Tag: story goals

How to Plan Your Novel–Scene Design Part 2

My last post, “How to Plan Your Novel — Scene Design”, provided a list of things you might want to think about before you start writing. It also focused on one of those things in particular– the importance of establishing goals for the characters in the scene.

Once you have decided on a goal, it is time to give some thought to how to crush any hopes and dreams the character may have of achieving or benefiting from accomplishing the goal. This is called “the disaster”. The basic formula is GOALS –> CONFLICT –> DISASTER. The drama that gets your readers to turn the page is rooted in conflict and disaster. The oft-quoted metaphor that you should get the protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at him applies here. Maybe a better way to think of it is to throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.

There are four basic answers to the question–will the character achieve his goal in this scene? They are “yes”, “yes–but”, “no”, and “no–and”. The first answer–“yes” should rarely, if ever, be used before the ending of the book. A few months ago, I read an action thriller with a pretty good premise and plot and some decent characters. It could have been a good novel, but the story’s glaring problem was that the protagonist was successful at everything he did. The answer to every goal he had in the book was yes, and that lack of drama made for a mediocre story.

There are three appropriate answers to the question in the middle of a novel. The first is in the “be careful what you ask for” department. The answer is “yes–but”. In this scenario, the character achieves the goal she is pursuing in the scene, but there are unpleasant consequences to that success. Maybe the gal gets the guy, but she also gets a dose of the clap.

…throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.

An example of this is in the book “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. The protagonist, Clarise Starling, an FBI academy trainee, fulfills her goal to get a role in the Buffalo Bill investigation. That success nearly costs her a chance to graduate from the academy and subjects her to an internal affairs complaint that threatens to ruin her career before it even gets started.

“No” is the second answer that creates a disaster. In this case, the character is seeking something and gets the metaphorical door slammed in her face. In “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo, Michael Corleone meets with mobster Moe Greene to tell him the family wants to buy out his casino share. Greene’s response is, “I’ll buy you out. You don’t buy me out.” His answer is a firm no that throws an obstacle in the way of Michael’s goal to move the family to Vegas. It also provides the impetus for a dramatic scene with lots of great conflict and sharp dialog between characters.

The scene with Moe Greene in The Godfather is notable in that not only does Moe say no, but Michael says no to the no of Moe. (Sorry for the bad poetry.) Michael’s no is an example of the third type of disaster–“no–and”. This disaster is perhaps the most effective. Not only is the goal of the character blocked by a firm no, but there are far-reaching consequences from the character’s desire and attempts to accomplish the goal. In Moe Greene’s case (spoiler alert), the no he receives from Michael costs him both his share of the casino and his life.

So as you plan your scenes, know what the characters in the scene want and use one of the three disasters to dash their hopes. Hit them with the shovel as they try to dig their way out of the hole.

Check out my book, Trail to Peril.

Available on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback.

How to Plan Your Novel–Scene Design

In “An Easy Way to Outline Your Novel,” I describe a simple process to start organizing a novel where you layout brief descriptions of the story’s scenes into the beginning, middle, and ending sections. When you finish, it’s time to start writing, right? You can, but some other things would be good to know before you start pounding the keyboard.

Structure a scene like the whole novel. Fictional works have similar structure at different scales, sort of like fractal geometry. The story will have a beginning, middle, and end. Likewise, the beginning, middle, and end of the story all have a beginning, middle, and end. Scale it down further to scenes, and we find the same pattern. You can think of a scene as a sort of micro-novel. It has all of the elements of the larger work of which it is a part.

This means you will need more columns in your spreadsheet because there are some other things to think about before you start writing. Here are some of the items in mine.

What do the characters in the scene want?
What is the disaster that occurs to the characters in the scene?
What is the point-of-view?
Where does the scene take place?
What time of the day?
What is the duration of the scene?
What characters are in the scene?
What characters are off-stage?
What is the emotional condition of the characters?

Nearly every novel features the hero or protagonist struggling to accomplish a goal.

The plan is to discuss all of these. For now, let’s look at the first one–what do the characters want?

Nearly every novel features the hero or protagonist struggling to accomplish a goal. Think of examples like, Clarice trying to find the serial killer in “Silence of the Lambs”, or Paul Atreides seeking revenge against the Emperor and the Harkonnen in “Dune”. Nearly every scene in your novel should likewise have goals for the characters that appear in it. In “Life of Pi” there is a one-sentence chapter/scene where he sings Happy Birthday to his mother. In one poignant sentence that constitutes the whole scene, the author expresses his goal–to be reunited with his family–and the grief he feels at realizing his hopes are fruitless.

The character’s goals in each scene set up the conflict between characters that make a story exciting and show the protagonist’s struggle to accomplish the overriding goal of the whole novel.

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril”. It’s available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.