Last Call with my coach, she repeated, almost like a mantra: keep your eyes on the prize. What she meant was to focus on what matters, what does the reader care about in the scene? But the phrase keep your eyes on the prize says something much deeper. It says here’s what matters, I know it hasn’t happened yet, but I promise it will and I promise that prize will be satisfying.

And throughout the scene you must repeat this promise to the reader. Often scenes open by setting up this promise. Hey, there’s this shinny, exciting thing that we’re going towards in this scene. I’m good at that part. But what I frequently failed to do, is to keep my eyes on that prize, by constantly reminding the reader we are getting closer.

Let’s take a look at my scene about the boys approaching the college basketball player. This is how this would work.

What matters in this scene?

  • Josh promised his girlfriend that he’ll go to the library. But instead Josh goes to the cafeteria with Dave.
  • Dave convinced him to come because Dave wanted him to wingman. Today Dave wants to go talk to a girl he has a crush on, Powder.
  • Josh says afterwards he’ll go straight to the library.
  • Another reason he shouldn’t be with Dave is that Josh’s girlfriend thinks Dave is an asshole, and doesn’t like Josh hanging out with him.

The prize the boys are chasing after:

  • Dave wants to meet Powder.
  • Josh wants to wingman him.

The scene is now established. And now the reader wants to feel like he’s progress towards that prize.

Here’s one of these tangents where I completed disregarded this rule.

When we had walked into the cafeteria I had seen a dozen of my friends; at the high tables Dexter sat, a friendly biology major who tells this fascinating story about dissecting a frog with two hearts, and over behind some glass windows the crew team all shouted, probably arm wrestling or playing rock-paper-scissors or some other competitive game. They’re a riot. And passing now, while I walked with Dave, I fist-bumped Carter and Ashley. Carter, ever since lunching with him, has taken me under his wing. “My freshman,” he always says patting me on the back like a proud older brother. And he’s been like that, the big brother I’ve always wished to have, someone to guide me and show me the ins and outs before they arrive.

“WHO CARES?” my coach says. We want them to approach Powder (the prize), but here my character is going off on a tangent about his friends. This is bad writing.

How does this work on the page? How do we write our scene while subtlety reminding the reader that we are making progress towards that prize? Here are a few examples:

“Dude,” I nudged Dave who was fixed on Powder, still hadn’t looked around the room. He said something about a seat at her table opened up. “Dude.” I nudged again.

  • This could have easily been written without “He said something about a seat at her table opened up.” But it’s in that line that the promise of the prize is reminded to the reader, we are reminding that we are getting closer to Powder.

One more, but now focused on Josh’s internal prize, him answering the question, is Dave an asshole like his girlfriend thinks?

Carter made a joke about Dave who was too focused on Powder to slow down, bee-lining towards the back of the cafeteria. Carter doesn’t seem to think Dave is an asshole. Maybe Sue’s wrong about that.

  • First Dave physically moving towards the prize.
  • Secondly, Josh wonders, well Carter who I respect seems to like Dave. So maybe he isn’t such a bad guy.

This is a great rule for when you don’t know if something serves the scene or not. Does it deepen or does raise the stake the prize? Does it make the reader more excited about the prize? If not, can you change the direction of the text to serve that purpose?

Keep your eyes on the prize is a simple reminder, yet contains everything I need to know to focus my scene.