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Story and Scene Goals

Last week, we looked at different options for scene and overall story goals. This week, we'll look at examples that illustrate the theory. Scenes are stonger if the characters involved have opposing goals that create tension. Conflict does not have to be a knock-down, drag-out fight scene.

1. At the overall story level, if Dick wants to marry Jane, the antagonistic forces try to keep them apart. Each scene involves a combination of characters fighting to make it happen or keep it from happening. Friends and foes may have their own goals that help or hinder their relationship. Sally is in love with Dick, so she does everything she can to capture his attention, until she feels forced to kidnap him.

2. Ted might decide that Jane isn’t really good for Dick. He can interfere by relating harmful gossip about Jane or by inserting himself into Dick and Jane’s date at scene level. He can try to make it look like Jane cheated on Dick.

3. Sally might want to own Spot because Spot is a perfect example of his breed and is worth gazillions in breeding fees. Sally might kidnap Spot or try to fool Dick by switching Spot with a dog that looks similar. Sally will either succeed or fail. Every time the antagonist fails in her goal, she is forced to come up with new tactics.

4. Dick might fight to keep a law because it is beneficial to him. Dick and Jane will fiercely debate their sides of the thematic argument with each other and with their friends and foes. They will gain support and lose support. At the climax of the conflict, the law will either be upheld or overturned.

5. Sally may not want Jane to leave the company because doing so would make it a lonelier place to work. Sally will take steps to convince Jane to stay. The steps can be comic, touching or obsessively creepy. Sally will either succeed or fail. Jane will leave, stay, or escape death by a hair’s breadth.

6. Jane believes in fairies. Everyone at school thinks she is crazy. She will attempt to prove her belief is valid. Her evidence will be convincing, or not. The more unsubstantiated the proof she offers, the crazier she appears. She may find allies in students who want to believe or who had unusual encounters themselves. The school authorities and other students will do everything they can to make her look insane. If the fairy queen is killing people, Jane might be blamed for the deaths. It will be even more important for her to prove she is innocent and the reader will be rooting for her to succeed. In the final climactic moment, the fairy queen appears and vaporizes half the school. They believe Jane, but it’s too late for most of them. She succeeds but others pay for their disbelief.

7. At the scene level, if Jane wants the corner office, Dick will refuse to give it up. Jane might appeal to their boss, stating she has the greater talent. She might undermine Dick's current project to make him look bad. If that doesn't work, she may try to bribe Dick. If that doesn’t work, she can threaten to kill him if he doesn't step down.

8. Sally is confronted with a situation that she can either allow or avert. Sally knows someone plans to embarrass Dick at a party. If she likes Dick, she will warn him or do something to change the situation so Dick isn’t embarrassed. If she hates Dick, she will sit back and enjoy the spectacle. If the reader likes Dick, they will feel bad. If they hate Dick, they will enjoy it with her.

9. Jane may need to tell Dick something important about Sally. Sally overhears Jane’s opening conversational salvo, “Dick, do you remember last week when you thought your office door had been locked, but you found it open?” Sally realizes Jane is about to tell Dick she saw Sally leaving Dick’s office. As Jane attempts to deliver the information, Sally distracts Dick so that he can’t listen. She might talk over Jane. She might try to steer Dick away from Jane. She may employ a full-frontal verbal assault that forces Jane to defend herself instead of delivering the important information to Dick. Jane can successfully dodge Sally’s attempts and succeed, or she will leave the field and attempt to tell Dick another day. If she fails, the scene goal isn’t satisfied and Jane will have to make another attempt to achieve it. A further complication has been created and Sally will have to find a way to silence Jane. Sally may bribe or threaten her in a subsequent scene.

10. Dick may believe that Sally is lying about where she went the night before. Dick needs reassurance. His mental security center is under attack. He will ask probing questions. If Sally is telling the truth, she will answer him calmly, but with a touch of irritation because she hates having her integrity questioned. If she is lying, she will have to invent the story on the fly. The more specific the questions, the more awkward and convoluted her answers will become. Sally will either storm off or turn the tables and accuse Dick of everything from leaving the toilet seat up to being the lone gunman who shot JFK. Dick will either back down or give her an ultimatum, “Tell me the truth or we’re done.” Dick will either succeed at his scene goal or fail. The reader will be rooting for Dick to hear the truth if they dislike Sally. They will be rooting for him to be wrong if they like Sally.

Coming up with scenes that keep the reader engaged is easy once you start thinking of them in this way. There are many subtle ways to build conflict and tension with opposing goals.

You can visit to download free scene-building worksheets.

For more information on how to craft believable conflict check out: 

For more information on scene goals, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict.

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