Give Characters a Clear Goal in Every Scene

Many novice screenwriters are too vague. they often write one scene to provide exposition, another scene to reveal a character’s personality, and a third scene to define a character’s goal.

Don’t do that. Write tight, focused scenes to keep your story moving along and to do that, start by giving every character in a scene a clear goal.

That goal may not be initially clear to the audience, but it should be crystal clear in the minds of each character. If the characters in a scene don’t have a clear goal, the scene risks feeling directionless. However, if a character does have a clear goal to pursue in a scene, then that helps establish conflict because now other characters, physical barriers, or the character’s own inner emotions can now work to stop that character from reaching a goal.

Without knowing a goal for your characters, there’s no conflict. Without conflict, your scene risks feeling limp and pointless.

Watch this slapstick scene from “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” In this scene, the hero is a truck driver (played by Jonathan Winters) who has been detained by two gas station attendants. The goal of the truck driver is to get away. The goal of the gas station attendants is to keep the truck driver tied up.

Because the goals of each character is clear, there’s immediate conflict as the characters pursue their opposing goals. The result is sheer destruction.

Even if you don’t find this scene funny, you can’t ignore the clear goal of the characters and how it puts them into direct conflict with one another. By the end of the scene, one character clearly wins and one character clearly loses.

When scenes start with a goal, show conflict, and conclude by showing who won, it moves the story along. When scenes fail to show a goal, avoid conflict, and don’t end with a conclusion of any kind, the story feels pointless and directionless.

So make sure every scene in your screenplay starts with a goal and concludes with whether that character got the goal or not. Once you know what one character’s goal is, then make sure the other characters in the scene directly oppose that goal in some way.

Conflict makes stories interesting. Goals give stories a direction and purpose. You need both goals and conflict to make your scenes, and ultimately your screenplay, compelling and interesting from start to finish.

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