Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox


Don’t leave your readers wondering, “Why are we here?”

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Use scene goals to keep your chapters off the chopping block

As an editor, I’ve seen first chapters that try to create an entire world, spill a character’s life story, introduce an entire cast complete with grocery list description, or rant about a social/political issue. What they seem to almost never do is start the story. A character sitting in a coffee shop thinking thoughts is not a plot. (yes, it’s almost always a coffee shop) You need scene goals.

Scene goals give your characters a reason to exist

Question 1: What does he/she want/need?

A character must want something at the beginning of the scene.

But wait? It’s the beginning of the story, she doesn’t have a problem yet.

Unless she sprung up wholly formed from the ground right before page one, we can assume your character already has a life, and every life has problems. If you don’t know what these problems are, then you need to work on your character’s backstory. Let’s consider our friend at the coffee shop. Rather than describe the setting around her, we need to give her a goal: her desire to eat her danish in peace.

What stands in his/her way?

This is the conflict. Stories must start with a conflict, right on page one, preferably in the first paragraph. This does not have to be the main conflict. It can also be implied.

For example, in the novel Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, her opening line. “I’ve read many more books than you,” only hints at the main conflict, but it’s there. Yoon knows many people who will read her book will likely be avid readers, it sets up a conflict between the MC and the reader.

The statement makes a challenge, and just like on the playground, the reader’s initial instinct would be to say, “No way.” It also challenges the reader to investigate further to see if this statement is actually true.

Let’s move back to our coffee shop example. Something needs to prevent our heroine from enjoying that danish in peace.

The chatty best friend with some kind of man trouble? (yawn) Dig a little deeper.
Are the Avengers fighting outside? (better)

How do we reveal that conflict?


Since the juxtaposition is pretty extreme, this sets a comedic tone. She could be pausing during her conversation to accommodate explosions, or struggling to spread the butter when the table shakes from the giant robot clomping down the street. Keep the focus on how the circumstances are affecting your main character, and how the main character is working to overcome that obstacle.

Now add emotion

How is the conflict affecting the character’s emotions? Is she annoyed by the Avengers? How do these emotions motivate her to react and respond? What do they drive your character to do? This is the beginning of your character arc. How a character responds to a motivation is the basis of their character. Emotion is the first reaction to any motivation. Make sure you do not ignore this essential element.

Where are we going?

Once you have a solid scene, complete with character motivation and conflict, we need to know how this scene relates to the overall plot. In other words, how does this scene get your character to their ultimate goal? For this, you need to have an outline, plot board, or even a summary of plot points. For discovery writers, this can be done after the first draft is finished.

Planning your scene- a template

What does this scene need to accomplish?

Beginning: What does my character want/need at the beginning of this scene?

Key elements

  1. Motivation: character’s need
  2. Conflict: what stands in the way?
  3. Stakes: what will happen if the character fails?

Body: Show character working toward this goal and struggling against the obstacle. Make sure the MC’s actions are consistent with her character arc.

Results: What changes? Possible outcomes:

Possible outcomes: Is the conflict resolved, or unresolved?

If the conflict is resolved, propel the reader forward by increasing tension.

Increase tension in a resolved conflict:

  1. Are new conflicts introduced? If so, how?
  2. Did solution create more problems? If so how?

If the conflict is unresolved, raise the stakes by adding complicating factors

  1. Has the situation gotten worse? If so how?
  2. Have the consequences gotten worse? If so how?

This will force your MC to regroup and formulate a new plan.

Dark moment/new question

The secret to getting readers to turn the page is ending your chapters with a compelling question or an “Oh crap!” reveal. This does not mean every chapter should end on a cliff hanger. (You will annoy your readers.)

If the scene’s purpose is formulating the plan, leave the reader with a sense of tension about the upcoming mission. If your scene’s purpose if increasing the stakes, drop the critical information close to the end of the scene.

In these scenarios, the reader will be asking, “What will happen next?” This will help propel your reader into the next chapter.

Make a plan for your scene, or your scene will fail

Planning your scenes with specific goals will help ensure each scene is an effective part of your story. Scene goals will give your characters a purpose and keep your story from wandering. They will increase tension, raise the stakes, and propel your readers to the very last page.

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33 thoughts on “Give Your Scenes a Purpose with Scene Goals- author toolbox”

  1. These are such great tips for first chapters, or any chapter really! I’m a big plotter so I like to make sure each chapter or scene has a specific reason for existing. Thanks for your advice!

  2. Got some comments on character motivation/scene purpose from one of my short stories from an editor recently; this helps explain what they referred to clearly and succinctly. This will be a big help in the future for me.

    1. Glad you found this helpful. I always wonder how much I should explain terminology when I give feedback. I don’t want to insult the client, but I also want to make sure they understand what I’m talking about. Lol

  3. This is a great, helpful article! Plotting scenes seems to be a theme this month for the author toolbox bloghop, and it’s a timely topic for my revision work to tighten up and amp up some scenes. I’ll be back to reread this month, I’m sure!

  4. Excellent advice and important to remember when writing and editing. I know that my draft has a lot of scenes that don’t fit or don’t have a purpose. When it comes to editing, these will be cut or edited heavily!

  5. What does the main character want, why does she want it, and how can I stop her from getting it? These are the three elements of the scenes I write.
    Great job breaking this subject down.

  6. Love this post. It’s the second one I’ve read today on the topic. The first question I ask myself when I’m editing that first draft is: What is the purpose of the scene?” If I can’t answer that for a scene, then I think about how I can remove the scene. I do this for every scene until I’m happy that each scene has a purpose. Then I go back and answer all the questions you’ve posed above.

  7. Great advice! I’m a true believer of conflict existing from scene one – why else would the story start there? And I also feel that the conflict carries on till the character finds a way to deal with it, i.e. reach the end of the story. And while the character might not always be aware of its existence or it might not be in the foreground of every scene, it will continue to lurk until it is exorcised. Chapters serve either to strengthen or weaken them.

  8. I think I would trip over this more if I wasn’t a plotter. I’m able to go through my outline and make sure there is conflict in every scene. Thanks for this great post. 🙂

  9. Great post! Stories are really just concentric circles all linked together. A story needs chapters/scenes that have their own rising and falling action, and all of these chapters and scenes need to have rising and falling in the amalgam. You capture this idea very succinctly.

    Thank you for sharing!

  10. “Stories must start with a conflict, right on page one, preferably in the first paragraph.” SO TRUE! We need to be transported as instantly as possible into the character, stakes, and conflict – even if they are only preliminary versions of bigger conflicts and stakes that will come later. Don’t pitter around on that first page! Get us into it!

    Also great points on scene planning. Some people view scenes as a point-A-to-pont-B tool, when in reality, scenes are EVERYTHING. They are character, setting, stakes, conflict, plot, twists… and so on. So they must do heavy lifting while still coming off clearly.

  11. Conflict, conflict, conflict.. I have been a beta reader and CP for so many stories that don’t introduce the conflict soon enough.

    Thanks for all the wonderful advice!!

  12. Hi! I agree 🙂 When write a novel, I map out each chapter with a beginning, middle, and end. This helps me keep conflict and action going in every chapter so I’ve never had to cut an entire chapter or scene! 🙂

  13. My mentor in the last Pitch Wars I was in gave me a list almost EXACTLY like this to go through my scenes with. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so helpful!

  14. I will echo almost all of your comments, but it is still true, this is a great breakdown to ensure your scenes are performing the function they should. After I check for these, I then ask what have I showed about my world (especially since I write fantasy but it still holds true in showing the world of your character in any genre), what have I shown about my characters relationships, and is there anything else I can use this scene to show or reinforce. If I can I want each scene to pull as much weight as it can, but the conflict, emotions, and importance to plot are the most critical to have in each scene. Thanks.

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