Don’t leave your readers wondering, “Why are we here?”
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?
- Motivation: character’s need
- Conflict: what stands in the way?
- 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:
- Are new conflicts introduced? If so, how?
- Did solution create more problems? If so how?
If the conflict is unresolved, raise the stakes by adding complicating factors
- Has the situation gotten worse? If so how?
- 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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