Offensive line coaches in football think strategically. While they may love a quick score, they don’t expect a touchdown without a fight. Instead, they develop a series of plays with a singular goal: to advance the ball up the field. Football is a game of inches, and if each part of the plan is executed correctly, the ball should cross into the end zone.
When writers craft stories, they also must think strategically. From brief encounters to full-scale scenes, the characters need to act and react in a manner that pushes the plot toward a specific outcome. If the cast and events aren’t unified from the start, the story will lose direction.
Just like a football playbook has endless options, writers can apply any number of objectives to their scenes. But trying to pinpoint the best option can sometimes lead to a headache. How do you interconnect all the moving pieces?
I’ve come up with four tactics using the acronym G.O.A.L. to aid writers the next time they’re stuck. So, first and ten. Look for the signal from the sideline. And then take the field.
When players feel discouraged, football coaches often give them a pep talk. This fires them up so that they’re raring to trample the competition. It works in fictional locker rooms too! When your character’s motivation fizzles and he slumps onto a bench, spur him to rise to the challenge in front of him, like Sophie does with the giant in Roald Dahl’s book The BFG. The gentle-natured fella has no interest in tangling with his bloodthirsty neighbors who are preying on children, but the little girl believes he can save them.
[Sophie] stood up and cried out, “I can’t stand it! Just think of those poor girls and boys who are going to be eaten alive in just a few hours’ time. We can’t just sit here and do nothing! We’ve got to go after those brutes.”
“No,” the BFG said.
“We must,” Sophie cried. “Why won’t you go?”
The BFG sighed and shook his head firmly.
For the rest of the scene, Sophie continues to press the BFG. When he at last musters his courage and agrees to fabricate a nightmare to make the queen of England aware of the danger, the story flows on.
You can also mobilize a character by placing him in dire circumstances or cornering him with two equally daunting choices, such as a hiker who must either cut off his own arm or die (from the film 127 Hours). His innermost values will emerge, influencing how he handles the situation. The trigger can even be a defeat that amps up his determination to succeed like any Rocky Balboa boxing match or Pitch Perfect’s a cappella loss.
Practice the playbook: write a scene where someone or something convinces the Old Lady who lives in a shoe to clean her house.
When football players face worthy opponents, they’ll go through pain and frustration before the battle is over. If they hope to win, they’ll have to persevere. Your characters should likewise get roughed up as they plow into various kinds of conflict—and you can make that the purpose of the scene. Even if their efforts fail, the characterization you reveal will serve to propel the plot.
In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the young protagonist’s futile attempt to beg for more food builds tension and evokes empathy from readers.
The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered to each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: “Please, sir, I want some more.”
When relying on this common method, remember to avoid one major pitfall: don’t let your character succeed too easily. The more he struggles, the more invested readers will be in the results. Second, include as many of the senses as you can. How do his surroundings smell? Taste? Feel? Sound? Third, show his response to the trouble, both inward and outward. What frightens him? Do his muscles ache?
Practice the playbook: write a scene where Little Red Riding Hood conquers her fear of wolves.
Imagine a turnover on the field. An interception or blocked kick can change the momentum of any game. Requiring a character to obtain an item can have the same effect on your story. In the final scenes of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry must weave through a maze, bypass hidden traps, and be the first to lay his hands on the prize. When he does, he’s transported to a graveyard.
They had left the Hogwarts grounds completely; they had obviously traveled miles—perhaps hundreds of miles—for even the mountains surrounding the castle were gone. They were standing instead in a dark and overgrown graveyard; the black outline of a small church was visible beyond a large yew tree to their right. A hill rose above them to their left. Harry could just make out the outline of a fine old house on the hillside.
Immediately, the story shifts. The clues start to fall together, and Harry realizes what’s going on. Voldemort kills Cedric, displaying his evilness. Now the plot reaches the point of no return (the climax), all because Harry found a portkey.
As suggested in the previous section, you can freshen up this popular approach by increasing the difficulty and highlighting the five senses. But I’d also recommend following Rowling’s example: initiate a slew of new problems once the goal has been achieved. So don’t forget to brainstorm what-ifs that could happen afterward.
Practice the playbook: write a scene where Goldilocks tracks down the perfect gift for the bear family.
Have you ever seen a quarterback glance at his armband? These days, players usually have radio headsets in their helmets. When the coach calls the play, the quarterback checks a resource nearby for instructions. Imagine the havoc that would break loose if the opposing team decoded all the signals!
Information isn’t a tangible thing, but knowledge is power, and the plot may crimp up if the character remains unaware. In the classic Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock is always searching for the tell-tale clue that solves the crime. His thirst for understanding is evident in this excerpt from The Hound of the Baskervilles.
“There go two of my threads, Watson. There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you. We must cast round for another scent.”
“We have still the cabman who drove the spy.”
“Exactly. I have wired to get his name and address from the Official Registry. I should not be surprised if this were an answer to my question.”
The ring at the bell proved to be something even more satisfactory than an answer, however, for the door opened and a rough-looking fellow entered who was evidently the man himself…
Be careful, however. You don’t want to be guilty of an information dump where you pause Scooby-Doo style to unmask and explain everything. Instead, convey the information through a conversation, as Doyle did above with Sherlock, or a combination of dialogue and action. When you allow readers to experience revelations alongside a character, you’ll draw them in. And it’s okay to leave some lingering doubt for them to mull over, because that’s a delightful mental extension to any scene.
Practice the playbook: write a scene where readers discover who stole from the cookie jar.
Set Your Goals
Is your story stalling? Do you frequently wrestle with writer’s block? Do you know how your story is supposed to end but are uncertain how to arrive there? The next time you sit down to add to your current WIP, keep this playbook handy to remind yourself that every scene should have a goal to maintain focus, raise the tension, and drive the plot. Eventually, play by play, scene by scene, you’ll turn that first and ten (or second and fifteen!) into a touchdown.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?