May 8, 2012

Does Every Scene Need a Goal?

Page from chemistry book

I love when I make my readers think.  Even better is when they turn around and make me think even deeper about an issue.  *smile*

Yesterday, K.J. Pugh blogged about my last post (where I talked about cliffhangers and hooks) and brought up the issue of sequels I briefly mentioned.  No, we’re not talking about book sequels, but about scenes and sequels.

In that post, I linked to two articles by author Janice Hardy that explained more about scenes and sequels.  As Janice explains:

“Basic scene structure goes something like this:

Protag has a goal. They’ll act in way to achieve that goal throughout the scene. They’ll either get the goal, don’t get the goal, get the goal but there’s a catch, not get the goal and make things worse. Scene ends, because the goal has been resolved in some way.

Then the protag reacts. They’ll have an emotional reaction, think about what they just went through, and then try to figure out what to do next. This is the sequel.”

Janice goes on to point out that sequels can be anywhere from a single line to several pages long.  But one other thing Janice mentioned in that article struck K.J. as interesting:

“Sequels have no goals to move the story forward.”

This idea of the protagonist not having a goal can throw us for a loop.  Doesn’t that go against so much other advice we’ve heard about ensuring our protagonist is proactive and not passive, making sure our story is moving forward, maintaining the tension, etc.?

The Differences between Scenes and Sequels

The idea of scenes and sequels came from Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.  The differentiation he makes between them is not the same as how we usually think of scenes.  In his book, he says:

Scenes are made up of:

  • Goal: What the protagonist wants at the beginning of the scene.  This is where all that good proactive stuff for our characters come in.
  • Conflict: The obstacles standing in the way.
  • Disaster: What happens that prevents the protagonist from reaching their goal.

Sequels are made up of:

  • Reaction: How the character reacts to the Disaster.
  • Dilemma: The choice the character faces because of the Disaster.
  • Decision: What the character decides to do next.

That last point is key: What the character decides to do next.  That is, the Decision becomes their new Goal for the next scene.

If we understand the point of sequels, it suddenly makes a lot more sense why many sequels are only going to be a sentence or two.  Sequels are where the character adapts to the previous action, revelation, problem, etc. and decides on a new goal.  In that regard, every scene has a sequel, even if it’s just the character deciding to try the same thing again.

“Traditional” Scenes vs. “Scene and Sequel” Scenes

We usually think of a scene as events that occur in a specific place and/or time.  When the story jumps ahead a day or switches to a different location, boom, we have a new scene.  That’s how screenplays think of them too.

But Dwight’s viewpoint defines a scene more narrowly.  This isn’t good or bad.  I’m just pointing it out so we’re all speaking the same language.  Dwight’s view of a scene centers around a character’s goal.

What I find interesting about this perspective is that a traditional scene can thus contain several of Dwight’s scenes.  Character tries A (Goal), but it makes things worse (Conflict/Disaster).  Crap (Sequel).  Character tries B (new Goal), etc.

Anyone who has studied Dwight Swain’s Motivation-Reaction Units (MRUs) might be able to see where I’m going next with this.  MRUs are this same idea on a smaller scale.  Something happens (Motivation for…) which causes something else (Reaction).

Everything Comes Down to Cause and Effect

At their essence, stories are one big cause and effect chain.  A leads to B, which leads to C, etc.

We can see this on the micro sentence level with MRUs:

A shot rang out. (A leads to…)  Susie jumped (B leads to…) and knocked the platter of filet mignon off the table. (C leads to…)  Rover scarfed up their dinner before it hit the floor.

We can also see this on the macro scene level with Dwight’s definitions of scenes and sequels:

Susie wants to impress the handsome stranger by cooking a big dinner for him. (Goal A leads to…)  But her good-for-nothing brother had downed the nice wine she’d picked up and gotten himself rip-roaring drunk.  So drunk that he decided to start target practice outside the dining room window after she kicked him out of the house. (Conflict B leads to…)  After dealing with his antics all day, she was jumpier than usual, and Rover had an excellent dinner. (Disaster C leads to…)  Crap. (Reaction D leads to…)  Well, she couldn’t let the handsome stranger starve. (Dilemma E leads to…)  Hopefully, she could convince him to forgive her for serving a delivery pizza instead. (Decision F/new Goal)

Does it really matter with any of the above whether we call it goals, reactions, decisions, etc.?  Not really.  Just like with the small scale view of MRUs, everything is a  motivation (cause) for what comes after it, and everything is a reaction (effect) to what came before it.

One giant cause-effect chain links events from the beginning to the end of a story.  What matters most from a reader-who’s-unable-to-stop-turning-pages-even-at-2-a.m. perspective is that it all flows.

Why Sequels Cause Problems for Writers

The problems with sequels—those sections where the protagonist is adapting from a failed goal to a new goal—often come down to an issue of flow, and how they don’t link well to what comes before or after:

  • Sometimes we have a too-long sequel during an inappropriate time.

Does the character have time to ponder and weigh pros and cons right then?  If not, then a long sequel is ignoring the effects of the Disaster that came before it and how the character needs to decide now.

  • Sometimes a sequel wanders or doesn’t seem to have a point.

Does the character reach a Decision, a new Goal?  If not, then the sequel is breaking the chain of cause and effect.

  • Sometimes a sequel loses the tension in a story.

Does the character worry about the consequences of the Disaster?  If not, then the sequel isn’t linking to past and future story events by making sure readers are up to speed on the stakes, the consequences of failure, and potential future issues (foreshadowing).

Tips for Making Sequels Work

So let me share a few tips on making the most of sequels:

  1. When you’re writing, don’t worry about if a section is a scene or sequel.  Think cause and effect, sentence-by-sentence, action to reaction, scene to scene, and you’ll never go wrong.
  2. Don’t worry about sequels being passive unless the flow isn’t working.  The protagonist does have a goal in a sequel: Come up with a new plan.  *grin*
  3. Just as with every other aspect of our writing, write tight.  The sequel should be only as long as needed for the character to explore the consequences of the Disaster and reach a new Goal.  That exploration can include all those foreshadowing, mood-enhancing, character development nuggets, however.
  4. Make the sequel feel “immediate” by weaving in external actions.  Remember the two-paragraph guideline? (I blogged about the how and the what of the guideline as well.)  Avoid sequels with several paragraphs all in the character’s head.  If the story has time for a long sequel, then it has time for the character to do something while they’re thinking and debating.
  5. For those few instances of standalone sequels (these still follow a scene, but are separated in time and/or space, and thus have a blank line before them), use cliffhangers/hooks the same way we would at the end of any other scene.  The nature of a sequel (internal thoughts and decisions) often leads to an Emotional Journey hook, but other types might fit as well.

To answer the question in this post’s title, yes, I think every scene (and sequel) needs a goal—in that the characters always need to be progressing toward something.  Stories are about change.  And if a scene (or sequel) is static, that’s when the pacing feels slow and the story seems dead.

However, as I pointed out in number 2 above, sometimes that forward progress might be as simple as a character knowing they need to come up with a new plan.  They’re still striving toward something even as they’re reacting to what came before.  And that struggle is what creates tension, keeps the story moving, and makes readers interested.

Have you studied Dwight’s scene and sequel or MRU concepts before?  Do you agree they’re the same cause-and-effect idea on different scales?  Do you think in terms of scene and sequel or in terms of cause and effect or something else?  Do you struggle with sequels?  Do you have any other tips to share on how to make sequels work?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Raelyn Barclay

Fabulous post! You’ve given me a lot to think about and I’ll have to let it percolate a bit more 🙂

I haven’t studied Dwight, though it’s on the things-to-do list, but of course have read about scenes and sequels. MRU sound fascinating so perhaps I need to push ol’ Dwight toward the front of the line. When I’m drafting, I’m definitely more focused on cause and effect than scenes or chapters or any of the normal breaks in fiction.

Melissa Borg
Melissa Borg

I have studied neither MRU or Dwight but what I do know is that within each well crafted scene there is a conflict and a main goal, which includes the character coming to a conclusion. Then the character must to pick a new goal or recommit and lather, rinse, repeat. To really irriate the character, up the stakes either to challenge their goal or come at them sideways with an event or idea about a goal they thought was done in the next scene.
I will admit when I read the words, “Sequels have no goals to move the story forward” I freaked just a little. I have read too many pieces where people believe that and the story feel flat. But I am glad I read on to his definition. Great food for thought.


Personally, I think a sequel doesn’t work when it dips into inner monologue mode too many times.

“Stop thinking about your love interest! You already said that!” (My thoughts when reading a popular dystopian romance).

Melinda Collins

Another great post, Jami!

When I hit the section of Scene & Sequel I had to giggle. I actually have a 2-part post scheduled for next week (and the following week) on Scene & Sequel and MRU’s. Mainly because I had a major A-Ha! moment in one of Margie’s classes. 😉

I agree with you 100%. Every scene needs some kind of goal. Either the next step in the plot (big picture) or the character(s) trying to figure out their next move after a big set back. There’s more options, I know, but when it comes down to it, even with a character pondering, it’s still a goal. 🙂

Thanks again for another great post!


In general I agree that every scene needs a goal, or else we’d be bored. But I’ve seen an exception. “Blue Castle” by L.M. Montgomery (author of “Anne of Green Gables”) had a long part lasting several chapters with basically no action, no goals, where everything is just about happiness, freedom, and the state of paradise in general. I found, surprisingly, that I was not at all bored and I couldn’t stop turning the pages. In fact, I so loved reading that long part of several chapters because I got to enjoy the characters’ bliss with them. I like scenes/ episodes/ chapters that make me happy. This (long) section of pure happiness with no tension, no conflict, and no goal was actually my favorite part in the story.

So what happened there? Or am I just an eccentric reader?


Thank you for the clarification! Looking at scenes and sequels as all cause and effect makes so much more sense. Now I don’t have to over-think everything, haha. And your tips for making sequels work are wonderful. 😀


Hi Jami, quite the best post I’ve read on sequels. I worry a lot about them as they make the story stagnant. But you have given the idea how to add drive to them.
If I could ask you a question, how does the protagonist translate in your point of view in romance novels. Usually the story proceeds from pov of hero and heroine so do you think in romance there are two protagonists or the one who has more goals involved? Thanks for a great post and would love to hear you on this.


[…] her post Does Every Scene Need a Goal?, Gold went on to explain that regardless of the terminology used for scenes or sequels, like goals […]


Thanks a lot for clarifying this, Jami.I quite follow what you said about screen time being proportionate to the importance of arc because this was actually what was bothering me. Glad to have a handle on this now.
Another question if I may, does the end of scene or sequel have to be shown as a chapter ending or pause? Can a sequel, especially occur like, even in the middle of conversation. I guess what I’m saying is does the reader have to be shown the differentiation or is it okay to have it in your head? IYKWIM 🙂


BIG thanks for this one, Jami. I was worried a bit because applying the scene-sequel sequence to my WIP I could see it all blended in one scene in so many places. But as you pointed out even a line sometimes can work as a sequel. Really thought-provoking and I’m going to reread it again at a later date to brush it up in my mind. Good luck for your WIP. Have a great week. 🙂

Gene Lempp

I’ve read Swain’s systems and a ton of others based on it – really, I think it’s the best one out there. However, I’ve always felt that finding a new goal is itself a goal. Additionally, as Jack M. Bickham points out (Scene & Structure), the sequel advances the story by showing us the inner workings of the character as they struggle through their failures in search of success. This also is a goal.

I think the point of contention may be that the nature of the goals is different between a scene (character seeks to accomplish something bringing them closer to their ultimate goal; external) and the sequel (character seeks digs into their strengths and battles their weaknesses to find new avenues to the success they desire; internal).

Great post, Jami 🙂

Sonia Lal

Just realized the Friday flash I wrote last week could be called a sequel for the Friday flash for the week before that.

Jessica Schley

This was wonderful, Jami. I think you did a better job at explaining these concepts than Swain did. I know it all makes a lot more sense to me reading them here. This helped me with a block on my own r&r this week, so thank you!

I’m linking to it in my Thursday blogroll.


Excellent reminder on constructing scenes. I’d also never considered the difference between scenes and sequels. I enjoy reading posts like these, keeps things always in perspective. Thanks!


[…] Stina Lindenblatt states that one of the most common reasons for manuscript rejection is that an agent cannot connect with the main character—and tells us how to fix that. Perhaps your main character’s actions are unfocused. Jami Gold wonders: Does every scene need a goal? […]


[…] Jami Gold on scenes vs. sequels Does Every Scene Need a Goal? […]


[…] this week, Jami Gold posed an interesting question, Does every scene need a goal? It’s a fabulous post I’ve found myself returning to (and following the links) this […]

Julia Indigo
Julia Indigo

I am so re-blogging this post, and saving it to study.
Thanks so much, Jami. It’s very clear and thought-provoking.

Now to look at the WIP, and see how it measures up!


[…] Does Every Scene Need a Goal? From Jami Gold. […]

Melissa Sugar

Awesome post with some really helpful and useful advice. I bookmarked it because I know I will need it again. Thanks for the great tips and for explaining the purpose of the scene and sequel in a way that is easy to understand. I agree that at first glance when you read, that in a sequel the protagonist does not have a goal , it throws you for a loop. I now have a better understanding of the reaction part of the sequel.


[…] Does every scene need a goal? […]


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Helene Demetriades

Dear Jami

Excellent atricle, very clear, structured and useful as I am effectively struggling those times with sequels in a novel I am writing. It is my frst novel, so far I only have published short stories and the challenges are totally different.
The plot of the novel seems to be right (to me), so does the synopsis but the sequels/scenes order is a hard one. I have to rethink the whole structure including the beginning and I don’t really know where to begin – hopefully such articles are extremely helpful. Congratulations.


[…] been thinking about doing another post about actions and reactions in writing, but the more I thought about it, the bigger the subject became. My fascination with the topic of […]


Hi Jami, I was stuck on a scene this morning and this post was perfect to help me through it. Thanks for writing!

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