Wednesday, April 22

Beware the Vague Goal When Outlining a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.” 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, so why is that anything special when our protagonists do it?

And she’s right.

The problem with vague goals is that they feel like something is happening, when nothing actually is. The scene where the protagonist “tries to evade capture” offers us no specifics to work with as we write. Our hero might run around the room screaming for six pages while the cops chase him, and that’s him “trying to evade capture.”

I think vague goals are a reason why some writers have trouble with outlines. They outline what happens in the book and it feels solid, but when they write, they run into walls and struggle though scene after scene. They’re trying to craft a scene where the hero tries to evade capture without knowing what that means.

Instead of vague hints of goals, think about the specific tasks your characters are doing, not trying 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
  • Putting on a disguise and sneaking onto a bus
  • Leaving the city hidden in the back of a pickup truck full of turnips
Thinking about the specifics gives us something to write about, which in turns, saves us time staring at a screen and wondering what’s going to happen next.

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 though the sewer to the end of town. This extra "what he actually does line" gives us the specific action to work with. We can picture what Bob will have to do to get into the sewers, what problems he might encounter, how the zombies might spot him, and what could go wrong. We know where he’s going and can imagine what that journey will entail.

(Here's more on the problems of "trying")

If you’re having trouble with a draft, look at what your protagonist is doing. Is she trying to “do something vague” or is there a specific task? Spend a little time turning any vague goals (or stakes) into a specific action.

Has a vague goal ever tripped you up?

My monthly post is up over at Pub(lishing) Crawl today, and I'm sharing a few tips on ways to deepen your story worlds. Come on over and say hello!

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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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.

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