The most essential of essentials in your first scene is setting up your visible plot goal. Did I say visible? Yep. Why? Because if you ask writers what their protagonist’s plot goal is you will often get answers like “she finds love in the end” or “he finally sees his dream realized.” Those kinds of answers are not easy to visualize. They’re not specific. If I were to write that in a movie script, it would make no sense. So, think about how this scene would look on the big screen.
What does “she finds love in the end” translate to visually? Do you see your heroine getting on a plane after quitting her high-glamour NY City job and flying to the jungles of Central America, where her swarthy, ecstatic fiancé is pacing on the torn-up runway awaiting her arrival as a downpour of rain pelts him? You can picture this, right? And so as you think about your entire book, the ending of the story (which you may not have thought about yet), and most importantly the opening scene, you need to be able to formulate a visible picture of a visible goal. Granted, the details may change. Your heroine may end up getting off the plane in Paris instead of Guatemala City, but you need a visible goal for your protagonist to work toward, and it must be hinted at in the first scene, preferably the first page or two.
Why Should I Keep Reading?
Sounds crazy? Well, I speak truth! I have been to numerous writing workshops taught by the big-name writing teachers and they are in agreement. You can just ignore this if you want, but I’m hoping you won’t (because I think you’ll be sorry). Why is this so important? Because too many novels start off and go on for chapters without the reader having a clue as to what the book is about, what the protagonist is doing or what he/she actually wants, or what the protagonist’s goal for the book is. Without any of that, the reader is going to ask “Why should I keep reading?” And rightly so.
When I pick up a novel, if I can’t figure out just what the heck the protagonist is up to by the end of the first scene (barring the exception of a prologue that doesn’t feature said protagonist), I start getting antsy. I might push myself through the next chapter ever hopeful, but if I still don’t “get” what the book is about, see the visible goal, care for the poor protagonist who has obstacles the size of the Empire State Building in her way to reach her visible goal, then I usually give up. I can’t tell you how many “great” novels I have started (often recommended by friends) that I have done this with. I admit I’m a tough critic (you can guess why), but if I find even a few redeeming things in the first chapter, I will give a weak starting book the benefit of the doubt. But not for long. You’ve got to really reel me in with something—beautiful language, intriguing premise or world, or hooking mystery—for me to set aside my need to know what the protagonist’s visible goal is.
Five Basic Goals—That’s All, Folks
In a workshop I took with screenwriter/consultant Michael Hague, I noted the point he made that there are really only five general visible goals out there (and he’s speaking about movies—his arena—but this does apply to novels as well). Here they are:
The need to win—competition, the love of another, etc.
The need to stop—someone, something bad from happening, etc.
The need to escape
The need to deliver—a message, one’s self, an item, get to a destination (think Cold Mountain with Inman’s need to get home. I picture Nicole Kidman speaking in the movie trailer; “Come back. Come back to Cold Mountain.” A perfect example of a visible goal set at the start and followed through to the end.)
The need to retrieve—(think Indiana Jones and just about every action-adventure movie. There’s always a magic ring, a hidden or lost treasure, or it can be a lost love)
Make It Visible or We Can’t See It
If you write spiritual character-driven novels like I do, it may be hard to figure out the visible goal. I always seem to start with the spiritual and emotional goals like “she finds peace inside knowing she can’t change certain things.” Okay, well that’s a start. And I know as I plot my novels it’s only a start—because I have to then translate that into plot. Visible plot. In my relational drama/mystery Someone to Blame I wanted the reader, at the end, to care for the antisocial, bad guy antagonist Billy Thurber. I wanted “the reader to care for him in the end.” Well, that was vague. But I worked out a visible goal (that he actually didn’t know was to occur, but I did), and when he literally uncovers what he has been searching for (or running from), he arrives at the spiritual and emotional place I wanted him to be in. But I had to come up with a visible goal for him.
But wait—he’s not my protagonist. Does that mean . . .? I hope you have come to the conclusion I’m setting up here, because, yes, not just your protagonist but all your major players have to have a visible goal. If your hero’s goal is to retrieve the lost Ark of the Covenant, then your antagonist’s visible goal is to stop the hero from reaching that goal. There’s so much more to this, but I’ll leave you with these five basic goals so you can do your homework.
This week, figure out (if you haven’t already) what your protagonist’s visible goal is and make sure you have some hint or even a clear indication of what that is in your first scene and preferably within the first few pages. Often the first goal the character sets isn’t the actual plot goal, but I’ll delve into that more next week. Be sure to subscribe to this feed so you don’t miss this follow-up! And share your comments and thoughts on your scene after you do this.