Author Archives: Stavros Halvatzis

About Stavros Halvatzis

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

A Good Villain?

Pablo Escobar as the chief villain

Pablo Escobar as the chief Villain

.

IN his book, Screenwriting, UCLA professor Richard Walter, reminds us that just as there are few purely good or purely bad people in life, a well observed character, particularly a villain or an anti-hero in a story, should contain at least some small trace of good in him.

“What Makes A Good Villain?”

In Narcos, for example, the drug lord, Escobar is responsible for establishing the cocaine trade in Miami, and murdering many innocent people in his own country, Colombia, as a show of force against the government.

Yet, his love for his family and his generosity to the poor people of his own town point to some good traits in him. When the tables are turned on him by rival cartels, as well as an equally brutal police force, he is separated from his family as he attempts to get them out of the country to safety. To make matters worse, they end up in the hands of the Colombian police. That is the beginning of the end for Escobar.

As his men are killed off one by one he becomes increasingly isolated. His father rejects him. His wife asks him to turn himself in. Despite his record, we cannot help but feel a wisp of sympathy for him.

    “A villain who is completely villainous, without a single trace of humanity in him, is essentially uninteresting and unconvincing in a story.”

In the 1970’s television series, Archie Bunker, the lead character is portrayed as stubborn, not very bright, and bigoted, hardly traits that we admire.

But who amongst us has never felt some prejudice or acted in a willful way towards others? Despite his negative traits, and because of the skillful writing of his character, we, unexpectedly, come to love the bigoted, stubborn Archie. Richard Walter suggests that part of the reason for this lies in that in comparing ourselves to Archie, we can at least feel relief that we are not as bigoted as he is.

Additionally, we are forced to recognise that prejudice can reside in anyone – a beloved grandfather, a friend, even a spouse, and we strive to guard against it in our own lives. The reason that we give such characters the time of day at all, then, is because, at the very least, we feel some sympathy for them. Without sympathy, without liking some aspect of their character, we would not waste our time on them.

Summary

Add some sympathetic traits to your most unlikable characters, especially to your villain, to avoid making them flat and stereotypical.


Signaling Emotional Changes in Story Characters

Emotional changes

Signaling Emotional Changes in Character

ONE of the hallmarks of good writing in films and novels is that there are emotional changes to the characters through time.

In stories, as in life, people learn from their mistakes, from life’s hard knocks, and try to prevent them from recurring by adjusting some aspect of their character.

Some, of course, never do, but that’s a topic for a future article.

But how do characters move from one state to another? How does love turn into hate? Passion into indifference?

Cueing Emotional Changes

Novice writers often make the mistake of creating characters who erratically jump from state to state. I’ve written before in this blog about the need for introducing transitional emotional states.

But how do we specifically convey these shifts to our readers? Is it through dialogue? Is it through narration?

In most cases, the best way to signal change is subtly, through small but telling actions. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty offers the example of a girl falling out of love with her boyfriend.

Does the girl tell him outright that she no longer loves him?

That might be too abrupt (unless that is the specific effect we are after). It would also be spoon feeding the reader. The story might require that the breakup be dragged out a bit.

In the example provided by Geraghty, the character stops using hair conditioner when washing her hair. It is a sign that she no longer cares about looking her best for him – that he’s not worth the extra cost of conditioner.

Subtle, but telling.

In planning for an emotional shift in your characters, then, identify the spot where the shift is to occur, then insert a telling but subtle action to signal it. This technique will add polish and finesse to your writing.

Summary

Signal a significant change to the emotional state of your characters through subtle but telling actions.

Writing Great Dialogue Hooks

Unforgiven contains great dialogue hooks

The film Unforgiven contains some great dialogue hooks

Great dialogue is such an important part of successful storytelling that its study fills countless of books.

In this article I want to touch on one technical aspect of great dialogue – what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity.

(See Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual).

Swain suggests that in order to have dialogue hang together it needs to contain a dialogue hook. That is, each speech needs to acknowledge the one preceding it in some direct or indirect way.

There are several ways to achieve this. Below are two of the most common – repetition and question/answer:

Two Technical Keys to Great Dialogue

In Unforgiven, William Munny, a hired killer, is told that his old friend, Ned Logan, whom he talked into joining him for a contract job to take revenge on some cowboys for the beating and scarring of a prostitute, has been killed by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and his men. This, despite the fact that Ned had withdrawn from the contract earlier without having harmed anyone. The news is a major turning point in the story.

Prostitute: Ned? He’s dead.
Munny: What do you mean he’s dead? He went south yesterday, he ain’t dead.
Prostitute: They killed him. I thought you knew that.
Munny: Nobody killed Ned. He didn’t kill anyone. He went south yesterday. Why would anybody kill Ned? Who killed him?

This question and answer structure, as well as the repetition of the word ‘dead’ and ‘killed’, not only links the dialogue between the two characters, it bridges the second and third acts of the film. Munny’s shock and disbelief turns into unrelenting revenge with dire consequences for the perpetrators.

In Independence Day the President of the United States questions an alien who is speaking through a surrogate.

President: Can there be a peace between us?
Alien: Peace? No peace.
President: What is it you want us to do?
Alien: Die. Die.

There are other ways to link dialogue – pregnant pauses, misdirection, change of subject, subtext, but in all cases the important thing to remember is that each piece of effective dialogue should, at the very least, hook tightly into the next. Question/answer and repetition of specific words are two of the most common ways to achieve this.

Summary

Question/answer and repetition are two simple but powerful techniques to help you write great dialogue hooks for your novels and screenplays.

Archetypes and Characters in Stories

Archetypes - Gandalf in Lord of the Rings

Gandalf as one of the Mentor Archetypes in Lord of the Rings

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, a veteran story consultant for major Hollywood studios, offers us eight character archetypes found, in one or other combination, in many successful stories.

They are the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally, and Trickster.

Most writers are familiar with some of these archetypes, albeit by different names, such as the Protagonist (Hero), Antagonist (Shadow), and Sidekick (Ally). Others, such as the Shapeshifter and Trickster, however, are less obvious.

The Trickster and Shapeshifter Archetypes

The Trickster represents mischief and the desire for change in the story. Clowns and comical sidekicks are examples of this sort of character. A chief psychological function of the Trickster is to cut the Hero’s ego down to size, typically through humour, in order to spotlight some absurdity in his thoughts and actions.

The Trickster’s dramatic function, as distinct from his psychological one, is to add comic relief to the tale. Some Tricksters may even rise to the level of a Trickster Hero, such as Bugs Bunny or Duffy Duck. Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop, captures many of the energies of this archetype, disrupting the Californian police system, while remaining unchanged himself.

The Shapeshifter expresses the energy of the animus and anima, which, in Jung’s psychology, characterises the male and female elements in our unconscious mind. We all embody aspects of the opposite sex within us, traits which are often repressed by society. We are told that girls play with dolls and teddies, and boys with cars and guns. When they cross over, it creates conflict in the characters, which, in story terms, enriches the plot.

The Shapeshifter’s dramatic function is to bring uncertainty and suspense to the tale. When the Hero keeps enquiring, “Is he friend or foe? Does she love me? Will she betray me?” a Trickster is generally present. A famous Trickster, who also embodies the attributes of the Shadow (Antagonist), is Iago who helps push Othello to murder and despair.

Women, portrayed through sudden changes in mood and appearance, typically make great Shapeshifters. In Fatal Attraction, for example, the woman quickly shifts from passionate lover to murderous harpy when the man with whom she is having an affair tries to end it.

Wizards, witches, and ogres are typical of this archetype in fairytales. The femme fatale, found in the noir films of the forties and fifties, finds deadly expression in cop and detective stories – Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, or Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.

Archetypes, then, allow us to create more complex characters by mixing them together to create more unique characters. At the same time, they allow us to map and track the psychological and dramatic requirements of a story – a boon to any writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Understanding the psychological and dramatic function of archetypes allows us to mix specific elements from each. The result is new, exciting, and viable characters for our stories.

Supporting Dialogue in Novels and Screenplays

Dialogue and action in novels and screenplaysDialogue in novels and screenplays is one of the most indispensable items in the writer’s toolkit.

Written well, with an appropriate relevance to character and a sufficient use of subtext, dialogue is one of the most economical ways to progress a story.

But dialogue on its own, no matter how skilful, can succumb the talking-head syndrome that will destroy the tactile texture of a story. Few writers can get away with excessive dialogue at the expense of action – with the exception of a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino.

For most of us, supporting dialogue with telling bits of action, no matter how small, is the way to go.

Dactions for novels and screenplays

Dialogue-supporting actions, or, dactions, as I playfully call them, fall into two broad categories according to their functions, which, directly or indirectly, serve to intensify what is being said.

If Tom, for example, is threatening to kill James while cutting meat on a chopping block, then the action directly enhances the dialogue.

If, on the other hand, Tom is threatening James while lovingly brushing his poodle’s coat with a brush, the action enhances the dialogue indirectly. Indeed, such an indirect enhancement can be even more menacing, precisely because of the air of normality with which the threat is delivered.

Nor does the action have to come from the characters who are doing the talking.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, two brothers sit chatting in the kitchen in the presence of a young boy who is retrospectively relating the tale to us. The conversation is punctuated by the boy’s observations of his mother’s seemingly pointless folding, unfolding, and refolding of clothes in the adjoining room.

This action undercuts the supposed friendly conversation taking place in the kitchen, although the boy does not yet understand the reason for his unease. Indeed, the boy’s nativity, makes the discomfort more subtle, increasing the tension for the reader.

Summary

Dactions ramp up the meaning of dialogue between characters, while simultaneously adding an element of tactile physicality to novels and screenplays.

Structuring Emotion in the Novel and Screenplay

Emotion in the novelIN a recent article I wrote about how to avoid blunting the creative impulse resulting from excessive preparation of a novel or screenplay.

I suggested that for some writers knowing the protagonist’s obsessive desires, then placing obstacles in her way, is enough to start us writing.

But for those who need to know a little more about character motivation from the start, what other background facts would be helpful?

Character Motivation in a Novel or Screenplay

In a chapter on shaping character Lagos Egri suggests that we first need to understand the underlying causes of obsessive desire for a specific goal. Is the action driven by jealousy, as in Othello? If so, we need to know that before jealousy there is suspicion; before suspicion there is antagonism – a primary motivator of hate; before antagonism there is disappointment.

Identifying the underlying emotions that drive our characters will help us propel them through the story. Strong ambition, for example, implies the need for fame, wealth, power. But all of these might stem from a suppressed but potent sense of insecurity. In constructing that particular sort of character, then, the writer knows that she has to include scenes which explore these emotions.

In my YA novel, The Land Below, Nugget’s hatred for Paulie, the story’s protagonist, arises from jealousy. Anthea, the girl he loves, seems to like Paulie, a mere labourer, more than him. Being a senator’s son, Nugget believes he is the superior choice. Her preference for Paulie, undermines his fragile confidence in himself.

Additionally, he fears that his failure to procure Anthea will diminish him in the eyes of his father, whose success is difficult to emulate. Coming up with a plan to defeat Paulie, therefore, stems from his jealousy, which in turn, springs from his insecurity.

In brief, then, exploring the chain of emotions that results in a character’s obsessive desire, is a useful spur to the writing process.

Summary

Know what lies behind your protagonist’s desire to achieve some tangible goal, prior to starting your screenplay or novel.

Plausible Surprises in Stories – How Not to Telegraph Your Punches

Surprises

Narrative Surprises

WHAT are narrative surprises and how should one go about structuring them?

If story structure could be represented by a line drawn on a sheet of paper it would look like a connected series of zig-zags spun around three or four radical turns at the major plot points. These zig-zags and turns represent surprises of various strengths.

Telegraphing your punches eliminates surprises. It makes your stories predictable – not a good thing. In his book, Film Scriptwriting, Dwight. V Swain reminds us that what we need in our stories is development that is unanticipated but logical. Or, as I often say in my own classes, to have development that is unexpected yet plausible.

Plausible Surprises

One way to achieve this is to set up an anticipated line of action then, in the words of Swain, pull a different rabbit out of the hat.

But you can’t cheat. Surprises must spring from the connective tissue of your story – they can’t feel inauthentic or forced.

Suppose that your hero has encountered numerous obstacles in order to sneak into the room where his girlfriend is supposedly waiting for him. He struggles up along the drainpipe outside the house and finally reaches her open window. The room is in darkness. He climbs inside, and, panting with passion and fatigue, he tiptoes to the figure lying on the bed. The bedside light goes on to reveal that the figure is not his girlfriend but her mother.

This sort of surprise might not necessarily rise to the level of a turning point, but it does constitute a zig-zag in the story’s path. Providing it has been allowed for by your earlier setup, this kind of twist will help keep your story unpredictable.

Summary

To keep your stories fresh and unpredictable lead your readers and audiences in one direction then surprise them with plausible but unanticipated twists in another.

Simplifying Compelling Characters

Compelling CharactersCRAFTING compelling characters for your screenplays and novels is a basic requirement for any successful story. A plot without compelling characters to drive it will seem trite and unconvincing.

There is no shortage of advice on how to set about creating successful characters for your stories – from writing lengthy and detailed backstories, their moral, political, social, and ideological viewpoints, to details about their personal tastes. What food do they like? What’s their favorite colour? Do they have all their teeth? And so on, seemingly, ad infinitum.

Truthfully, I have always found such an approach daunting and demotivating.

Certainly, the writer needs to know how a character will react to certain challenges presented by the plot. And, yes, character reaction needs to be rooted in who the character truly is. But do we really need to have prior knowledge of his dental health, unless that impacts the plot directly?

My personal experience has been that delving too long and too deep into the background of the characters may actually block the writing of a story. I get diverted and eventually lost in the details. Indeed, certain details, which initially seem like beacons of inspiration, often create a confusing kaleidoscope of colors that derail progress.

Writing compelling characters need not be that complicated

The point is that for some writers, the act of writing embodies an organic, perhaps even spontaneous fusion of many serendipitous elements – textures, senses, feelings, values, facts, intuitions, plot points. Pre-planning for them is an almost impossible task because many are often discovered on the fly.

My approach to theory, therefore, has been to learn as much about the different aspects of the craft as possible, identify, in broad strokes, the overall direction of the plot and the chief motivation of my characters, then get down to writing.

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, stresses that in order to get to the heart of a character we need to know what that character wants – and not wants in some mild, would-like-to-have sort of way, but wants in a compelling, urgent, obsessive way.

Is it love? Then our character must desire it more than anything else in the world.

Is it wealth? She must be willing to push herself to breaking point to acquire it.

Is it revenge? He must be willing to risk death to get it.

In my latest story, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos is trapped by an all engulfing sense of loss resulting from the accidental death of his wife, Miranda. His unyielding desire to try to rewrite the past, through cutting-edge physics, drives his every thought and action.

Not only does this sort of obsessive desire increase the intensity of a character, but it gives the story direction. After all, the character’s wants are what drive the tale forward.

Just think of Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s murder, or Cinderella’s compulsion to go to the ball, or Heathcliff’s obsession with Cathy.

You get the picture.

Which brings me back to my opening remarks: what must I know about a character before I begin writing her story?

I need to know what she desires and how far she is willing to go to achieve it. I can then begin to generate the plot by placing obstacles in the path of that desire.

Summary

Know your character’s compelling desires before you begin writing her story.

Understanding the Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

The FabulaTHE fabula and syuzhet are two of the most basic and important narrative concepts writers have at their disposal, yet few know exactly what they mean.

The syuzhet is the story that unfolds on the page or screen. It contains all the gaps, obfuscations, and convolutions that render the hero’s experiences interesting to the reader and audience.

The fabula, by contrast, is the sequence of events readers and audiences piece together in their minds while the story unfolds in order to make sense of it.

The fabula as the global perspective of the story

Think of the fabula as the all-revealing, areal perspective of a story. It affords full discloser, offers no surprises and grants no unsolved puzzles. It is, what I call, ontologically replete.

The syuzhet, on the other hand, represents the subjective, ground-level discombobulation of the fabula, intended to generate the kaleidoscope of emotions that keep us engrossed. Arguably, the syuzhet contains the artistic fingerprints of its creators. It is the level where most of the art and craft happens.

Memento, for example, has an extremely convoluted syuzhet. The hero, who suffers from short term memory loss, has to constantly try to understand events that make no sense to him, since he has forgotten the intentions and motives that have preceded them. The creators of the film offer a story that unfolds from present to past in order to capture the disorientating subjective experience of the hero.

Most films, even conventional ones, routinely hide information from us in order to build suspense or interest, until the appropriate point of release. In Manchester by the Sea the reason the protagonist is unable to form relationships and seems content to remain in an abusive, low-paying job is explained through a series of flashbacks later in the film.

Other more ontologically complex films reveal information at a more formal level. The result is the existential surprises of the sort we see in films such as Donnie Darko, Vanilla Sky, Jacob’s ladder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and many others. Such puzzle films present the audience with two or more levels of existential reality, making it harder to construct a sensible fabula from a stubbornly uncommunicative syuzhet.

In my own novel, The Level, the syuzhet withholds crucial ontological information from the readers, challenging them to build a coherent fabula before they can understand the meaning of the story.

The benefit of fabula construction lies at the initial stage of story-creation. In planning a complex tale it is best to build a comprehensible fabula before attempting to shift, hide, and surprise through an artful syuzhet. Failure to do so will leave writers as confused as the readers and audiences they are attempting to woo.

Summary

Construct a cogent and replete fabula before attempting to write a convoluted and artful syuzhet.

Are your Stories Plot or Character Driven?

Plot and character in Gladiator

Plot and Character: Russel Crow as Maximus in Gladiator

Students of writing often ask how character relates to plot. Which is more important, or at least, where should the emphasis fall?

Some argue that genre is the lens that focuses the writer’s attention on one or the other. A whodunit, they suggest, is more plot-driven than a European art film that concentrates more on character.

But need this be absolutely the case? Would concentrating on both not serve to enrich any story, regardless of its genre? Especially because plot and character are so deeply interwoven, that you can’t invoke one without invoking the other?

How character affects plot

The following analogy is helpful: Plot is to character as a beam of light is to a prism passing through it. The prism refracts the flow of the plot.

Slap a Nazi officer on the cheek and you’re likely to get shot. Slap one of the twelve disciples instead, and he may well offer you the other cheek. Both reactions, which might be pivotal turns in the story, are influenced by the personality, beliefs, and ideology of the characters involved.

In the film Gladiator, for example, can you imagine Maximus failing to fight back against the Emperor who has poisoned him, then stabbed him with his sword in one-to-one combat in the arena?

Much more fitting is that Maximus pull the Emperor’s sword from his belly with his bare hands and use it to stab the Emperor to death with it.

This action is only possible because of who Maximus is, a man of immense will and strength who is determined to revenge the death of his family and save Rome from being ruled by a madman. His action is in keeping with his character.

And so it should be with any character whatever the magnitude of his actions, since, in terms of narrative construction, actions are nothing more than responses to challenges and opportunities presented to the characters of a story.

Summary

The plot of a story is directed through the prism of character.