Back to the Chalkboard: The Mission of the Moment

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Have you ever found yourself in a singular moment where you felt hyper-driven to achieve a very specific goal? I’m sure you have, and I bet you can think of something better than that time your morning was placed in serious jeopardy when your favorite Starbucks was unexpectedly closed for maintenance, leaving you desperate and latte-less (frightening though that may be).

Recently, we flew to Germany to visit family. My three year-old son and I are both Celiacs, which means we can’t eat gluten, which is in everything – especially processed airplane food. We ordered two gluten-free meals, but on the outbound trip they only had one for us on a nine-hour flight. That was no fun. So, a day before our return flight, I called to make sure that they had corrected the problem. They hadn’t, of course, AND they told me it was too late to fix now, as I should have reminded them to correct their error seven hours earlier. Tunnel vision descended. I would not be denied. When phone calls failed, I turned to Twitter and Facebook and blasted the airline with everything I had. I would not go hungry again! This giant corporation would provide little ole me with the service I had ordered! Eight tweets, six Facebook posts, and one hour later, the problem was solved and an apology was issued. My mission was complete. I got off the Internet and finished the first draft of a script. It was a very good day.

I know we’re talking screenwriting here, and granted, social media is not all that cinematic, nor were we in real danger of dying from malnutrition, but the point I want to highlight here is a concept I teach and use in my own writing: “The Mission of the Moment.” I was determined to achieve a specific goal that carried (relatively) high stakes for me. I had a mission. When we are outlining or slogging through a first draft, we are often so fixated on the big picture of structure – hitting plot points – that we lose focus of the specific goals driving a character in the singular moments that make up our scenes and sequences. Characters become wishy-washy and the tension deflates scene by scene because we’re not asking “what does she want right now?” often enough.

In Thelma and Louise, the protagonists’ second act goal (or main tension) is to get to Mexico. But along the way, as various obstacles arise – both internal and external – their mission is broken into smaller, more immediate goals. For instance, when Louise reaches her breaking point after Thelma loses all of their money to a shirtless Brad Pitt, they need cash – right now and badly – or  they will surely be caught by the cops. The mission of the moment becomes getting more money to survive, but also for Thelma individually, redeeming herself in the eyes of her best friend. This short-term, but very crucial goal leads to a great scene where Thelma robs a convenience store (a la Brad Pitt), changing the dynamic of this duo and the path of their story.

Thelma and Louise

As you are outlining, writing, and rewriting, keep track of your characters’ immediate goals in each and every scene. What is the mission of the moment right now, and how does that short-term goal serve their long-term story purpose?

Not every beat of our real lives is driven by a high-stakes goal. But, if you also apply mission of the moment thinking to your writing life, you may find yourself more organized, productive, and goal-oriented. Today, I will not quit until I fix that scene in the bar, or finish act one of my outline, or get through ten new pages, or find three better jokes. Whatever it is you decide, I hope you’re able to first find that latte you so rightly deserve.

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