Today, I was working on outlining my current WIP, Arcana, and I found I was struggling to put together scenes into a cohesive outline. So, to find a solution, I researched. I read article after article, and watched video after video, and now I’ve realized what my problem was all along: character goals.
In this post, I’m going to go over the different resources I visited today and explain what I learned from them, in the hopes that you, dear reader, might learn something as well. Links to all the articles, websites, and videos mentioned will be listed at the end for convenience.
I started by reading an article by Janice Hardy on PubCrawl about writing scenes in a novel and she broke the process down into three basic steps:
- What is the protagonist trying to do? — aka the goal of the scene
- “What is keeping her from doing that?” — aka the conflict of the scene
- “What happens if she fails?”– aka the stakes of the scene.
Steps two and three, about including conflict and stakes, are two things I’ve been doing successfully. I’ve always made sure that every scene outlined in my novel had conflict in it, and I knew that each scene should bring the protagonist to “points of no return.” But I realized that all this time, the thing that’s been missing and the thing that’s been making my outline for my current WIP not click is including the goal of the scene.
Each of my scenes are contributing to the overall goal of the novel or the sequence. But I haven’t included specific goals for each scene. So I went back to my outline, and what I did was I wrote three things at the end of each scene–you guessed it, the three things outlined by Janice: the goal, the conflict, and the stakes.
But although that gave me a better understanding of the scene itself, the overall series of scenes still wasn’t cohesive. So I carried on with my research until I came back to an online course by The Novel Smithy called The Page-Turner Formula. One of the lessons in this course was about scenes, and after watching it, this was my main take-away:
Each scene must have a starting goal, and at the end, it must have a new goal that acts as a “bridge” to the next scene.
So I returned to my outline once again, and this time, at the beginning of the scene I would write the initial goal. Then, I would write the rest of the scene, and wherever the events led to, I would write the new goal of the protagonist. This allowed me to realize why my scenes were jumping around–the goal the protagonist should have logically been pursuing had often been ignored in favor of a different goal, that wasn’t at all connected to the prior scene.
Doing this creates a natural flow within your outline, where each scene connects to the next. And not only that, but it reminded me of a video I had watched months ago and made the concept of it finally click in my mind.
The video is on YouTube and it’s the writers of the television show South Park explaining plotting advice called “But… therefore…”. The writers (Matt Stone and Trey Parker) say that each scene should never be connected with an “and then,” but rather they should all be connected with either a “but” or a “therefore.”
For example, here’s an idea for a scene. “Tammy goes to the mall.”
In the following scene, an example that would not work could be, “She gets a cup of coffee.” The logical connection between “Tammy goes to the mall” and “She gets a cup of coffee” would be “and then.” It’s an example that demonstrates the scenes skip around/aren’t cohesive, and relates back to the earlier idea of talking about goals. The goal in the first scene is getting to the mall. Because the goal hasn’t changed, the second scene should still be about getting to the mall.
An example that would work could be, “But all the stores are closed.” Because the connection between the scenes is “but” instead of “and then,” it’s easy to see the scenes flow naturally. And we can connect this back to the earlier idea of goals because “all the stores are closed” is still related to the initial goal of going to the mall.
We can combine these ideas to ensure our scenes flow naturally in our outlines before we start the drafting process. We can use the idea of having specific goals for scenes that lead into the next ones, and we can ensure the scenes work together well by testing them with “but… therefore…”.