Author Archives: Stavros Halvatzis

About Stavros Halvatzis

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

Working with Character Traits

Character traits in the Gladiator

Character traits in the Gladiator

ONE OF THE HALLMARKS of accomplished writing is how well the writer uses character traits to generate the hero’s outer and inner journey in the story.

Which is to say: How well does the inner journey support the visible events of the plot?

One way is to relate the hero’s arc to the antagonist’s character traits. We are reminded from previous articles on this topic that, typically, a character has four or five traits — mostly positive but one or two negative for a hero, and the inverse for an antagonist.

This allows the writer to tie the hero’s inability to achieve the goal to his negative trait by allowing the villain to exploit it.

 

Not only must the writer present clearly defined traits to drive the developmental arc of his hero, he must relate that arc to the antagonist’s actions, too.

But, by the end of the story, the tables turn. Schooled by experience, the hero is not only able to dig deeper and unleash the power of his positive traits, but he can identify and use the villain’s own weakness against him, too. This is a one-two punch combination that gains the hero his goal by allowing him to knock out his opponent.

Traits define a story

In Gladiator, Maximus is able to muster his remaining strength and slay the usurping emperor with his own sword. In so doing, he fulfills his promise to revenge his family and keep Rome safe from all enemies, including tyrants. He is able to manifest his inner strength, which stems from moral fortitude and loyalty, as physical strength, and use it against the villain’s own weakness: Had Commodus not been an egoistical coward determined to show Rome that he could defeat the world’s greatest gladiator in the arena, he might well have lived.

It is this combination, this conflict between the hero’s and villain’s traits, that allows the final showdown to resonate with irony, tension, and a sense of justice. The result is a powerful and memorable story skillfully rendered. We would do well to emulate this in our own writing.

Summary

Use your hero’s and villain’s warring character traits to drive the story and integrate the inner and outer journey events.

The Story Ending

Story Ending in The Matrix

Story Ending in The Matrix

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FLEDGLING writers are often told that they should know the story ending before they start writing its beginning. Syd Field immediately comes to mind.

But why should this be the case? What’s so important about the story ending?

Think of it this way: All journeys point toward their end. Simply put, the ending gives the story its purpose, it confirms its theme – its raison d’être.

The theme, which contains the moral essence of the tale, is only proved as a result of the final showdown between the hero and his nemesis at the end of a story: The winner carries the theme. Badly crafted endings, therefore, make for badly themed stories.

How the Story Ending Shapes the Tale

In The Matrix, human love, imagination, and determination, trump machine intelligence. This only emerges at the end of the story with the resurrection of Neo through Trinity’s kiss and the result of his final confrontation with agent Smith. Had Neo died at the hands of Smith, the theme would have been exactly the opposite. Knowing the ending, therefore, shapes the kind of beginning your story may have, within your chosen genre, in order to maintain believability and coherence.

But to chart the path to a final location in three dimensional space, you need three points. That’s where the midpoint of your story comes in. The midpoint forces the beginning to deflect through a further point in story space in order to reach the endpoint. The midpoint, therefore, further influences the sort of beginning your story may have and still achieve a pleasing shape. Carelessly placed beginning, middle, and endpoints result in meaningless squiggles.

How do you draw a pleasing story shape? You use mounting opposition to the Hero’s achieving his goal, driven by tension, pace, and conflict, to guide your hand. Joining the dots , then, will result in an interesting zigzagging line which climbs upwards to a powerful ending.

Summary

Crafting the story ending as an inevitable part of its beginning and middle makes for a coherent tale.

How to manage Rising Conflict in Stories

Rising Conflict in the writings of Lagos Egri

Rising Conflict in the writings of Lagos Egri

 

Staying with the work of Lagos Egri on how best to manage rising conflict in stories, this post specifically examines the role of transitions between emotional states.

Egri informs us that there are four such types:

Handling Rising Conflict

1. Foreshadowing (good)
2. Static (bad)
3. Jumping (bad)
4. Slowly rising (good)

Foreshadowed conflict should occur near the beginning of the story and should point to the forthcoming crisis.

In Romeo and Juliet, the warring families are already such bitter enemies that they ready to kill each other from the get-go.

Static conflict remains unchanging, spiking for only the briefest of moments and occurs only in bad writing. Arguments and quarrels create static conflict, unless the characters grow and change during these arguments. Every line of dialogue, every event, pushes towards the final goal.

In jumping conflict, the characters hop from one emotional level to another, eliminating the necessary transitional steps. This is also bad writing.

Avoid static and jumping conflict by knowing, in advance, what road your characters must travel on:

Fidelity to infidelity
Drunkenness to sobriety
Brazenness to timidity
Simplicity to pretentiousness

The above represent two extremes—start and destination.

Transitioning between less sharply seperated emotional states indicates slowly rising conflict between characters. This is the more desirable type of conflict in stories.

Supposing a character goes from love to hate. Let’s imagine there are seven steps between the two states:

1. Love
2. Disappointment
3. Annoyance
4. Irritation
5. Disillusionment
6. Indifference
7. Disgust
8. Anger
9. Hate

If a character goes from 1 to 5 at once, this constitutes jumping conflict, neglecting the necessary transition. In fiction, every step must be clearly shown. When your character goes through steps 1 to 9, you have slowly rising conflict. Each level is more intense than the previous one, with each scene gathering momentum until the final climax.

Summary

Rising conflict that transitions from level to level is the best way to manage the strife between your story’s characters.

Conflicting Characters Sell Stories

Conflicting characters: A performance of Ghosts in Berlin, 1983, with Inge Keller, Ulrich Mühe, and Simone von Zglinicki.

A study in conflicting characters: A performance of Ghosts in Berlin, 1983, with Inge Keller, Ulrich Mühe, and Simone von Zglinicki.

The noted teacher and dramatist, Lagos Egri, provides some sage advice of how conflicting characters help sell your story.

Remembering that stories need to hold our interest from the get-go, he suggests we start at a crisis point—the turning point in our protagonist’s life.

In Ghosts, by Ibsen, for example, the basic idea is heredity. The play grew out of a Biblical quotation which formed the premise: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.” Every action, every bit of dialogue, every conflict in the play, arises out of this premise.

Egri states that the correct way to start a story is to involve your main character in conflict. Conflicting characters not only drive the story forward, but they reveal their true selves in the shortest possible time.

Forcing conflicting characters together is the best way of exposing them to a reader or audience. Opposing characters should be militant, passionate, and active about their positions. Egri calls this process orchestration.

Recepies for creating conflicting characters:

Optimist vs. pessimist
Miser vs. spendthrift
Honest vs. dishonest
Loyal vs. disloyal
Believer vs. non-believer
Agapi vs. Erotas

Diametrically opposed values make conflicting characters inevitable. Two perfectly orchestrated characters will oppose, or, perhaps, even destroy each, other depending on circumstances, making your story a page turner.

Although conflicting characters form the foundation of any good story, you should first determine why they can’t simply walk away from each other, while the conflict rages. Determine the precise nature of the unbreakable bond that keeps them together until the climax: is it revenge, hate, jealousy, pain?

Summary

Conflicting characters generate story interest when they are forced into an unbreakable union. As they struggle to break their bonds, they generate even more rising conflict that drives the story forward.

Character Motivation in Stories

Character Motivation in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Character Motivation in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

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In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge examines the important topic of inner and outer character motivation in relation to story structure.

It’s important to note that much of the knowledge developed by the likes of Michael Hauge, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, Christian Vogler, and others, is aimed at the screenplay, but is, nevertheless, of direct benefit to novelists too. It is my opinion that some novels would benefit from the injection of pace and a deeper understanding of story structure.

Character motivation à la Hauge

Hauge reminds us that motivation exists on two levels. Outer motivation is the goal that the character, chiefly the protagonist, strives to accomplish by the end of the story. It is the answer to the question: What is the story about. Solving a puzzle? Catching the murderer? Winning the love of a beautiful woman? These questions and answers are all visible, plot orientated, outer journey motivations.

Inner character motivation, by contrast, is related to the inner journey of the protagonist. It is the answer to the question: Why does the protagonist strive to achieve her outer motivation? The answer always involves, at least in part, the protagonist’s desire to gain self-worth and an understanding of her place in the scheme of things.

Because it belongs to the inner journey, it is, by definition, invisible and exposes its presence through the outer actions of the character. Inner motivation is more tightly related to character growth and theme than it is to plot, although it motivates, explains and impacts plot.

In The Matrix, Neo strives to understand why the world he inhabits feels wrong. He seeks to answer the question: What is the matrix? Having been given the answer to that question, he then strives to discover whether or not he is The One. Both these questions are fundamental to his growth as a person and inform the decisions and actions he makes.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin’s character motivation stems from his obsession with proving that time travel is possible—this in order to correct the error that led to the death of his wife. It underlies his every thought and action.

Here, then, are the chief aspects of inner and outer motivation, à la Hauge:

Outer motivation is visible, desires outward accomplishment, is revealed through action, and answers the question: What is the story about?

Inner motivation, by contrast, is invisible, seeks to secure self-worth, is revealed through dialogue and action, and answers the question: Why does the character desire the goal?

Summary

This post sheds light on character motivation as aspects of the protagonist’s inner and outer actions.

Story Structure and Strong Emotion

Strong emotion abounds in Moulin Rouge

Strong emotion abounds in Moulin Rouge

ONE of the wonderful things about story structure is that it allows us to see the tale as a series of well-placed twists that relentlessly drive our journey to its climax.

Additionally, knowing how strong to make such twists relative to those preceding or following, provides us with a way to mount the tension and intensity of our tale—to keep the rope tight.

There is, however, a proviso: the reader or audience should never see these twists coming, or seem the as comprising the story’s underlying architecture.

Hiding structure through strong emotion.

One of the better ways to hide structure is through the adroit use of powerful emotions. If readers are reeling at some seismic revelation resulting from a traumatic action or event, they are unlikely to detect the seam in the plot.

Story structure should be hidden behind strong emotion if we are to avoid the accusation of predictable and formulaic writing.

In Moulin Rouge, a beautiful courtesan knows she has to send the poet who loves her away in order to save his life. This action occurs towards the end of the story and is a major pivotal turn. But knowing he will not leave if she tells him the truth about the threat to his life, she pretends she does not love him and has chosen to marry the duke instead.

We are dealt a double blow. We feel the courtesan’s anguish as much as we feel the poet’s pain at this seeming betrayal by the woman he loves. The overall emotion is so strong that we hardly notice the structural seam.

In my YA novel, The Land Below, Paulie, the hero of the story, is sentenced to die because he has broken the law of Apokatokratia. Emotions run high. But the reader is already aware the series continues. It is therefore unlikely the hero perishes.

I had to find a way to make that pivotal twist credible if I was to avoid the accusation of predictability. Having the Troubadour, Paulie’s only friend, come forward with a startling and highly emotive revelation about his and Paulie’s past, was how I chose to hide the formula.

Summary

Hide the underlying structure of your story behind strong emotion that is motivated and timely.

How to Write Great Story Ideas

Jurassic Park Is founded on great story ideas

Jurassic Park – a well of great story ideas

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AS a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.

Is it fate or just plain bad luck, they ask?

While it is true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, it also true that you can’t keep good story ideas down.

Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.

Story ideas roll call

Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.

All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.

A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!

A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!
Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!

A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!

These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.

I try I not to start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream. I used this approach in my first novel, Scarab, about a quantum computer which can change the laws of physics. The novel quickly entered the best seller list in its category on Amazon, and stayed there for over two years!

My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core then think about ways to make it more unique, more original.

Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.

Once I’m convinced I have a good story idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.

Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.

Summary

Fascinating, original, and well-written story Ideas are the antidote to writing obscurity.

How to Write Essential Backstory Elements

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

Backstory in Saving Private Ryan

ONE of the potential problems of expositional backstory in a novel or movie is that it may slow the action down to a crawl, show its hand, and ultimately bore us.

Yet, supplying information that is essential to the plot’s progression is unavoidable.

A novel or movie can’t painstakingly trace every single prior event. It has to jump around, intrigue us and then surprise us through the revelation of some connection to a past occurrence, action, or character trait.

In deciding what information to spell out through backstory, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:

Backstory Essentials

1. What is the motivation of the characters that we need to know in order to give their actions verisimilitude?

2. What is the history of the story problem?

3. What insights into the characters psychological makeup are necessary to support the authenticity of the ongoing action?

4. What evidence must you show to suggest that the characters have the resources and potential to solve the story problem?

5. What past information is necessary to give the story realism?

One of the best ways to blend backstory into the dramatic action is to slip it in when the need for it is at its highest.

In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there is a betting pool on guessing what Miller’s (Tom Hanks) job was before the war. The pool escalates to $300 but Miller still refuses to divulge the information. Finally, at the end of a tense battle, an argument among the soldiers threatens to turn physical. One of the men wants to go AWOL, but the Sergeant threatens to shoot him if he attempts it. Miller chooses this moment to ask where the pool stands at the current moment and then reveals that he is a school teacher back home. As he recounts the tale of why he joined the army the men relax and a potentially deadly incident is averted.

Here, curiosity is created beforehand which the backstory then satisfies. By making the past pertinent to the present, the writer is able seamlessly to integrate essential backstory into the forward thrust of the tale.

Summary

Backstory provides essential information to the reader or audience needed to understand the narrative. Blending backstory into the drama as an active part of the ongoing plot is an effective way of making it unobtrusive.

Writing Dialogue Subtext

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad

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Dialogue subtext, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning lurking beneath the obvious.

Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo. It is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

There are many techniques for generating subtext. Here are two more:

Dialogue subtext: the lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. Breaking Bad’s Walter White’s verbal interactions with Jesse are fraught with lies, denials, and tricker as he tries to keep Jesse under his control.

A lie generates dialogue subtext by creating a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, and the like.

So, when one character asks another: “Are you telling me the truth, yes, or no?” and the other character replies: “Have I ever lied to you before?” one has the sense that a lie is involved because the answer is evasive—-it fails to answer the question directly, parrying instead, with another question.

Dialogue subtext: manipulation

Another useful source of subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a secret objective. Specific instances that are associated with manipulation are: being corrupt, conniving, concealing, sowing suspicion, secretive, crafty, underhanded, shifty, shady, unethical, and the like.

Fred: “I thought you told me your wife was visiting her parents in New York for the week while you looked after the kids?”
Jack: “She is.”
Fred: “Strange. Must’ve been mistaken then.”
Jack: “What do you mean?”
Fred: “It’s nothing. Sorry I mentioned it.”
Jack: “Spit it out.”
Fred: “Well, It’s just that I thought I saw her getting into a limo on Sunset Boulevard early this morning as I was leaving a club. Clearly I need new glasses.”
Jack: “I thought you just got new glasses.”
Fred: “I did.”

In this example, Fred manipulates Jack into suspecting that Jack’s wife might be playing around. He offers a flimsy excuse for being wrong, then destroys the excuse by implying that there’s nothing wrong with his vision.

Summary

Lying and manipulating are common generators of dialogue subtext. Use them to add depth and complexity to your characters’ interactions.

Thanks

Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Silence of the Lambs

Character conflict in Silence of the Lambs

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We’ve heard it again and again, character conflict is essential to writing stories that are page turners. It is what drives the story forward. Without conflict the story stalls and falls off the high-wire.

But how is character conflict achieved? Here are some reminders:

Character conflict checklist

1. Is more than one character pursuing a similar goal or avoiding a similar problem? Stories about a race of some sort contain such conflict.

2. Does the conflict affect the protagonist’s inner and outer goals? In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos has to resolve his inner conflict resulting from the suppression of past memories in order to survive a category five cyclone.

3. Is the character conflict the most interesting and compelling it can be? In Scarab the protagonist has to decide between tempting the wrath of supernatural forces and the love of a woman.

Unlike in real life, character conflict forms the basis of most interactions between the story’s players. It gives rise to the polarity between the “good” and the “bad” events that creates the story itself.

4. Can a deadline force an action or decision that is less than the best? Having a bomb set to off at a specific time, or a runaway train set to derail at a certain point on the track, raises the tension and conflict in the story.

5. Can a “solution” actually cause a worsening of the situation? Having a character killed off to silence him can have consequences that increase the conflict between characters.

6. Can you implement the opposition to the goal in a more dangerous, powerful way? Instead of having the antagonist try to stop the protagonist from attaining the goal by going after him directly, he goes after his family instead.

7. Is there something or someone, apart from the antagonist, keeping the protagonist from achieving his goal? In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s disturbing childhood memory of lambs being slaughtered allows Hannibal Lector to get inside her head.

8. Are there conflicting goals among the minor characters that increase the friction between them?

Doubtlessly, you may add to this list, but this is a good start.

Summary

Character conflict forms the basis of all drama. Using a combination of two or more of the above-mentioned techniques will ramp up the conflict in your stories.