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I've been reading a lot of books on scene writing. One thing in common--found in every single book--is that the main character in the scene should have a goal. That goal should be made obvious as early as possible and repeated often to make sure the reader has clarity. This is said over and over in writing craft books.

Of the approximately ten most popular books on scene writing, there is only one that even hints at anything different. That is the 1965 grand-daddy of scene structure, "Techniques of the Selling Writer" when he casually refers in one sentence to the idea that some scenes are happenings, which bring people together, but no goal or conflict is involved.

One sentence in the history of advice on scene writing suggests there might be the rare scene without a clear goal.

But when I read scenes from bestsellers, like Dan Brown's Origin or Dean Koontz's Devoted, they often begin with either a slice of life, some back-story, internal thoughts, or a character bumbling along observing their surroundings. There is no clear goal at all in some cases or else it may only appear very late in the scene and then often it's a passive goal like "avoid some rowdy people" or "tell someone it's bedtime."

Examples:

Dean Koontz Devoted, Scene #1: Megan Bookman feels time is running out. Looks at her non-verbal eleven year old son. Loves him, but struggles. Tells him it's bedtime soon. [Goal of telling her son it's bedtime, only revealed in the last sentence.]

Dean Koontz Devoted, Scene #2: Woody Bookman saves a story he's writing on the computer. He is smart. Lying in bed, he contemplates his gum transplants and whether a girl would ever want to kiss him. [No scene goal. Just reflection.]

Dan Brown Origin, Scene #1: Robert Langdon sees a bunch of crazy things: 40 foot tall dog, giant spider, wobbly stairs. Then he talks to a host who welcomes him to the museum and to the secret meeting. Contemplates his invitation and the person who invited him. Langdon is now [several pages in] "eager to learn what his former student was about to announce." [First hint of a clear goal.]

Dan Brown Origin, Scene #3: Langdon is wandering along in the museum looking at symbols and people. [He's just thinking. I suppose we could say that his goal is to attend the gathering mentioned in scene #1, but this scene is just observations and reflections.]

What am I to make of this? I find the scenes mostly engaging because they are revealing character, backstory or setting in an interesting way.

But why then, does every single writing craft book say that the goal should be so crystal clear from the beginning of the scene.

Am I reading too much into this advice?

Can a goal be as simple as "observe my surroundings," "remember my past," "reflect on what I care about" or "get ready for bed while I think about something"?

If so, why don't craft books communicate these subtleties?

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    Someone wrote Sharknado, too.
    – wetcircuit
    Oct 12, 2022 at 16:51
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    "That goal should be made obvious as early as possible and repeated often to make sure the reader has clarity." Yes, if you SHOW it, as opposed to TELL it. (But read my longer answer as well...)
    – Erk
    Oct 13, 2022 at 1:45
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    Careful, there are myriad reasons to avoid correlating "best seller" with "best written"
    – BruceWayne
    Oct 13, 2022 at 2:29
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    "Scene writing" to me suggests scripts for plays or movies. These are rather different beasts than novels (less fluff, for one thing). Is the intended audience for your advice books script writers or novel writers? I wouldn't judge advice to script writers by what best selling novels do.
    – R.M.
    Oct 13, 2022 at 13:07
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    There are two types of people breaking the rules: those who don't know what they're doing, and those who know exactly what they're doing. Oct 14, 2022 at 10:54

4 Answers 4

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You'll see that experienced writers sometimes break the rules because they know them enough to break them in ways that work.

But, not every part of a book that looks like a scene (is formatted as a scene) is a scene.

In "Techniques of the Selling Writer" Swain divides a text into Scenes and Sequels.

A Scene has Goal, Conflict, and Outcome. A Sequel has Reaction (to the outcome), Dilemma, and Decision (making up the next goal).

The second scene in "Devoted" sounds more like a Sequel to me but I haven't read the book so I could be wrong.

The happenings you mention are part of the Sequel, not the Scene.

Personally, I'm a bit dubious about Sequels, at least how they are being explained in lots of literature. But then again, I believe everyone should try to find their own way to write... not that figuring out how other people do it isn't going to help... mostly the opposite...

Sometimes an author would split a scene into several sections of text (formatted as scenes), for instance, to create tempo variations or suspense.

Good literature seldom sounds like the perfect project plan where Character A comes up with Plan B and pursues goal C to achieve it. Sometimes characters, just like human beings, aren't entirely sure what the goal is... sometimes it's to figure out what the goal is...

All of your scenes are from the beginning of the books (if I understand your question correctly).

Different parts of the book serve different purposes and not all of them are 100% goal driven. For instance, in the beginning, we want to know the people, and their normal world, and get just a hint of the problems to come.

Check out the third act of those books. You'll see much more goal-oriented scenes because now the protagonists are fighting to the death (physical, professional, and/or psychological) with the antagonistic forces. If the book does not have goal-oriented scenes in this section I'll be cocky and say it's either a failure or some kind of literary experiment...

In my opinion, the bulk of a story should contain Scenes. If you check out Swain he suggests a Sequel should never be longer than a couple of pages and he and others suggest that not all Scenes must be followed by a Sequel. You can skip Sequels but you should never have one Sequel after another (skip Scenes).

Does a Scene have to have a goal?

As mentioned, no, at the beginning (as well as the very end, after the climactic moment) there could be many reasons for a scene to not have a clearly defined goal, if it has a more important purpose than displaying conflict. Especially the beginning of stories can actually benefit from a lower pace where we get to know characters and setting and touch upon the conflict from a distance.

But even in the beginning, a story with too many scenes without a goal will have problems.

Why?

Because a scene without a goal means we have a POV character that does... what in this scene? And worse yet, if there is no goal to thwart, what should the scene's antagonist do? What should they oppose? How does the scene get conflict if no one wants anything in it and there is nothing to oppose? No plans to ruin, no wills to fight?

We all want the ending of the book to have the largest conflict, meaning the most urgent and pronounced goals that can be most powerfully opposed by the antagonists are located in this part of the book...

Some stories may not have enough conflict to make it possible to start with great goals and great conflict without running out of steam long before the end. The competence of the author will decide if this is a problem or not.

Other stories are great because they have a type of conflict that can allow for great conflict from the first page. But stories can be great for many other reasons than conflict.

And some stories are considered great by some people while others don't agree.

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    Your take makes sense to me and is more balanced than most all of the writing craft books on scenes. They really do all say that every scene should have a goal, no exceptions. I find it frustrating that I haven't yet found one that is more nuanced (with the exception of Swain).
    – Steve L
    Oct 13, 2022 at 3:46
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    Your article Rethinking the Sequel is excellent. It addressed many of my own confusions and nails down a definition more completely than other sources.
    – Steve L
    Oct 13, 2022 at 4:18
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    @SteveL That's because there are also rules how to write a text book that sells ;) and writing a lot of "it depends" style advise is not one of them.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 13, 2022 at 8:51
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    @SteveL On a more serious note, as a teacher I often find it more effective when teaching beginners to talk in fairly absolute terms about general concepts, even though there are in practice exceptions to everything. Advanced learners discover the exceptions on their own, and actual beginners often get confused or misled by too much emphasis on the (rare) times when a general principle does not hold.
    – xLeitix
    Oct 13, 2022 at 8:53
  • @SteveL, you've got the right idea with reading books, if not to get all the info, at least to add nuance to writing advice. After all, writing is a craft and as such requires the study of other writers to be mastered. And as xLeitix says, most writing books assume you know little or nothing about writing. Because that's what most people want. That's where most beginning writers are stuck... somewhere between the initial idea and the first draft of the book. This also makes the requirements of the text different... Think crawling-walking-running...
    – Erk
    Oct 14, 2022 at 10:11
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Characters have goals like "be a good parent" or "find a stable relationship." The author needs to know this goal while they write the scene. That doesn't mean the scene needs to say "Steve really wanted to be a good dad" explicitly. It means when you decide to show us someone's actions, words, and sometimes thoughts, those things should show us that person's goals.

I haven't read Devoted, but presumably you come to learn why she told her kid it was bedtime. Was it because good parents help their kid get enough sleep? Or was it because she needed some alone time off duty from how hard parenting is? The scene doesn't have to tell you that explicitly, or then. But there is a reason that scene is in the book. You are shown that character, what matters to them, what is hard for them, what they do, what they say. Why?

Nobody has a goal of "reminisce." A writer may make a character reminisce, and if they do, they do for a reason. A scene may be present for any number of reasons. Do you know why those scenes were in those books? (Not what the character was actively and deliberately trying to achieve in those scenes?)

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I'll disagree with all that advice.

I think the author needs a goal for the scene, something specific they want to convey. Like "Megan Bookman feels time is running out." or something about Robert Langdon's personality, he's interested in symbols and people, he's the type of guy that spends spare time wandering in a museum.

The characters do not need a clear goal.

I would guard against too much of these not-much-going-on scenes; for the most part readers are looking for conflict, puzzles, etc. But to properly convey mood and atmosphere and personality, sometimes you need to show what people do in their down time. Megan worries about her child. Langdon wanders looking for mental stimulation. Mary wanders in the mall shopping and doesn't buy anything. Bill looks for funny animal videos on his phone.

It is in that downtime, when we have no specific goal to accomplish, that what is important can float to the top, some basic personality, or priorities, or concerns. In writing, such scenes are useful for character building.

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    This exactly. The scene where Jane-Protagonist wanders around the corner at the office party and sees a dragon eating her coworker has very little to do with Jane-Protagonist's goals (prior to seeing dragons), but everything to do with the author's goals. (But Jane-Protagonist does eventually need to have goals.)
    – Jedediah
    Oct 13, 2022 at 16:44
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I tend to modify the advice. The main character shouldn't have a goal in every scene (after all, what's Harry Potter's goal in the scene where Minister of Magic Fudge talks to PM of Britain (not Jim Hacker) about Voldemort?) Rather the WRITER should have a goal for each scene... i.e. why does the audience need to see this action. Taken from that perspective, all of those scenes have very big goals that you already outlined.

Even if you do not take that argument, the rule is "Have a goal." No one ever said it had to be a goal related to the story or cannot evolve. The scenes that you have described the character has the goal of 1.) Being a good mother, 2.) investigate his attractiveness following recent surgery, 3.) Learn WTH is going on here? 4.) Take some me time to enjoy an obscure specialization that I received a PhD in.

(FYI, I've never read any of these books, but I'm familiar with the Robert Langdon character from other books he's in).

No one said the goal had to be important... these establishing scenes are to show you who these characters are and what they specifically bring to the table in terms of the story (Robert Langdon for example, is a Harvard Art Professor who specializes in symbiology and, based on the two books I read where he is the protagonist, does not ordinarily do anything involving global conspiracy thrillers save for the fact that the antagonists of those tend to like using obscure symbiology that Langdon can uniquely consult on, thus drawling him into a plot involving papal succession and particle physics that he doesn't ordinarily get involved with.).

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