Author Archives: Stavros Halvatzis

About Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story in Noah, the movie.
The moral of Noah centres around God’s judgement of sin and His deliverance for those who trust and believe in Him.

THE most memorable stories contain a theme with a strong ethical or moral premise. A story proves the theme by tracking the conflict that ensues between the hero and his nemesis. Both characters represent opposing values. In simple terms, good guys win, or lose, depending on the outcome of that conflict. In so doing they ‘prove’ the theme.

But does this then mean that some stories are not ethical or moral? Is the nemesis’ winning of the fight, proof that unethical and immoral behaviour is rewarded? 

Biblical tales, for example, are clearly moral. NoahCleopatraThe Ten Commandments. As are modern stories, such as Braveheart,  The FirmGladiatorOblivionEdge of Tomorrow, and countless others. These tales have at their core a moral premise that states that if the hero does the right thing, he will eventually achieve the goal. He will carry the day, save the world, even if he sometimes has to sacrifice himself to do it.

“The story’s moral premise is the pilot of the ship, steering it towards its inevitable destination.”

But what about less obvious examples? SevenFight ClubInceptionOceans 11,12,13? In what sense do these stories espouse ethical or moral values? 

This bothered me quite a bit because, deep down, I felt that all great stories promote the best in us rather than the worst. Yet, something rang true about these latter stories. I felt a verisimilitude in them that I associated with great tales.

Then, during one of my classes on story-telling, it struck me. Most stories are indeed moral and ethical, with one proviso. In some, the moral or ethical judgment falls outside the world of the story itself—it is made by an audience or reader based on received cultural, social, and religious values.

Stories in which the villain gets away with it, spreading death and mayhem in his wake, may appear to show that malice, slyness, and cold-blooded determination lead to victory, but few of us would applaud his actions. 

A horror story, in which, let’s say, demons succeed in taking over the world, is not necessarily a celebration of evil overcoming good. Rather, it is a warning: If the hero fails to stop evil, this is the result – a horrific world overrun by demons. 

The characters within such a story may even celebrate this fact, but audiences, as a whole, won’t, since they bring their own moral and ethical systems to bare upon the tale. 

Paradoxically, then, good will always rise above evil even when it seems defeated.

Summary

Most stories invoke an ethical and moral foundation, even those that ostensibly seem not to.

Story Templates

Frankenstein as one of many story templates
The Frankenstein tale is one of several story temples writers use to guide their stories.

Much has been written about the number of story templates out there. I do not intend to go into the merits of each offering here. I do, however, want to suggest that most stories fall within nine general types.

What I mean is that although the names, places, and finer grain of each individual story differ from those of the original, the basic structure of the narrative follows a similar pattern. Here are some influential stories that have so captured our imagination that they have created story types:


1. Cinderella

Dreams do come true, despite initial setbacks from wicked or opposing forces: RockyPretty Woman.

2. Romeo and Juliet

Boy meets/wins/has girl, boy looses girl, or boy finds/doesn’t find girl: When Harry Met SallySleepless in Seattle.

3. Faust

Selling your soul may bring short term riches and success, but there’s always a price to be paid, leading to ruin and damnation: Wall StreetFatal Attraction.

“Story templates are narrative and thematic patterns born out of some of the most successful stories of all time.”

4. Circe

The spider and the fly; the victim and the manipulator; the temptress ensnaring the love-struck, or innocent victim, often seen in film noir: Body HeatThe Postman Always Rings Twice.

5. Orpheus

The theft of something precious, either lost, or taken away; the search to redeem it, and the tragedy or success which follows it: Rain Man.

6. Tristan

Stories about love triangles — man loves a woman, but he or she is already spoken for: Fatal Attraction.

7. Candide

The hero who won’t stay down; the innocent on a mission; naive optimism winning the day: Indiana JonesForrest Gump.

8. Achilles

The destruction, or endangerment of an otherwise good person, because of an inherent flaw: SupermanOthello, the protagonist in film noir.

9. Frankenstein

Man’s attempt to rise to the level of God, ending in tragedy and failure: FrankensteinIcarus.

Summary

All stories follow a pattern generated from source material. Mixing such material accounts for the structure of most stories being written today.

Establishing Images — what are they?

Establishing images in Wall Street
The movie Wall Street is awash with establishing images that set the tone for the entire story

The purpose of the establishing images is to provide the context of a story, and to do so early.

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christian Vogler refers to the world in which we first encounter the Hero as the Ordinary World.

By clearly establishing a before and after, a writer is able to emphasise the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around him. The quality of change that this ‘ordinary‘ world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of the hero’s success or failure.

But how do we sketch in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One way is through the effective use of appropriate images.

“In Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seger suggests that establishing images introduce the tone, time, location, as well as the theme of the story. In other words, they provide the framework of the tale.”

The first minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduce us to the world of business through a series of snapshots of buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are.

Schindler’s List opens with a black and white closeup of a drawer, and a man putting on elegant cufflinks in preparation for attending an important Nazi party. This immediately sets the tone and time period of the affluent world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.

Dead Poets Society, too, begins with the defining sequence of images of a school preparing for its opening day procession—banners boasting the school’s reputation of discipline, excellence, and moral learning.

Such images, however, also help to establish the sense of conformity that will be challanged by Mr. Keating’s creative approach to education, putting him at odds with the school’s hierarchy, and pointing to the central conflict in the story: conformity vs. creativity.

Having established time, place, tone, and theme, through an effective use of starting imagery, then, the writers are now able to create plot and subplot from a solid foundation. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.

Summary

Select the right establishing imagery to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.

Obstacles and the Foundation of Structure

Obstacles in Source Code
Obstacles as reversals in Source Code

Obstacles in stories. What are they?

In previous posts, I discussed the importance of turning points to the structure of a story, suggesting that their function is to introduce new information, information that ought to be surprising yet inevitable. Surprising, because it keeps the audience or reader guessing, and inevitable because it has the ring of truth about it.

But what specific forms do turning points/obstacles take?

External/Internal

External and internal obstacles flow from the outer and inner journey of the protagonist. In the best stories, they are causally related. A protagonist who is afraid of heights but has to cross a tiny ledge on a skyscraper to save his stranded child has more on his mind than the physical task alone. 

The Specifics of Obstacles

Obstacles may stop the flow of events, forcing the protagonist to start again in a completely new direction, or they may deflect or expand the flow in a related direction, or they may even reverse the flow, resulting in an about-turn.

“One way to view turning points is as obstacles that block the way to the protagonist’s goal and force a change in direction.”

What type of obstacle should you use in your stories? That depends on the type of story you’re telling. Episodic, or biographical stories often stop the current flow in favour of a new option — one episode in one’s life comes to an end and another begins. 

Reversals, on the other hand, have effectively been employed in a type of story called multiform narrative, such as Groundhog DayRun Lola RunVantage Point and Source Code. Such stories replay events from the same starting point but with variations in outcome.

Deflection or expansion is by far the most common form of obstacle. Here the original goal is adjusted, or realigned, but still adheres to the original intent. In Unforgiven, for example, Will Manny’s intention of killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, expands into killing anyone who participated in the murder of his friend, Ned Logan. The original goal, which has already been achieved, has been expanded to include an additional one.

Summary

Turning points are obstacles to the status quo. They introduce major new sections of your story, presenting information that is surprising yet inevitable. There are three main types—dead stop, deflection/expansion, and reversal.

Good Scenes – How to Write Them

Great scenes in Out of sight
Great scenes abound in Out of Sight

Good scenes are comprised of story units involving meaningful dramatic beats.

The general function of any scene, we are reminded, is to provide the reader or audience with essential information in order to follow the story.

The specific purpose of a scene, however, is determined by what sort and how much information to provide. To do so effectively the writer has to understand that scenes are narrative units of the sort referred to on this and other websites as the inciting incident, pinch, turning point, mid-point, climax, resolution, and so on.

The specific purpose of the inciting incident, for example, is to kick-start the story, the first turning point’s function is to turn the story in an unexpected way, and so on.

Identifying scenes in this way highlights their specific function and tells us where they slot into the story. Particular scenes, therefore, allow us to map information in the right place along the story path.

But what about the nuts and bolts of scene construction itself?

“As a general rule good scenes should start late and finish early, meaning that scenes should not contain excess fat. A scene should fulfill its function and end, allowing the next scene to perform its function and end.”

Scenes should also adhere to the genre stylistics of the story. Stylistics inform how the scene delivers its information. The climactic scene in a love story, for example, is very different to the climactic scene in the action genre, in terms of setting, tone, tempo, and protagonist/antagonist interaction. In a love story the antagonist and protagonist might very well end up having sex and getting married; in a thriller, they might end up killing each other,

Out of Sight

In the superb comedy/action/crime/love story movie Out of Sight, Jack Foley (George Clooney), a failed bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) a US Marshall, share an ostensibly antagonistic relationship, which conceals a growing attraction between them — an attraction usually associated with a full-blown love story. The outer journey — the cop chasing the bank robber — neatly echoes the inner journey — the lover’s chase. The accomplished but disjointed time-line adds to the sense of uncertainty in which the viewer is unsure whether Sisco is out to arrest Jack or make love to him. 

Summary

Great scenes correspond to the narrative units discussed in previous posts. Each scene performs a specific task and is located at a specific point within the overall story.

Tension in Stories

Tom Cruise —tension in A Few Good Men
Courtroom tension in A Few Good Men

Tension sucks your readers and audiences into your stories. In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers urges us to keep ramping up the tension of our tales. The tension he is referring to here is different from shoot-outs and car chases – that’s chiefly excitement through action, not tension. 

True tension is coiled up inside difficult moral choices: Which one of her two children does a mother sacrifice to save the other — Sophie’s Choice. Does the father in Mast lower the drawbridge to prevent the train from falling into the river, or does he leave it up and avoid crushing his son who has fallen into the lifting mechanism of the bridge?

Not all choices have to be world changing. They can be small, as long as they are significant to the characters who make them. In Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins keeps the inquisitive Emma Thompson from seeing the title of the book he is reading. It’s a small action in the scene, but the tension in her wanting to know is palpable.

“Tension spring-loads your story. It keeps it taut and delivers a walloping release at the end.”

Higher stakes need higher sacrifices to resolve them. Whether the stakes are world domination as in a James Bond movie, or merely the control of your home, they are still high for the affected characters. If your characters don’t have everything to lose, ratchet up the stakes and keep doing so as the story progresses to keep the tension high.

In A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise is trying a big case which will send his client to prison for a long time, if he loses. But later in the story, the stakes rise even more. If Cruise gambles on turning the tables on the Jack Nicholson character, and fails, not only will he lose the case, it will cost him his Navy legal career. For a man living in the shadow of his father, the previous U.S. Attorney General, the stakes are high indeed.

In filling your story with tension, ask yourself the following questions: What are the stakes for my hero and how can I raise them? What is the moral choice he faces, and what does he stand to lose if he makes the wrong one? Correctly structuring the tension in your story will make for a more gripping tale.

Summary

Keep the tension high in your stories by resenting your hero with difficult moral choices.

Story Map – what is it?

So, you want to write a story but have no story map. Sure, you have a genre or character in mind. Maybe even the beginnings of a plot. But you sense it’s not quite enough to get you started. So, where to from here?

Story map in Before the Ight
Story map techniques in Before the Light

You need a story map to help you find your way.

It’s worth remembering that stories come from the generation of multiple ideas distilled to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”  In Before the Light, the core idea is: can super-powerful computers be trusted?

But an idea without a story is toothless. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, all of which help the writer determine the genre. 

“A story map assembles all the ingredients necessary to the writing of your first draft.“

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title. 

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one explores the main character and supporting cast, his backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, goal and transformational arcs. Simultaneously, one builds a plot guided by structure—the inciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid-point, climax and resolution. 

Now the writer is ready to create subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions—in other words, to write the treatment, followed by the step-outline.

By the time you have outlined your obligatory or climactic scene, you will have exposed the main theme of the story, since the winner of the final conflict carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, the theme is: human instinct and determination trump artificial intelligence. 

Of course, the first draft is one of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the light of day.

(For a detailed explanation of each narrative element mentioned above, please use the search box to locate relevant articles on this website.)

Summary

Creating a story map helps you plan your story. This article mentions some of the many components of such maps.

Story Strands — How To Merge Them

Story strands in Braveheart
William Wallace perfectly merges the story strands in Braveheart


The outer and inner Journeys comprise the two most important strands of a story, which is another way of saying that they relate how the hero acts in the world, and why.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts, beat-by-beat, the external events of the Hero struggling against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the race, preventing a robbery, and so on. 

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, and setbacks.

“The pivot points merge the story strands, the outer and inner events of the tale, into single actions.”

Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing, explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, the turning points, including your midpoint, describe events that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his evolving inner state.

Is it preferable to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? There is probably no definitive answer to that question—either will do, as long as both through-lines are tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength. He manages to kill the fop, an expert English swordsman, despite his being defeated in the actual sword fight, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Breaveheart, William Wallace accepts his knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes up arms against the English. The ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection. 

Summary

The pivot points are the perfect place for the story strands to merge and ensure that the “why” explains the “what” in the story.

Pantser or Plotter?

James Joyce as a pantser
James Joyce, pantser extraordinaire.

The great Irish writer, James Joyce, a pantser extraordinaire, once said that writing is like climbing a mountain. When ascending the rock-face, all you can see is the surface directly in front and behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. Writing is a little like that. All you can see is the page you’re working on.

When we sit down to write a screenplay, novel, or short story we are faced with the daunting challenge of having to fill the blank page or screen in front of us. Having a roadmap helps us orientate ourselves and gets us to our destination sooner.

Some writers like to plan the story meticulously before writing down a single word. Others like to write from the seat of their pants—pantsing, in colloquial speech. But even pantsers ought to have some idea of story direction prior to commencing the journey. Having a sense of the overall story’s structure, knowing how our story ends, for example, allows us to to begin charting the protagonist’s journey from page one.

Even more useful is also knowing where the midpoint or turning points are. This grants us freedom to parachute down to any point in the story and continue from there. If we are feeling sensitive and soppy today, we might write up the love scenes of our tale; if, on the other hand, we are in the mood for action, the confrontational scene between the hero and antagonist might suit us better.

“Most writers fall somewhere inbetween the pantser / plotter spectrum, sometimes running on instinct sometimes drawing on a preconceived plot.”

Writing a story from a structural roadmap, however, changes the roadmap. Turning points, the midpoint, pinches, even endings, shift, breathe. The structure that we outline in the light of day may not work late into the evening. Indeed, this is the most common reason pantsers give against pre-planning a story.

Yet, a changing structure need not be an argument for no structure at all. There is nothing wrong with going back and adjusting/rewriting the midpoint, or second turning point, or pinch, according to some new direction that may suddenly seem more appropriate. This to and fro is part of the writing process. It turns us into more accomplished writers.

Summary

Having a roadmap for our stories (plotter), doesn’t preclude allowing our story to develop as we write (pantser). The two approaches work well together.

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Unforgiven
Character conflict in Unforgiven arises from William Manny’s thinking he can stay true to the wishes of his dead wife to be a better man versus his true nature as a hired gun.

We’ve often heard that character conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories lack dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Character Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how juxtaposing the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, against an external conflict makes for a gripping tale.

“Internal and external character conflicts continuously struggle against each other, thrusting and parrying like opponents in a fencing match, until there is an eventual winner.”

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the length of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict that arises, should build on the danger and intensity of the previous one. This means that inner conflict is adjusted to suit changes to the physical threat. Is the character more or less fearful after each physical challenge? More or less prejudiced or committed?

Character Conflict in Unforgiven

What, then, follows a scene containing such conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven Ned Logan decides to walk away from the job involving killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic Schofield Kid to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces an entire saloon filled with men seeking to kill him. This is the result of the setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan, who was unjustly accused of murder. Manny now has no alternative but to revenge Ned’s death.

It is important to note, then, that each conflict has the following structure—conflict, setback, climax, resolution.

Summary

Conflict between characters, as well as inner conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.