Now I write twice as much — and twice as well

How a simple 5-point checklist helps me write faster and keep more of my draft once I reach the revision stage.

Now I write twice as much — and twice as well

The biggest challenge I've faced as a writer has been to create conflict-driven scenes that propel the story forward.

In my early stories, conflict between characters was vague or weak, and often my first scene, beginning with gusto, would lose steam. Or else the conflict would be intense, but it would go in circles or worse yet, send the scene off in an unlogical direction, derailing the entire story.

Whether I was stalling, going in circles, or jumping off the tracks, my problem turned out to be simple:

  • Clarify my character's scene goal
  • Map the string of obstacles complicating that goal
  • Ensure the end-of-scene outcome compelled the character to ditch the scene goal and try something else

Once I figured this out, my scene writing became faster, more effective, and — importantly — more fun.

The 5 things your scene needs

For the first draft of a scene, I keep a 5-point checklist. Although I may refer to my notes on the setting or character backstories, the checklist is all I need to ensure the scene stays on track while I'm writing. If I start to feel lost, I check the list, maybe delete a couple sentences that have sent me off track, and quickly move forward again.

This method has increased my writing output significantly; I used to average 2,000 words a day, but now I usually write above 5,000 — sometimes as much as 7,000 or more words.

Here's the checklist:

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1. Scene goal — character wants something tangible in the moment
2. Action & Obstacle #1 — character tries, obstacle stops them
3. Action & Obstacle #2 — character tries, obstacle stops them
4. Action & Obstacle #3 — character tries, obstacle stops them
5. Action & Outcome — pointing reader to next scene

State the obvious

A scene goal is a natural extension of the viewpoint character's story goal, a micro version of the macro desire. It's a signpost for the reader to say here's what's at stake for the character – do you think they'll get what they want or not? That question is what makes the reader keep reading.

If you bury the scene goal too deep, or poorly articulate it, the scene will fail.

Even when I understood that my viewpoint character needed a clear scene goal, I worried about stating the obvious. Having my character say or think, This is what I want, felt clunky. So I buried it, concealing it from not only the reader but also myself. The result was a muddle.

I've since learned this: Make the goal tangible. You don't need to worry about being too obvious, especially in your first draft. (You can get subtle in revisions.) Stating the viewpoint character's goal will set the scene so you can dig into the stuff that is actually interesting — and can be subtle and complicated — when obstacles undermine that goal. After all, it's not the scene goal that your reader is interested in, it's the series of obstacles that will create conflict and lead to the outcome. That's where the magic happens.

So go ahead, state the scene goal clearly — ideally by having the viewpoint character say or think what they want or imply it by taking action that reveals that desire.

Take the toy from the baby — and make it cry

Creating obstacles can hurt. Our characters — caringly created with an interesting backstory and a heavy dose of empathy — can feel like our babies. So when it comes to denying them what they want, we flinch, we find excuses, we soften the blow. But as writers, we have to be cruel — even to our babies. Especially to our babies.

Ready to be cruel? Let's look at obstacles.

In my checkpoint list, I include three obstacles. I can have five or seven or twelve, if the scene calls for it, but in general 3-5 is about right. More than that, and the scene will drag.

Once I've clearly articulated the scene goal for my viewpoint character, I brainstorm ways that I can keep them from succeeding. The more ideas, the better. It's important to start with a clear action the viewpoint character takes — an action that should logically get them what they want — and then find a corresponding obstacle that

I suggest linking obstacles to one antagonist with maybe one supporting force of antagonism or other source of resistance. A mob of people can be an antagonist, but if you have twelve individuals in a scene, the scene will quickly become a muddle; the reader will be more focused on keeping track of characters than on the key question — will the protagonist get what they want?

Once I have my list of obstacles, I prioritize them and look at which ones most logically follow from one to the other.

Let's look at an example story setup.

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Teenager Sigrid has a crush on the lead singer of her favorite death metal band, Völsunga; she spoke with him at a party and believes she's finally met her true love. Unlike her deadbeat ex-boyfriend, who she's vowed to stay far, far away from. The band is playing tonight, but she can't afford the ticket. Her only option is to borrow the money from her father, who disapproves of the band almost as much as he disapproved of her ex-boyfriend. She knows he will say no.

Based on this setup with Sigrid, let's start with some possible actions and obstacles:

  • Sigrid argues that she should be allowed to go to the concert, since she's sixteen and all her friends are going; Daddy refuses
  • Sigrid "borrows" the money from his wallet; Daddy discovers the theft and grounds Sigrid and takes her house keys, forcing her to stay home
  • Sigrid climbs out her window to escape the house; she miscalculates the distance to the ground, falls, and twists her ankle — plus the window shuts above her, closing off her means of entry later
  • Sigrid asks if she can borrow money for "a thingy"; Daddy asks why
  • Sigrid lies and says she needs the money for "a female thing"; Daddy seems to believe her, but when she mentions the amount, he realizes it matches the ticket price on the concert poster she has in her room
  • Sigrid calls her dead-beat ex-boyfriend to borrow money from him; he accepts, but only if she'll go to the concert as his date
  • Sigrid's ex-boyfriend turns up in his old, noisy car; Daddy hears the familiar sound and looks out the window, discovering that Sigrid has sneaked out

At this point, I sort through the actions and obstacles. I put them in a logical order, so the complication raises the stakes and escalates the character's actions. For example, Sigrid stealing the money from her father should come after she asks him for the money; asking is the logical first thing she'd do — stealing is more desperate.

Here's a reordered list:

  • Sigrid asks if she can borrow money for "a thingy"; Daddy asks why
  • Sigrid lies and says she needs the money for "a female thing"; Daddy seems to believe her, but when she mentions the amount, he realizes it matches the ticket price on the concert poster she has in her room
  • Sigrid argues that she should be allowed to go to the concert, since she's sixteen and all her friends are going; Daddy refuses
  • Sigrid "borrows" the money from his wallet; Daddy discovers the theft and grounds Sigrid and takes her house keys, forcing her to stay home
  • Sigrid calls her dead-beat ex-boyfriend to borrow money from him; he accepts, but only if she'll go to the concert as his date
  • Sigrid climbs out her window to escape the house; she miscalculates the distance to the ground, falls, and twists her ankle — plus the window shuts above her, closing off her means of entry later
  • Sigrid's ex-boyfriend turns up in his old, noisy car; Daddy hears the familiar sound and looks out the window, discovering that Sigrid has sneaked out

Now, there's another thing I've noticed. Her father is the main antagonist in most of the situations listed, but her ex-boyfriend appears in later obstacles. That's a hint that they don't belong in the scene. So let's remove those from our list and save them for the next scene.

But we know that Sigrid has previously articulated a goal to stay away from her ex-boyfriend. By cutting the scene after she succeeds at borrowing money — but at the cost of reconnecting with her ex-boyfriend — I further complicate the story and naturally provide forward momentum. It's bad for Sigrid; it's good for the story, because it complicates her situation and points toward the next scene, in which readers would no doubt expect to meet the ex-boyfriend.

That means our final list looks like this:

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1. Scene goal: Sigrid wants to borrow money to go to death metal concert.
2. Obstacle #1: Sigrid asks if she can borrow money for "a thingy"; Daddy asks why
3. Obstacle #2: Sigrid lies and says she needs the money for "a female thing"; Daddy seems to believe her, but when she mentions the amount, he realizes it matches the ticket price on the concert poster she has in her room
4. Obstacle #3: Sigrid argues that she should be allowed to go to the concert, since she's sixteen and all her friends are going; Daddy refuses
5. Obstacle #4: Sigrid "borrows" the money from his wallet; Daddy discovers the theft and grounds Sigrid and takes her house keys, forcing her to stay home
6. Obstacle #5: Sigrid calls her dead-beat ex-boyfriend to borrow money from him; he accepts, but only if she'll go to the concert as his date
7. Outcome: Sigrid has succeeded in getting the money, but she has failed in a previous — and more significant — goal of staying away from her ex-boyfriend.

What's next for Sigrid?

Before I move on to my next scene, I look at the outcome and consider Sigrid's options. What would she plan to do next? Based on the outcome above, the escape from home no longer seems so important (she effectively defeated her antagonist — her father — and focus now shifts to a new antagonist — her ex-boyrfriend.

Sigrid's thrilled to be going to the concert, but she has no interest in her ex-boyfriend. Her new scene goal is: Ditch my ex-boyfriend as soon as I get to the concert venue. Now I can brainstorm the many ways in which her antagonist — her ex-boyfriend — can stop her from succeeding.

Don't forget the reaction

The method above helps me move from one scene to another, building ever greater complications for my viewpoint character. But scenes can't just contain action thwarted by obstacle and then followed by more action. The viewpoint character must also react to what's happening.

When Sigrid reconnects with her ex-boyfriend and sneaks out of the house, it's not just the reader who should react to that — she herself should have thoughts about these outcomes. Is she worried what will happen when her father inevitably finds out? Is she worried about what her ex-boyfriend will do when she gives him the slip? These thoughts should serve as a bridge from the first scene's outcome to the next scene's action.

Final thoughts

I keep my checklist close at hand. In fact, I keep a scene template in my writing app (Ulysses), so that when I'm about to draft a new scene, I can easily duplicate the file with the checklist at the top. Once I've brainstormed obstacles and filled in the checklist, it sits at the top of my draft, always within reach. If I feel my characters veer off topic or I forget where I want the encounter to go next, then I can quickly scroll up and refer to the list.

The result: I don't get stuck as often as I used to.

The scene-goal method keeps me on track, and because I spend less time brainstorming while I'm drafting — and less time fixing issues along the way — I write faster and keep more of my draft once I reach the revision stage.