Scene building using goals

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I previously discussed the structure of a scene is based around conflict and overcoming it.

But conflict and obstacles comes in many forms. They can be as simple as encountering a child’s fallen toy on the floor while crossing the room. What really guides the scene and makes it a necessary scene to a story’s plot is when that crossing of the room has a purpose. This purpose is the scene goal.

A scene goal is a smaller step toward achieving a story goal. A story’s goal is established by the wants, needs, and desires of the main character or protagonist and their motivations, or the reasons they want to change the current status quo.

Establishing the protagonist’s story goal will guide the choices they make and ultimately define the shape (and genre) of your story:

The reference “20 Master Plots” names the plot in terms of the goal: pursuit, rivalry, riddle, rescue, escape, transformation, forbidden love, etc. Basically what the main character is seeking to accomplish (underdog, to win against heavy odds) is the type of plot. For example in a quest plot, the goal is to seek/find/obtain some object or prize. In a maturation plot, the goal is to become the determiner of one’s own path, recognized as an adult, usually in the eyes of parents or a community.

To achieve something big very often requires multiple steps. Each step taken gets the protagonist closer (or farther away, in the case of a reversal) to their story goal. Listing out the multiple steps needed to achieve the bigger goal is the most basic form of plotting.

To achieve a rescue plot, the intermediate steps might look like this:

  • Find out who needs rescue
  • Find out where they are
  • Find out who has imprisoned them
  • Find out what’s between where you are and where they are
  • Find out what’s necessary to free them (does the captor have demands, an army, defenses, traps, etc)
  • Assemble what’s necessary to make the journey and free the captive (including allies, tools, weapons, ransom/bribery funds, etc)
  • Encounter and defeat all the obstacles set up by the captor
  • Liberate the captive
  • Get the captive to safety
  • Sometimes necessary, defeat the captor so they can’t take anyone else captive

Steps can be combined, and some steps have multiple parts. All of this means, though, that there are multiple scenes possible. Each one will have its own intermediate goal. Defeats and failures will mean repeating a step, or taking another path, or trying a different option. Thus, a story is grown scene by scene.

Building a scene using a scene goal

Let’s go back to the beginning of this article and take that walk across the room encountering the child’s toy. We’ll flesh it out with a proper scene goal and write the scene. Here are the steps:

A. Establish relevant purpose.

Establish the person’s purpose for crossing the room. Who are they and what do they want/need? What is across the room that they wanted to obtain or reach? What can they accomplish in this space (as opposed to other spaces)?

The person is a parent (to the child who owns the toy) and has to reach the front door of their apartment to leave for work (reaching work is their larger goal for which getting out of the house is a necessary step).

This is an escape plot (simple, but still…): The character has to get out of somewhere in order to go somewhere else.

B. Develop relevant obstacles.

Obstacles should be relevant to the character, tempt them to deviate (appealing to one or more of their personality traits), and have the potential for partial or complete failure to achieve the scene goal.

The child’s toy provides all three: the toy belongs to the parent’s child, so the temptation to stop and clean up the toy before leaving might make the character late, and falling on the toy might turn their ankle or break their leg, severely delaying or ending their attempt to leave.

C. Write the scene

Now that we have these details, let’s use them to build our scene. The steps:

  1. establish the setting and the character’s scene goal
  2. use actions and dialogue (inner and/or outer) to deal with obstacles
  3. make a last effort to achieve the scene goal
  4. in success or defeat, leave the scene

Example

Skye shouldered her messenger bag just as the alarm on her wristwatch dinged, flashing the reminder “leave now!” she’d set for workdays. Striding toward the front door, she paused in front of the hallway mirror to check her appearance, patting the back of her up-do.

Shouting over her shoulder, she resumed her path to the front door. “Megan, I’m leaving now!”

A disembodied young voice screamed, “Mommy!” making Skye hesitate in her strides.

That made her peripheral vision falter and she didn’t see the plush squeaker until her heel planted in its belly, raising an unholy squeal. She stumbled in surprise, reaching out for anything to right herself, but then yelped as her ankle turned, shooting pain up into her knee. “Shit!” she managed to stifle under her breath as she crashed into the floor and the sofa.

“Ms. Manus!”

Skye looked up even as she struggled to her feet, trying to simultaneously fix her skirt and return her bag to her shoulder. “One of Mark’s toys,” she explained.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I should have cleaned it up.” Megan, cradling Skye’s 15 month old son Mark against her chest, started to put the boy down on the far end of the sofa.

She quickly waved the young woman back. “Don’t worry about it.” Her alarm sounded again as she limped toward the front door. “Just lock up after me. I’ll be home around 6 pm.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Mama!”

She forced a bright smile and warm tone into her voice as she spoke to her son. “Bye-bye, Mark. Mommy will be home later. Be good for Megan.”

His brown eyes widened, snaring her across the room. Resolutely she pulled the door open and her gaze found her son’s across the distance.

“I love you,” she finished sincerely, though she stood firm, not willing to risk being any later by indulging either of them in a hug.

“Wuv you, mama.”

Mark’s plaintive reply followed her out the door and rang in her ears as she race-hobbled toward the stairs beside the elevator. She knew the image of his arms lifting toward her as she shut the door between them would haunt her for several hours.

There you have it, a scene built using a scene goal. Let me know how it goes when you try using these steps to write your next scene.

~ Lara

Published by Lara Zielinsky

I have been writing and publishing for 20 years. I have been an editor of fiction for 15+ years. I am married, live in Florida and work from home full time as an editor.

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