Monday, June 07, 2021

Beware the Vague Goal When Outlining a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Vague goals can trick you into thinking your scene is ready to write when it really isn’t.

Vague goals are nobody’s friend. They creep into our scenes, make us think our structures (and stories) are solid, but they’re really undermining those stories, especially in the drafting stage. “Stop the bad guy” tells us noting about what will actually transpire in a scene. Neither does “Protect the witness.” How is the protagonist going to do that?

Then there’s the king of the vague goals—“Survive the threat.” As Kristin Lamb hysterically puts it, her goal every day is to not die. Every protagonist in every book has this same goal. What the threat is and how the character survives it is what creates the plot and tells the story.

A vague goal is a concept, not a specific course of action. And concepts don’t drive plots.

Vague goals can be a great start for brainstorming a plot, but they only give you the framework of the situation, not the specific actions needed to drive the scene forward. Pantsers might be fine with this type of goal, since a vague concept works just dandy for their process, but it’s too vague for writers who need a little more direction and understanding of their scenes to write them.

This is why many writers have trouble with outlines, and why some believe outlines won’t work for them. They outline vague “what happens” goals that make them think they know what will happen in a scene, but when they sit down and try to write it, they run into walls and struggle with the details. They’re trying to craft a scene where the protagonist “tries to evade capture” without knowing what that specifically means.

Without a hint of what the protagonist has to do, it’s easy to get blocked by too many possibilities. The protagonist might run around the room screaming for six pages while the cops chase him, and that’s him “trying to evade capture.” A “tries to evade capture” scene goal offers no specifics to work with as you write.

Instead of vague hints of goals, think about the specific tasks your characters need to do in every scene. If someone is generally “trying to evade capture,” then how are they doing it?

Maybe they’re:
  • Hiding in a broom closet until the killer leaves the room
  • Running for the exit of the lab and avoiding the security cameras while men with guns pursue them
  • Putting on a disguise and sneaking onto a bus
  • Leaving the city hidden in the back of a pickup truck full of turnips
  • Casting an invisibility spell that only works for 57 seconds and trying to slip out behind the pit fiend
Each of these is a specific task that tells you what the character is actually doing. These details give you a much clearer sense of what the scene entails, which in turn, saves you time staring at a screen and wondering how the protagonist is going to “evade capture.”

For example, a scene where Bob “tries to evade the zombie horde” becomes a scene where Bob “tries to evade the zombie horde by crawling through the sewer to the end of town.” The scene has Bob crawling through the sewers with a specific destination in mind. You can picture Bob searching for an entrance to the sewers, imagine what problems he might encounter, consider how the zombies might spot him, and brainstorm what could go wrong once he gets into the sewers.

(Here's more with Do or Do Not. There is No Try: Clarifying What Your Characters Do)

Don’t worry—you don’t need to outline the entire novel in detail before you start.

Some of you might be recoiling in horror, thinking you need to know every single detail of every single scene before you start writing the first draft. You absolutely do not have to know all that (unless that’s your process, then go for it). 

Maybe you:
  • Hit the vague goals for the major plot points to get you started, then flesh them out as you write
  • Go vague for the first pass, then develop the specific details for each act before you write it
  • Figure out the details in chunks of two or three chapters at a time
  • Prefer to work chapter by chapter, and pre-write your scenes in outline form before each writing session
Do whatever works best for you. But if you find yourself struggling with scene and you aren’t sure why, check the goal. It’s possible that goal is too vague and you don’t truly know what happens in that scene yet. Once you figure out the specific action of that goal, you’ll know what happens in that scene.

Vague goals can derail a writing session and trick you into writing a scene before you’re ready to write it.

Luckily, fixing (or avoiding) this is easy. When you’re not sure what happens, and you’re staring at the screen, or worse—writing aimlessly and knowing the whole time it’s not working—stop. Open a new file or grab a pad and jot dot the specifics of that scene. Ask how the character is going to accomplish that vague goal. Brainstorm options, examine scenarios, and go with the one that excites you the most.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine what your protagonist is doing in a scene. Are they trying to “do something vague” or is there a specific task? Turn any vague goals into a specific action.

Has a vague goal ever tripped you up?

*Originally published April 2015. Last updated June 2021. 

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. When I started this first WIP in the yWriter program, my summaries of scenes were vague, oh were they vague. As I travel on with this project, my summaries get better, which, of course, makes the going much smoother.

    1. Good to hear! Sometimes we do start out vague if we're still developing a story, and we need to outline a few chapters or even chunks before we can figure out how to clarify the vague spots.

  2. Perfect timing for this tip. Today I'm clarifying a vague goal that's been muddling a scene I've been writing for several days. Grateful. Thanks, Janice.

    1. Most welcome! Glad I got this to you at the right moment.

  3. Love this advice, Janice. I need to keep remembering scene goals as well as overall goals.

    1. Thanks. I've found having them makes the writing easier, but if just using the overall goals to direct your story works for you, that's fine too. Whatever works for you!

  4. This is exactly why I'm stalled on my current scene. Thanks!

  5. On the other hand, you can be so specific that you box yourself, and your story in a corner.

    I think I'm senstitive to this vagueness thing because sometimes I jusr don't know specifics, and some of us find outlining a little laborious, or more often for me, there are things I'm just not going to know unless I actually write it, versus having an outline and feeling overly wed to it.

    I think what's overly vague depends on where you are in process. While I agree with your valid points above, Janice, I do believe for the first draft, we have to allow some vaguess for the sake of actually having something written, versus spending months in the outline phase

    Maybe that goes without saying, but most writers I know (by which I mean writers I've swapped manuscripts with) are more meticulous outliners than I am. I'm (SLOWLY) tr

    I get the whole trap about "" which goes back to the whole Yoda quote which frankly makes me want to scream and tug at Yoda's ear if I could. Because "trying" in REAL LIFE isn't always as passive as it might sound on the page. It would be a lie to say "I have zen like paitence" versus say "I'm working on being more paitient, but it's not easy for me" and I do beleive some people reach certain levels faster than others, even it's not "easy." Sometimes our charcters are like that, too.

    Sometimes I think we may overdramarize things in our stories just so our characters don't come passive and vague, and that causes problems, too.

    Still, you made good points, I just get mixed emotions about "Trying" versus "Doing."

    1. Absolutely, and obviously, if someone doesn't outline this isn't a tip that applies to them. Pantsers use an entirely different process. That's why this is for "outling" a scene, not "writing" a scene. If being too detailed boxes someone in, they shouldn't spend time trying to find specifics.

      "Trying" can be tricky and it's a subtle line. If "trying" has actionable things to do and there's things you can write and they drive the scene, then trying is just fine. It's only problematic when a scene is about "trying" to do something and there's nothing for the character to actually do to help someone write that scene. Trying to get out of a trap is very different from trying to find love again. One leads directly to things that can happen in the scene, the other requires more work to understand how that scene would unfold.

      Context also plays an important part. The writer knows what they're trying to write (no pun intended) and if the trying is the important aspect, it's a perfectly valid thing to do. It's not a all or nothing rule, it's a potential problem area that might be tripping some writers up.

  6. Poor, Bob.

    How many years has he been trapped in that Zombie Apocalypse?

    1. Hmmm, probably four? I think he appeared early on. He really ought to be better at surviving by now.

    2. This made me laugh. :-)

    3. LOL this comment out of context made *me* laugh. Only the comment is emailed to me. I saw it and wondered what about this post made you laugh. Was that good or bad? Make sense in context :)

  7. I'm in the outlining phase of my latest. This is a good point to remember. Thanks.