What is the difference between scene and story goals? What happens when these don’t align? Do they exist in your novel?
Our characters have goals which they pursue across the entire story. These goals may change as a result of character growth and transformation. They may abandon an initial goal that is part of a misbelief, for example, in favour of a true goal or heart’s desire. Or it may be a singular goal such as a true romance or life’s ambition.
It’s important to identify what this story goal is. This goal will affect how the characters behave from the outset. A singular goal is achieved step-by-step through the story structure of plot points and turning points, with the occasional setback along the way. Changing the story goal from misbelief to truth illustrates a character arc. It is also enacted through your story structure, with changes in life goals coming in reaction to turning points.
The macro-goal at the story level might be a specific want for justice, redemption, wealth, status or love.
So far so good.
But what about scene goals?
Making a Scene
Ever come across a scene in a story that just doesn’t work? Where you ask ‘why is this scene here? What is it for?’
That’s because every scene in a story has to make a contribution beyond a simple info-dump or filling x-number of pages. That contribution is tied to scene goals. No scene goal, no scene.
As an author, you might decide a scene has to illustrate some values of society, or some aspect of theme. This is altogether non-specific. Readers care about characters, so scene goals have to relate directly to character. The goal has to provide motivation to action.
In concrete terms, your protagonist wants something that is difficult to obtain or accomplish. Perhaps other characters in the scene have personal goals which are in conflict with that want. Perhaps they intend to obstruct the protagonist’s goal. Incompatible or clashing goals are a seed of conflict.
These micro-goals can be much more specific and tailored to the type of story, plot or sub-plot. The only requirement is that they impact the characters, positively in the achievement of the goal, or negatively when it is missed or obstructed.
Thinking about scene goals this way helps build in the story elements we took from Troy Lambert’s revision process: goals, motivation, conflict.
Convergence of Scenes and Story
Say we have a kidnap-and-rescue plot. The protagonist’s goal is to rescue the abducted character. If in one scene they suddenly go off to a flea market to collect antique china plates, what’s the scene goal? What’s the character’s motivation? The scene may be lively and fascinating but how does it connect to the main story goal of rescuing the victim?
If one of the market traders is the suspected kidnapper, then we have a game of cat-and-mouse as the protagonist tries to pick up clues about the kidnapping. Antique china plate collecting is no longer the goal, it’s covert interrogation. Perhaps the suspect catches on; their scene goal is to conceal and mis-direct. Conflict ensues.
What’s the score at the end of the scene? Has the protagonist advanced their main goal by accomplishing the scene goal to acquire information? If yes, what do they do with it in the next scene? If no, how do they react to the setback in the next scene? What is the new plan of action, the next micro-goal to rescuing the victim?
The Unbroken Chain
Scene goals must drive the story forward, or hold the protagonist back from the big resolution. Scene goals become chain links. A scene without a goal, or having an unrelated or irrelevant goal, breaks that story chain. This includes sub-plots and supporting story types (genre mixes). What is a functioning sub-plot if not a secondary story that contributes to a change of values or perception within the protagonist, pushing them toward their overall goal?
An example? Darcy’s intervention in the Wickham elopement in Pride and Prejudice (collect a sticker). This provides a key turning point in Lizzie’s attitude toward Darcy. We can see Wickham’s scene goals were all about misinformation and deceit in order to discredit Darcy and ingratiate himself with the Bennett’s. In each scene with Wickham, Lizzie sought to find evidence against Darcy that rationalised her prejudice (her misbelief).
And if the protagonist doesn’t know what that overall story goal is? They will have a series of micro-goals to achieve before they realise their life’s wish. These might be getting to work on time, staving off getting fired at work, getting a date with the shy girl in accounts. The story goal of quitting the dead-end job to be an artist might take several chapters to emerge. All of the previous micro-goals are seen as trivial misbeliefs hiding the true goal.
Rachel Ramirez at Pages and Platforms lists some common scene goals:
- Obtain the tangible (jewels, documents, a lover)
- Gain the intangible (approval, answers, a promotion)
- Rescue someone or themselves
- Stop someone from acting or stop something from happening
- Avoidance (pain, vulnerability, entanglements of love)
- Escape the physical (jail, illness, a dangerous location)
- Escape the mental or emotional (terror, a broken heart, self-hate)
The expression of those goals might take many forms; hiding as much as seeking; running as much as attacking; creating or destroying objects or relationships.
Ramirez’ second contribution is a checklist of questions for each scene goal:
- Is the goal integral to the overall story arc?
- Will the result of this scene lead to a new goal?
- Does the scene show, in action, what challenged the point of view character’s scene goal and their decision about how to proceed?
- Does the outcome of the scene impact the protagonist?
If you’re an Outliner or Plotter, listing your scene goals along with character motivations and conflicts shouldn’t come as a shock. Free-writers who don’t outline my find this another demand or constraint that runs counter to their writing instincts. That shouldn’t stop them jotting down goals, motives and conflicts at the top of the page before diving in. Nor should it stop anyone using those as editing criteria once the scene is written.