I’d like you to imagine you’ve written a scene in which a family is sitting around the dinner table discussing which brand of corn flakes was the better buy at the grocery store that morning. This scene is probably boring. Now, imagine that at the beginning of the scene you’ve established that the main character has some world-shattering news to share, and is trying to find the right moment to drop the bombshell. Now this scene is probably much, much more interesting, with all the inanities of the conversation serving as dramatic complications for our poor, can’t-just-blurt-it-out protagonist. The reason this works is because you’ve established what in drama we call “the objective.”
All characters in a good drama (and, hence, a good story) have an objective in every scene. Simply put, the objective is what they want. In drama, we teach actors to boil it down to a simple action verb. (e.g. “to tell” or “to escape” or “to barricade.”) Since prose can be more psychological in nature, you have more options than that, but every moment of every scene must be written with the characters’ objectives in mind.
This is true even if you’ve got a character who is distracted or forgetful. Wandering off down a tangent is a complication for these sorts of people, who lose sight of their objectives only to remember them again suddenly down the line (usually with lots of self-recrimination for being so distractible).
Now, believe me, I know the common objection. “But we don’t always have an objective in real life!”
That’s true. And that’s why we don’t tell stories about every moment of every person in the world’s life. The parts of the story where a character doesn’t have an objective are very good places to practice your summary transition skills. The part that’s on the page, dramatized out for the reader? Objective, objective, objective.
So, what makes a good objective?
Well, again, there are only guidelines, not rules. Every story is different, and what works 99% of the time may be all wrong for your story, and what has never worked before may be exactly the right in your piece. But there are a few commonalities.
First of all, the objective should be — in the mind of the character at least — achievable. It can be a long-shot, but if the character has been told to hold back the river using only her hands and knows it’s impossible, we won’t be there with her in her struggle. She walks in already defeated. But if the character has decided she’s going to flap her arms and fly and sincerely believes that if she works at it hard enough she can accomplish it, we’ll be there rooting for her the whole way.
Secondly, the objective should be contested. If you give your character the objective to give the report to the boss, and the boss is sitting at her desk waiting for the report, there’s not much drama there, is there? But if the boss is in the middle of something and positively cannot be disturbed, now there’s conflict — and, hence, a story — when the main character insists on delivering it anyway.
Which brings us to the third point, which is that the objective should be important. If the main character can simply say, “Oh, well, I’ll give her the report later,” and walk away, again, you’ve got no conflict, no drama, no story. There must be some reason why this report must get into the boss’ hands right now. Of course, the degree of importance will vary based on the type of story you’re telling and where in the story the scene occurs, but if there isn’t something at stake, it all falls flat.
The drama, of course, comes from conflicting objectives. Your protagonist needs to get the report to the boss. The boss needs to not be disturbed. Both characters have a clear objective, and they’re mutually incompatible. At least one of these characters is walking away with their objective shattered.
And this works in a crowd scene, too. Picture a subway station. You’ve got 200 people there, all with an objective (e.g. “to get to work on time”). When your main characters pull out guns and start shooting at each other (“to kill that do-gooder” and “to protect these innocent people”) every single person there is going to react based on their objectives. Most will change objectives (“to stay alive”) in what dramaturgs call a “beat change” [the origins of this odd bit of linguistics is a bit obscure, but scenes are divided into “beats” whenever a character is forced by circumstances to adopt a new objective] but some will — comically — remain committed to their earlier objective. The onslaught of panicked people — most fleeing for their lives, some cowering, and a few banging on the subway doors demanding that the driver let them in and keep on schedule — is counter to the pro- and antagonists’ objectives, blocking the antagonist’s shot and making themselves hard for the protagonist to protect. All these objectives collide, adding up to a dynamic and exciting scene.
And even that conversation about corn flakes can become an interesting scene if everyone involved has a clear objective. Mom is trying to save money. Dad only likes one brand and it’s the most expensive. The youngest kid want to convince Mom and Dad that the frosted variety aren’t actually bad for your teeth at all because after all an apple has far more sugar in it than a simple bowl of frosted flakes, you know. The oldest kid wants to be excused from the table to log back in to facebook to chat with the girl he likes but the rules say that everyone stays at the table until everyone is done eating and nobody’s eating because they’re too busy arguing about these goddamned corn flakes! Voila! Conflict, drama, and story, all about breakfast cereal. If your character wants something badly enough, we’ll stick around to see if they get it, even if it’s corn flakes.