Whether drafting or revising, writers often imagine what could happen next and start typing immediately. For the lucky few, that’s a great strategy. For everyone else, it’s ignoring an opportunity that may sound like busy work, but in reality is anything but.
Among other things, Jack M. Bickham is known for observing that “Writers write. Everyone else makes excuses.” The quote lets us know we can trust him. In Scene & Structure (1993), Bickham differentiates the protagonist’s over-arching goal from the pressing one in the scene at hand. This is what he says about scene goals:
The prototypical scene begins with the most important character—invariably the viewpoint character—walking into a situation with a definite, clear-cut, specific goal which appears to be immediately attainable. This goal represents an important step in the character’s game plan—something to be obtained or achieved which will move him one big step closer to attainment of his major story goal.
In the last two decades, a lot has happened in and about fiction. Today, one might describe the scene goal this way: Whatever a character desperately wants to get or avoid.
The scene goal differs radically from the author’s goal. Successful scenes do more than supply backstory, introduce minor characters, create atmosphere, or break for an info-dump.
Tip: Focus on character desire; this gives scenes energy, focus, and momentum.
Scene goals assist with every stage of the writing process. Here’s what the scene goal can give you:
~ A genuine hook.
Avoid the summary or context that don’t truly entice.
You detect details that don’t belong in this scene, or possibly not in any scene.
How will other characters respond to the protagonist's determination?
How will the protagonist fail or learn from that failure?
~ Launch pad.
Before the climax, the goal isn’t realized, only appears to be, or results in worse trouble.
Isn’t it worth that little extra effort to build scenes from what characters—not authors—want? After all, that’s what readers want.