driven scene comes down to action and reaction. Goal-driven scenes are little vehicles for change, and protagonists are the drivers. They react, decide, choose, and act, concluding one cycle of options and turning down another avenue for pursuing the elusive story goal.
Lisa Poisso specializes in helping new and emerging querying and self-publishing writers. A classically trained dancer, her approach to writing is grounded in structure, form, and technique as doorways to freedom of movement on the page. Lisa and her industrious team of #45mphcouchpotato greyhounds can be found at LisaPoisso.com. Visit her Linktree for help with your early steps as a writer, join the Clarity for Writers community at Substack, and download a free Manuscript Prep guide. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Lisa below.