Each character in a scene needs a goal. Obviously the main character’s goal is the most important, but every character should be aiming for something, and those goals should be acted on and in doing so affect one another.
This doesn’t just refer to the protagonist/antagonist relationship, it should be true of all characters in a scene.
If Jack’s goal is to rob a bank and Jerry, the lookout, is starving hungry and wants to find something to eat, then Jerry’s goal is just background colour. If, however, Jerry abandons his lookout post to grab a sandwich and Jack ends up getting caught, then the goals all become pertinent to the same story.
It isn’t necessary to have the goals be similar or to run together, there are many ways to make them intersect. But if you let characters have inconsequential goals (inconsequential to the story) then although it will be perfectly believable it will be little more than a distraction from the main storyline.
This needs to happen in every scene, even the ones where people are reflecting on events or regrouping. The character must be looking to achieve something specific (although they may not succeed). The more tangible the goal the easier it is to hold the reader’s attention. The more you focus on what a character’s thinking the harder. It’s still possible, and most stories require some pondering, but the longer it goes on, the more difficult to hold on to the attention.
Some writers are very skilled at this kind of interior monologuing where the goal is to figure stuff out by thinking it through. Most writers are not.
If Jane wants to know why Dave left her and so thinks about things he said and what he meant, it will be very hard to raise the level of musing above wallowing self-pity.
If she decides to track down his ex-wife and get answers from her, then it becomes much more interesting.
That’s not to say the more metaphysical approach can’t be effective if done right, but it’s important it understand the balance and where things will be stacked against you.
A common approach is to have a character enter a scene with no clear idea of what he wants and he’s just hanging out to see what happens. Him working out what needs to be done is treated as part of the story, and this is obviously something that happens in real life. But the problem with it isn’t that it isn’t realistic, the problem is that it’s usually tedious to read.
It ends up being a long wait on the runway before taking off. And who enjoys sitting on the tarmac waiting for the flight to get going?
Once you know what it is a character wants it’s important to give them a plan of action. They need some kind of strategy and to implement it. Waiting to see how things pan out or what the other person’s move is first moves the focus off your main character. They in effect become a secondary character in their own story.
Each scene should also create the reason for another. This doesn’t mean it spells out what’s going to happen or how, but the reader should be aware that there is something more that needs to be addressed.
When a scene feels like it has come to a conclusion and stops like that’s the end, even when it isn’t, even when it’s obvious since there’s a big chunk of pages still to read, it kills the flow. That doesn’t mean the reader will stop reading, but that momentum you’d built up will dissipate.
You don’t necessarily need a cliffhanger or a big revelation at the end of each chapter, but you do need to show the story has places to go. It’s not enough to have places the story will be going, you need to make sure the reader is aware if it.
It may seem perfectly feasible to let the reader discover where the story is going and what the character has planned as and when they happen in the story, but the rule of thumb is very simple: If the character knows so should the reader. The goal, the plan, the next step, these are all things the character will be aware of in each scene. And so should the reader.
By the end of the scene the story shouldn’t be in the same place it was at the start of the scene. Events have to make the reader feel like things are progressing. They may not go according to plan, or things may actually get worse, but we shouldn’t be where we were. If events instigate no change then there’s no point in telling the reader about them. It’s just more taxiing up and down the runway.
What does your character want? What are they doing to get it? What are the consequences of the attempt?
Those three questions should be answered in each and every scene.
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