More on Motivation: The How and Why Behind a Scene
No matter how carefully we set the stage for a scene, it will still fall flat if that scene has no purpose. When we talk about scene purpose, by the way, we need to consider two things:
- Why is this scene important to the story?
- Why is this scene important to the POV character?
Yes, indeed. Good scenes are filled with purpose. We need a reason for every scene we include in a story, and every scene we include needs a point-of-view character with something at stake. Our first task in scene-writing happens before we write a single word, before we describe the surroundings or put words in the characters’ mouths. We can’t begin putting a strong scene together until we know why it’s important.
As we’ve talked about before, there are many different types of scenes, and each can serve a different purpose from the writing standpoint. We vary the types of scenes to keep our readers interested. Having too many action scenes strung together can leave your reader exhausted. Too many internal scenes, on the other hand, are likely to get a little boring to the reader, no matter how well-written those scenes are. We need variations, so choose your scenes with that in mind. Mix short scenes and long scenes. Switch from fast-paced action scenes to quiet, more wistful moments in the story. Keep a good balance between dialogue and action.
Scenes can help reveal character, provide information the reader needs, generate suspense, set a mood, advance the plot, affect the pace of the story, and much more. As you plan each scene, think first of what YOU need to accomplish as a writer, then choose the type of scene that will best achieve that goal.
Now, let’s look at your scene’s most important character, that “point-of-view” character whose mind and body the reader will be using throughout the scene.
- What’s your POV character doing in this scene?
- Why is he doing it?
- How does he plan to do it?
Your characters, remember, are caught in conflict throughout the story. They have goals — both long-term and short-range — and they’re encountering complications, problems, and obstacles everywhere they turn.
Each scene you write should represent another attempt by your character to move closer to a specific goal.
I’ve highlighted that principle because it’s an extremely important one. We need to fully understand what it means and how we use it in our stories. Our characters must have goals. If they don’t, we haven’t really got a story to tell.
There are four very large-scale goals that affect characters in our stories. These life goals actually affect all of us. They’re fundamental needs. In fiction, we make one need predominate, giving it more emphasis than the others.
- We need physical safety and well-being
- We need emotional acceptance and belonging
- We need trust and truth from others
- We need some measure of material security
Which of these four basic life needs is most crucial to your story character? Are you telling the tale of a young woman whose life is in danger? Or is she searching for love and acceptance? Is your story one of deception and mystery where your character can’t be sure who’s telling the truth? Is it a rags-to-riches story with an ambitious young man scrabbling to reach the top and gain financial success?
This basic, overall goal will guide your main character’s actions throughout the story. Every scene you write should, in some way, represent the character’s desire and attempt to achieve this goal. Even though we don’t need to state it overtly or continually tell the reader about this goal, we must remember its importance. It will always be uppermost in the character’s mind, and it will affect all the character does.
That’s the character’s underlying need. These fundamental needs, however, are not specific goals, so we next need to look at how the character can fulfill that need. Does physical safety mean escaping from a violent abuser? Will your character’s need for acceptance be met if she’s invited to the school dance? Does finding truth mean solving a crime? Is your character striving to land a promotion that would mean financial security?
The pathway your character chooses to satisfy his or her basic need becomes the overall story goal — which, in turn, leads to the overall story question. Will the character succeed or fail in reaching the goal?
These are still long-range goals, but they affect every scene we write. Our characters’ actions are based on attaining these goals and on overcoming the obstacles in their way. Each time they encounter an obstacle or a new problem, they have to make adjustments. They’re forced to try new things, to come up with different plans. They still have the same basic need, and they’re still heading for the same goal. They just have to change their course a bit.
This is where scene goals fit in to the big picture. The scene goals might be compared to the individual steps the character takes on the pathway to the goal. Here are a few examples:
- A woman trying to escape an abusive relationship might have to secretly cut an opening in a wall
- A girl who’s hoping for an invitation to a dance might decide to change her appearance
- A detective investigating a murder might have to track down a suspect
- A man who wants to earn a promotion must prove his worth by winning a new client for the firm
These are quick possibilities that came to my mind. You can come up with many more possibilities, I’m sure. But these are just general ideas. You’ll want to take a look at your story, pinpoint the main character’s underlying needs, and establish a specific goal and story question. Then you can set your character’s course of action — and, of course, throw in obstacles at every turn. The more you know about your character’s purpose for each scene and why the outcome matters to him, the better your scenes will become.
These are a few key questions to consider:
- What matters most to my character overall?
- What specific goal will satisfy his basic need?
- How is he going to reach that goal?
- What is he trying to accomplish in this particular scene?
- How will this help him move toward his long-range goal
Whenever we write a scene, the POV character’s goals should be clear enough for the reader to ask, “Will the character succeed or fail?” Even in the simplest of scenes, the character should begin with a definite purpose, something he or she wants to accomplish. At times, the questions might be small. Not every scene is a fast-paced, all-out major event, remember. But all the while, even in the smallest matters, that underlying need is at work, adding depth to your character and influencing every decision and action he takes.
In summary, always know WHAT your character wants, HOW he plans to get it, and WHY it’s so important to him. Know, too, what YOU want to accomplish with each scene you include. Knowing these things will ensure that your scenes truly serve their purpose.
COMING SOON: Answering the Scene Question