Scene Goals: Getting Back to What My Hero Wants to Make Happen

Many authors say the writing process is different for each book they write. I’ve certainly found that to be true, in many ways. Let’s not even talk about how much longer this novel has taken me to write–to draft–than anything else I’ve worked on. Let’s not talk about finding out your hero wasn’t who you thought she was, or that the historical event you thought you were writing around wasn’t actually part of this story.

BUT…this week, I’m coming back to a piece of the process that has been a true and necessary part of every story I’ve successfully told. I’m not talking about success in terms of publication, but in terms of writing The End as many times as needed and getting that story to the point where it feels submittable. Writing and “finishing” a book.

And that’s setting down for each scene (or for each “bit” in a picture book) what the hero is trying to make happen. Their goal, yes,  but specifically a goal that means they have to execute steps to reach that goal. The thing I always come back to, and the thing that I think actually helps me write the scenes, is that the goal doesn’t have to be a big one. Maybe it even shouldn’t be, although I’m very unfond of anything to do with “shoulds.” But I find that the smaller goals, the ones that are driven by everyday things like hunger or tiredness or anticipation or selfishness, are also more personal and, consequently, perhaps more engaging. Obviously, as you get further toward the crisis and climax (or climax and crisis–I always get the order mixed up!), the goals may get bigger. Still, I think a goal of say, Finding the Code (to disarm the bomb) is a more immediate, more relatable-to goal, than Disarming the Bomb and even more so than Saving the World (by disarming the bomb).

Today, after spending all these months working through Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and developing a basic plot from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, I finally started opening up each scene card in Scrivener and writing down Caro’s goal. I don’t have any bombs in my story (okay…yet!), but I do have big, emotional problems that she’ll have to face. Even saving-the-world type problems. Today, though, in Act I, here (with some names/elements changed to protect the innocent) are the scene goals I wrote down for Caro.

  • To ride in an automobile (circle 1912)
  • To get her father on her side about the automobile ride
  • To persuade, argue, or negotiate her mother into letting them go in the automobile
  • To have fun on her first automobile drive
  • To call her brother on his bluff
  • To get her (injured) brother out of the automobile
  • To see her brother at the hospital

So, okay, yes, you can see that there are bigger problems at stake than just the action. But if you look at the part she can actually try to impact, the actions are things like taking a drive,  embarrassing her brother, and getting him out of a car. Underneath it, sure, are things like being in charge of her own life, rescuing a loved one, and taking a stand. Those, however, aren’t her scene goals. They’re themes or big story threads or needs that have to be resolved, somehow, by the end of the book.

They’re not specific, personal actions.

Along with each goal, I add a few notes about obstacles: Who does what and why to get in her way? Who does what and why to help her, but–perhaps–make problems for her later? What does she herself do to create the problem? And does she achieve or not achieve the goal by the end of the scene?

I’m sure these goals and–oh, yeah–those obstacles will change. The whole danged plot will change. But…

I think I’ll be able to write the scenes. This is the story for which I’ve started a first draft twice, gone pretty far along in the page count, and then realized I was struggling with a hairball-mess of a tangle I didn’t know how to clean up. That’s why I’ve backed up and replotted and why, this week, I’m retrying that step of the process that’s worked for me in the past. Maybe it’s the one part I need to follow for every book I write, or at least for every book I write until structure becomes more automatic and natural for me. (Some day?)

All I know is that it feels at once familiar and reassuring, that it’s helping me visualize Caro out there, doing her thing, fighting her battles, and living her story. And possibly, just possibly, helping me tell it.


  1. claudine says:

    Great reminder. I should do that next. Thanks!


  2. Cinette says:

    I myself have been a die-hard pantser for a long time, but I’ve finally seen the light and started my next novel by creating a detailed outline. We have yet to see how this will turn out!


  3. Agreed. I have found that just writing out what each character wants in a scene or chapter has helped me jumpstart my brain into visualizing and writing. Glad you still have time to write!! PS- I like the bit about stating the obstacles to each “mini-goal”. Hmmm…will start doing that tomorrow!


    • beckylevine says:

      If I don’t state the obstacles, I have no idea what my hero has to do to WORK at her goal. Plus, I think the obstacles help me hone in on those secondary characters’ goals.


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