Author Archives: Stavros Halvatzis

About Stavros Halvatzis

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

Fabulous Scenes—how to write them

Fabulous scenes in Unforgiven
The end of one of the many fabulous scenes in Unforgiven

So, you have your logline, a short synopsis of your story, and you’re ready to start writing fabulous scenes. But how to do it?

There are several ways to classify scenes—reactive, proactive, turning point scenes, midpoint scenes, the must-have-scene, and so on. In future articles I will be looking at the specific similarities and differences between each type. Here, however, I want to lay out a general strategy for writing great scenes.

The most important things to know off the bat for writing great scenes are:

1. Who is the central character in the scene?

2. What is the character’s goal in the scene?

3. How does the scene advance the plot?

4. What is the emotion generated by the scene?

5. How does the scene reveal character?

The second thing to consider is the method: How do you intend to convey the above? Through dialogue, action, subtext?

“Fabulous scenes are fabulous because they do the simple things right and let the fireworks emerge from that.”

In Unforgiven, a young, bombastic gunslinger who calls himself the Schofield Kid approaches ex-outlaw William Manny at his farm. He wants to recruit Manny to help him kill a couple of cowboys who reportedly cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Clearly, Manny is not doing well as a pig farmer and needs money to feed himself and his two young children. Manny initially rejects the offer. The scene, which can viewed as the inciting incident, fulfills several of the points raised above:

  1. The focus of the scene is clearly about William Manny who is faced with making a decision.
  2. The goal is to show Manny receiving a ‘job’ offer for which he will receive reward money, and his response to it.
  3. ThIs advances the plot by dangling the possibility of Manny returning to his old ways in order to collect the reward money.
  4. We see Manny as a shadow of the hard-living gunslinger he once was. Instead of lauding his decision not to accept the offer, we are left feeling sorry for him and his poverty-stricken life.
  5. The scene has Manny declare that he is no longer the cursing, hard-drinking killer he once was—that his wife has cured him of his evil ways. There is a sense, however, that Manny yearns for the adventure and freedom of the old days. We sense that he is only fooling himself, and this deepens his character.

The scene uses subtext and the physical demeanour of the characters to juxtapose the flashy, big-talking, Schofield Kid against the seemingly spent pig-farmer. It is a great example of how to use the above-mentioned techniques to write a spectacular scene.

Summary

Fabulous scenes apply an appropriate method for revealing character goals, hinting at hidden emotions, and promoting plot.

Story Theme – What Is It?

Before the Light, and the story theme.
In Before the Light, the story theme is that of humanity having to be protected from itself.

“What is your story theme? What is your story really about?” I ask.
“It’s about a boy who embarks on a journey to find his long-lost sister—,” you answer.

“That’s not what I mean,” I say, interrupting you. “By theme I mean the essence of your story, distilled into a single sentence.”

Without it the tale is rendered rudderless. 

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D Williams explains that the moral premise (substitute the word theme here) is the force that determines the flow and direction of events in a story. He asserts that stories with a strong moral premise do well at the box office. He sites films such as Star Wars and Braveheart as examples. Here, the claim is that understanding the moral premise guides the writer to craft a story that stays on track.

So, what form does the theme take? Williams says it isn’t enough just to state the one side of it.

“The story theme is the compass that allows the writer to navigate through a myriad of narrative outcomes.”

In the novella, Before the Light, for example, one part of the theme might be: Too much knowledge heaped upon an unprepared humanity leads to destruction (followed by the second part), but a well-kept secret leads to survival.

This creates an appropriate springboard for character action, for the story to explore the possible consequences of each possible outcome. The sentient quantum computer, Icarus, for example, has to choose between fulfilling the duty entrusted to it by its human creators, and risk dragging the entire world into a war, or betray the very purpose of its creation.

The story traces the tension between those two irreconcilable outcomes, right up to the moment in the climax when a decision is made—with all its concomitant consequences.

The complete moral premise, or theme, therefore, represents the genetic code for a story and takes the simple form: If X leads to a bad outcome, then MINUS X leads to a good outcome. A fully articulated theme allows us to navigate the terrain between those outcomes using this structure.

Summary

The theme or moral premise, comprises of two parts and can be thought of as the organising force of any story: One part identifies the virtue which leads to victory, while the other identifies its opposite, which leads to defeat. Keeping the theme in mind allows you to craft a story that stays on track.

THE FIRST LINE OF YOUR NOVEL

George Orwell’s 1984 contains a most memorable first line.
George Orwell’s 1984 contains a most memorable first line.

How many times has the first line or paragraph of a novel persuaded us to buy the book right away?
First impressions do count, so it is important that the writer nail the start of a story from the get-go. Who can forget these immortal openings, four of which are referenced from the excellent Oxford Royale Academy site.


1. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

The first sentence of George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, sets a tone through its jarring use of the number thirteen. Not only is thirteen associated with bad luck, it suggests that something is off with the world, since traditional clocks have only twelve numbers. This creates a sense of anxiety in the reader that persists throughout the entire novel and keeps us turning the pages.

2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859).

Dickens’ use of contrasting clauses in the opening of his historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, balanced by the repetition of ‘it was’, ‘we had’ and ‘we were all’, prepares us for the back-and-forth conflict that occurs in London and Paris prior and during the French Revolution—essentially a struggle between good and evil. The tale is rooted in the particular and the general, and this makes it a truly timeless and universal story.

3. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)

Here Jane Austin‘s somewhat satirical tone establishes the author’s posture towards the social norms of the day. The line, we later discover, is associated with Mrs. Bennet, a persistent woman who is determined to marry off her six daughters come hell or high water. We secretly enjoy Austen’s subtle but somewhat cruel social and cultural critique, and this keeps us wanting to read more.

“A great first line serves as a secret fountain to our story, allowing us to drink from it when all other sources dry up.”

4. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit, Tolkien (1932).

The unassuming simplicity of this line is precisely what makes it work so well as an opening salvo, harking back to countless fairytales. Furthermore, we are immediately intrigued by the word, ‘hobbit’. We ask ourselves, what kind of creature is a hobbit? And why does he live in a hole in the ground? We seek answers to these questions and so we keep reading.

And lastly, if I may be permitted the presumption of intruding upon such illustrious company:

“WHEN I was a young man and my life was bursting through like a newly sprung carnation, I thought about time as a phenomenon flowing from the equations of physics, something to be answered by the math; but now that I am older and given to bouts of melancholy during my ambles along the shore, time and space have become a longing and the equations have been tamed by syrup poured over waffles baked to a golden hue.” The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Stavros Halvatzis (2015).

Here, the narrator’s romanticised sense of nostalgia about his youth immediately betrays itself through the phrase ‘newly sprung carnation’. It also characterises him as something of a dandy. His initial belief in the equations of physics has been ‘tamed’, ironically enough, by time itself. There is something touching, however, about his failure to solve the intractable mathematical equation that has consumed his life, a sentiment bolstered by words such as ‘melancholy’, ‘ambles’ and ‘longing’. The impression that we are left with is of a once brilliant man in decline, forced to spend his time reminiscing about the past over ‘waffles baked to a golden hue’.

Summary

A great first line does one or more of several things: It establishes mood, theme, and genre. It showcases the main character. It hints at the main conflict. It poses story questions. And it does this in an unexpected or eccentric way. That’s a lot of technique packed into a single sentence.

Want vs Need — Part II.

Want vs Need in Unforgiven
Want vs Need in Unforgiven

What is the difference between want vs need in a character? And why is it important? In order to answer these questions we need to delve a little deeper into the developmental arc of the character, once more.

The character arc, we are reminded, describes the path that a character takes from a state of incompetence and moral ignorance, to that of excellence and moral superiority. The arc is intimately tied to the plot, since plot is a tapestry woven out of characters interacting with one another.

Practical and moral superiority, however, can only be achieved by passing some difficult test. It stands to reason, therefore, that a state of true knowledge can only be achieved late in the story—deep into the character arc.

One way for a character to prove that she is making progress is for her to acknowledge that her want, her stated reason for pursuing the goal, is not necessarily her need, at least not on its own. She first has to discover her true motivation and begin healing past wounds, correct existing flaws, in order to unleash her inner strength. It’s a moment of self-revelation that spurs growth.

“A character’s want is established early in the story and stems from a false motivation for pursuing a goal. The character’s need, by contrast, stems from a later realisation of a wound or flaw that has to be healed in order to achieve practical and moral efficacy in the world.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, this moment occurs when Benjamin Vlahos realises the truth about his parents, allowing him to begin healing the wound that has kept him a prisoner of an intractable mathematical problem for thirty years.

In Unforgiven the moment of self-revelation occurs when Ned Logan realises that he can’t bring himself to kill one of the cowboys who reportedly cut up a prostitute. Although a secondary character, he does act as a foil to William Munny, the protagonist of the story. Munny, who lacks a character arc, remaining largely static, does not hesitate to take the rifle from him and shoot one of the men in cold blood. Ned’s want for a monetary reward, however, has been replaced by his realisation of his true need—to live a peaceful life back at his raunch with his Indian companion.

A character’s want being replaced by his need, then, is a truly transformative moment and usually occurs deep into the story. It represents the true start of a characters healing process.

Summary

Want vs need lie on opposite sides of a character’s developmental arc. They represent the growth from ignorance to knowledge.

How Character shapes action

Character shapes action in Braveheart

Character shapes action and ultimately story. But no two people are exactly the same and, therefore, neither is the motivation behind their actions. 

Slap one person across the face and he might turn the other cheek. Slap another and he might punch you in the gut. A pacifist responds differently to a threat than would a war-monger. Different actions lead to different stories.

Personality shapes action. The inner life of a character is moulded by that character’s genetics, but also her hopes, desires, fears and wounds. It is these differences within a character that create the full tapestry of human response.

But personality is not static. Fears migrate, change, increase or decrease. Hope grows, shrinks, is fulfilled or snuffed out. To write a viable character arc, namely, the growth of the hero from ignorance to knowledge, or vice to virtue, we need to track the transformation of the elements that define personality.

In Braveheart, William Wallace goes from a disinterested farmer to a courageous and engaged rebel leader seeking to overthrow the English yoke. In Edge of Tomorrow Major William Cage goes from a cowardly public relations officer to a fearless soldier willing to die over and over again in order to save humanity by defeating an insidious alien enemy.

“Character shapes action. Write stories that tie the character arc to the plot in order to ensure the verisimilitude of your tale.”

If the above is true then it stands to reason that the growth of character helps to order the sequence of the narrative events that make up the story.

Tracking the change of say, cowardice to heroism through four or five stages, provides a roadmap for creating ‘ action’ scenes that feel authentic and believable. The result is stories that are motivated and well written—never a bad thing in the pursuit of success.

Summary

Character shapes action. Write believable and successful stories by tying your hero’s character arc to the flow of narrative events that comprise your plot.

Start Writing, but How?

Start writing - Luke Skywalker
Luke Skywalker’s hidden lineage provides a great springboard to start writing a great character

How do you start the writing process? Do you develop your characters and backstory first before growing the plot, or visa versa? Or does the pantser in you choose a genre and strike off immediately, finding your characters and story as you go along?

There is probably no single answer to that question. So much depends upon the personality and style of the writer. I can tell you what my approach is, though.

I fall somewhere between being a pantser and plotter. Some structural pre-planning of the story is needed, especially for screenplays, to guide my writing, but I don’t want to suffocate any spontaneous creativity that might occur when I’m half-way up the mountain.

I start by knowing which genre I want to write in. Drama? Science fiction? The mood, characters and plot will differ greatly based upon genre.

I then think about the protagonist and his goal. What problem does he have to solve in order to save himself, his loved ones, the world? Crucially, I think about an impediment or reluctance stemming from some past wound or secret that the character harbours. This plants the seed deeper into the soil and allows me to grow my story in a more rooted and viable way.

Before you start writing ask yourself, “What is my protagonist’s weakness or wound? How does this weakness make him suited, or unsuited, for the task ahead?

In The nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos needs to solve a intractable mathematical problem in order to achieve his goal—undo a past event that cost his wife her life. But his nostalgia and a deeply suppressed secret about his past gets in the way of achieving that very goal.

Luke Skywalker has a terrible secret that he himself is unaware of. He is the son of Darth Vader, the very man who threatens the Rebellion. Luke’s pedigree explains his facility with the Force, but it also makes him vulnerable to the dark side. The tension between the goal and an inherent weakness is a great generator of any story.

Summary

Start writing by exploiting your protagonist’s weakness or vulnerability. You’ll not only create twists and turns in your plot, you will also allow your characters to act in a more unique and authentic way, adding to their credibility and hence to the overall success of your stories.

Television Series Bible checklist

TV Series Bible - stranger things
The Television Series Bible was essential in getting a show like Stranger Things off the ground

A Television Series Bible is a marketing document containing an outline for a new television series. It has to inform, entertain and captivate the reader if it is to have a chance of going into actual production. Here are some pointers.

  1. Do you have a strong concept, preferably a high concept, upon which your series is based? Remember that the series bible is a pitching document. It must capture the producers’ imagination and engage their emotions from the get-go. What if someone had pitched Jurassic Park as a tv series back in the day? I can’t think of a studio not snapping it up.
  2. Have you included a crisp logline for the show, and a captivating one-page pitch—essentially a synopsis of the series—that establishes the story world, goal, theme and tone of the show? The set-up logline for Breaking Bad might be: When a docile,  cash-strapped chemistry teacher is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he starts cooking meth to provide for his family with the intention of stopping when he has accrued enough cash. But pride and ambition result in a change of plans.
  3. Does each season have a clear season question that is answered only at the end of that season? Does the entire series have a series question that is answered only at the end of the series? The season and series questions are compasses that guide each episode as it marches towards answering those very questions. For example, in Gotham, one season question might be: Who will win the hoodlum war amongst the rival gangs? The series question might be, will Bruce Wayne survive to become the Batman—and in what shape or form?
  4. Have you included short character biographies and episode synopsis, as well as ‘snapshots’ of intriguing objects from each episode—a picture or sketch of a gothic, jewel-encrusted crucifix side-by-side a pair of long fangs, for example, may go a long way in capturing the glance of a producer. What about a blood-stained suicide note to a lover?
  5. Is your bible design germane to the subject matter? Is it attractive to the eye? Textured backgrounds with lots of sketches are fitting for period or fantasy pieces. Neon colours and backgrounds are more appropriate for science fiction.
  6. Have you made clear in the character biographies what’s at stake for the important characters, both internally and externally? In other words, do we know what the protagonist’s goal is? Do we know why the antagonist, or, antagonistic forces, oppose this goal? And importantly, do we know what shortfall the protagonist has to make up in terms of a secret, a wound, and/or a moral or physical flaw, in order to achieve the goal? The character’s developmental arc is tied up with the plot arc. Both have to be conceived as two sides of the same coin.
  7. Have you included a short synopsis of a second and third season? You need to show producers that your series has legs. Hence the importance of the series question. In Breaking Bad, the series question is: Can Walter White survive his cancer, ruthlessness and greed? Showing how you intend to develop your series is an important aspect on whether your series will be picked up or not.

“Television series bibles vary in style and content. The thing that makes the best bibles stand out is precisely an element of uniqueness rooted in their design style and subject matter.”

Summary

Making sure that your television series bible addresses most of these pointers will go some way in giving your pitch a chance of being noticed by producers.

Reversals in Stories

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The Wild Bunch contains one of the most memorable of reversals
The Wild Bunch contains one of the most memorable reversals.

Using reversals to navigate through the major pivot points is one way to keep our readers and audiences engaged.

Importantly, we need time to lay out essential information in support of plot and character development that will only pay off later. This may cause interest in our story to wane. Reversals are one way to keep our readers or audiences interested.

Reversals are well-placed surprises. No story can really function without them. They create a certain expectation in us, only to surprise us a moment later with another: 

1. A young boy creeps into an abandoned double-story house on a dare and hears a sound coming from the steps leading up to the loft. Suddenly, a shadow appears on the wall, growing larger. The boy shuts his eyes, fearful of facing the source of the shadow. After what seems an eternity, he hears another sound. He opens his eyes, only to discover that the shadow is cast by a stray racoon caught in a slither of light.

2. A mother enters her daughter’s room. She finds the bed empty and the window wide open. We assume by her expression that her grounded teenage daughter has snuck out of the bedroom window. The mother hears the toilet flush. She smiles with relief, but the smile quickly fades when the bathroom door opens and a young man exits, followed by her daughter. 

“Reversals are used to jazz up flagging dramatic beats between the major turning points in a story.”

Here, within the space of a few seconds, we have two reversals that keep us engaged through the mechanism of surprise. 

3. In The Wild Bunch a robbery results in a gunfight. Lucky to escape with their lives, the robbers reach safety. They open the bags to count their loot only to discover they are filled with washers. This is both a reversal and a pivot point since it changes the plot. We should remember, however, that reversals are most useful when applied to smaller dramatic beats, since major turning points are potentially interesting enough on their own.

Summary

Reversals are dramatic beats placed between major turning points of a story designed to keep interest from flagging.

Realisation, Decision, Action in Stories

Realisation, Decision, Action In You can count on me
Realisation, Decision, Action in You Can Count On Me.

A character decision in stories usually follows a realisation of some hidden truth. A pivotal action springs from that very decision, forming a realisation-decision-action unit. Although the timing varies, these three nodes are tightly integrated.

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if a relisation leads directly to an action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear fake. Sandwiching a pivotal action in between realisation and action avoids this error: 

In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) decides to accept the Schofield Kid’s (Jaimz Woolvette) job offer, before embarking on a journey to fulfill the contract. In The Matrix, Neo decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the Machine World and Agent Smith. Decision Scenes typically show a character observing, noticing – checking things out, before deciding to act as a result of new information and insight garnered by the Realisation Scene.

“Realisation, decision, action: Realisation leads to decision. Decision leads to action. Action defines character. Character creates plot.”

Action Scenes propel the story forward by showing a character engaging in a range of actions: chasing a criminal, climbing a mountain, caring for a family member. In The Matrix, Neo learns how to fight by allowing Morpheus to download a kung-fu program directly into his brain. But in a character-driven film such as You Can Count On Me, the action may be as subdued as showing Samantha (Laura Linney) allowing her brother to stay with her, or having an affair. In each case, however, we notice that character action is a direct result of the decision to act.

Summary

Realisation, Decision, and Action Scenes form a tight dramatic unit that explains, motivates, and directs character action. A character realises a truth about his or her situation, decides to act on it, and does so. Understanding and utilising such patterns in your own writing is a useful way of weaving a tight and cohesive story.

Genre Sells Stories

Genre sells- Terminator 3
The lasting popularity of films such as Terminator is proof that genre sells, if attached to name producers, directors, and actors.

If a certain genre sells more than another, what’s the problem? Identify the most popular one and write in that genre.

The problem is that Hollywood sees certain genres as being in flux.

According to screenwriting guru, Michael Hauge, some genres are currently hard to sell. If your story concept falls within one of those, your effort to acquire seed money from a major studio will be that much harder. 

Here are some of the genres in question: 

Musicals in the mold of Oklahoma are almost impossible to sell. Feature-length, MTV-inspired Flashdance type movies, however, are not.

“If you buy into the idea that genre sells, but are sold on writing in a currently unpopular one, your best bet is to self-finance. Who knows? Your story might just help reawaken a sleeping giant.”

Westerns are currently a difficult though not impossible sell, unless a big name director gets behind the project, as are period films, meaning anything pre-1970s, biographies, and science fiction—due to the high budgets associated with this latter genre. Here, again, the attachment of a specific director to the project can make all the difference—as The TerminatorAliens and Avatar directed by James Cameron, has clearly proven. 

Perhaps the most acceptable of these financially-jittery genres is the horror film, especially if independent financing is sought. 

Of course, in saying this, I do not mean to suggest that films belonging to these genres never get made—only that they are not favoured by the big studios, off the bat.

By contrast, genres representing action adventure, suspense thriller, love story, comedy, drama or any combination thereof, tend to be viewed favourably by Hollywood. If your script belongs to any of those genres, its marketability is high.

Summary

Genre sells means that certain genres are easier to market to studios and independent producers. Choosing a poplar genre maximises the chance of a first-time writer achieving success.