Author Archives: Stavros Halvatzis

About Stavros Halvatzis

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

How to work with backstory

Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,
Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,

Do you know how to work with backstory?

There is no shortage of how-to articles on writing on the internet, not least of all material on this website; there are articles on the inciting incident, turning points, on character arcs, dialogue and a multitude of other narrative elements. 

And this is all to the good. 

But there are some subtle aspects of the subject that are not as often discussed, such as how much exposition or backstory to reveal, and when to reveal it. 

The Whodunit, for one, can’t succeed without mastery over this element, but truthfully, most stories deploy the technique, since most stories withhold information from the backstory to intrigue and surprise. 

The question hence arises, when, where, and how much information to reveal or withhold?

“The more knowledgeable you are about story structure the more easily you’ll work with backstory – the art of when, where and how to best reveal background information.”

Enter the three act structure. Knowing that the first act’s task is to introduce the world and its characters, to create a ripple in the status quo and to state the goal—the first few pages that include inciting incident and the first turning point are good places to slip in nuggets of backstory. Ditto for the second act’s midpoint and second turning point, and the third act’s climax and resolution.

Information, at these junctures, may be leaked through action, direct dialogue, or subtext. 

When, in Unforgiven, one of the deputies doubts Little Bill Daggett’s courage, another deputy quips (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Little Bill scared? Little Bill grew up in (the mean streets of) Kansas. Little Bill ain’t scared. He’s just no carpenter.” 

The dialogue is laconic, befitting men of action. Nevertheless,  it does leak enough backstory to reveal just how tough an opponent Little Bill is going to be for William Munny.

Earlier in the story, at the inciting incident, the Schofield Kid rides into Munny’s pig farm to ask him join him on a job to kill two cowboys who cut up the face of a prostitute. He asks if Munny is the same William Munny who killed so many people, including women and children, in the past. Munny simply replies, “I guess so.” The scene is understated and rather humorous, playing on the Kid’s naive awe for Munny’s ‘achievements’. It nonetheless gives us important background information about Manny’s past as a ruthless killer.

Additionally, Munny’s constant chatter about how his wife helped him abandon his wicked ways is an adroit way of sneaking in backstory. For example, he tells his children how, at one time, he might have whipped and cursed a horse for throwing him off, then later tells his old friend Ned that he ‘ain’t like that no more’.

The point is that the writer has to place nuggets of backstory at appropriate moments, preferably around the structural pivots, and even then, only as many as necessary to serve the drama.

Exercise: Consider a story you have written. Are there sections that leave you confused, rather than intrigued? Could this be solved by introducing more backstory elements? If so, tuck in only as much new information as is necessary through subtext, skilful dialogue or telling action. Try to locate it inside or close to one or more structural beats (discussed on this site). Use character emotion in the scene to distract the reader away from this slight-of-hand.

Summary

Sneak in just enough exposition to keep the reader or audience hungry to know more. Tucking in information around the structural beats and filtering it through the psychology of a character helps to keep the information unobtrusive.

The power of setting – how to tap into it

The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.
The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.

ONE way to tap into the power of setting in your stories is to place your characters in locations that add to the mood, and more specifically, locations that raise the tension.

In 2001 A Space Odyssey, the HAL computer turns against its human crew. HAL, who controls all systems on the space station, has even more power over them, given the hostile environment of space.

In Wuthering Heights, the brooding Yorkshire moors form the perfect backdrop for the tempestuous love affair between Cathy and the wild and dangerous Heathcliff. In many ways, the moors are as powerful a character in the story as any of the players.

“Tap into the power of setting by treating it as if it were another character—dangerous and even more ubiquitous.”

In Edge of Tomorrow Lt. Col. Bill Cage’s initial narcissism and cowardliness is accentuated by placing him in a war environment against alien beings. A time loop causes him to relive the conflict innumerable times, a conflict in which he is repeatedly brought back from the dead to learn from his mistakes.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the peaceful village of Mission Beach forms a perfect contrast to the violence of cyclone Yasi and the protagonist’s self-realisation, which occurs at the height of the drama. Setting the story in a busier town or city would lessen the impact.

When choosing settings for your stories, then, situate your characters in spaces that feed the plot and increase the dramatic tension between them.

Exercise: Pick a story that you’ve written. Where does the drama unfold? Does the location add to the danger and tension? If not, consider relocating the story to a more hostile environment

Summary: Utilise the power of setting by having it add to the danger, tension and conflict between your characters.

Character arc structure at a glance

James Scott Bell’s character arc structure.
James Scott Bell’s character arc structure

Typically, a protagonist in a story grows—at the very least he changes. The hero at the beginning of a tale is no longer the same person in terms of his skills and self-awareness he is at the end.


Making this change believable involves aligning the character’s actions to his inner growth. This is a point I have made several times on this site, though it bares repeating:

A change in self-awareness must lead to a change in the quality of a character’s actions.

In his chapter, The Arc Within The Plot (Creating Characters, the Complete Guide: Reader’s Digest), James Scott Bell explores the process in some depth. He provides the following example, which, I paraphrase here:

If your story is going to feature four major incidents in the life of a criminal—the crime, time in jail, a trial and sentence, and an aftermath in prison, create a table with four columns. In the first column, “The Crime,” briefly describe who your character is on the inside.

Next, go to the last column, “Prison.” Describe how the character has changed at the end. What has been his life lesson? Now go back and fill in the other columns to show a progression toward that final outcome. Create incidents powerful enough to justify the shifts in the character.

The character arc structure table will give you ideas for scenes that illustrate your character’s growth, which, in turn, will deepen your story. Start with the first and last events, then go back and fill in the middle parts.

“Use the character arc structure to help make your protagonist’s actions believable by mapping the growth in self-awareness to the lessons provided by outer events.”

In Scott Bell’s example, the columns show growth that culminates in a shift in character values.

The Crime.Jail. Trial and Sentence.Prison.
Initially without pity, cynical.Mistreated, but helped by another con.Has to face the victims of his crime.Compassion and empathy are what is needed in the world.
Changes his opinion of other prisoners.Witness testimony shows him how he’s wasted his life so far. This sets the course for a future transformation. Proven by how he treats a prison guard.
The character arc structure table.

In this example, then, the protagonist has gone from being cynical and callous to someone who regrets his criminal acts and comes to feel compassion for other people—even his jailers. The progression occurs through a series of impactful events. Tabling the events and tying them to inner growth helps to structure a believable transformation of the character.

Exercise: Review a story you’ve written. Can you tabulate four (or more) major events and correlate them to your protagonist’s shifting values and perceptions? If not try to do so.


Summary

One way to lay out the character arc structure is to map major events impacting your protagonist against his inner transformation.

What makes for enduring writing?

Leo Tolstoy and enduring writing.
Leo Tolstoy’s relentless search for enduring values at the expense of religious dogma led to his excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church.

What makes for enduring writing? Is it style or subject matter? Perhaps both?


But if, as is certainly the case, style and subject matter are tied to the changing ethos of the times, how may we judge the merits of the old against the new, given this flux?

Even so, most scholars would agree that the likes of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, and Steinbeck are indeed great writers, even though their work is as different as Baroque music is different from Rock & Roll.

Some timeless, unchanging standard must surely be at play here.

“Enduring writing stays relevant less from style and content and more from the values it encapsulates.”

Although some scholars argue against the validity of universal values, such values do exist and have always done so. Foundational thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love ennoble us as a species. They form the bedrock of civilization.

Throughout history great writers have served as humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the undying relevance of such values. They have written stories that chart the dire consequences of love being supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition, and the like. They have warned us that blind ambition can lead to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth); they have shown how a cathedral’s newly added spire might collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire); they have chronicled how families and villages are torn apart by greed (The Pearl).

It is this tireless affirmation of universal values and the warning against negating them that renders writing immortal.

Long may it continue to do so.

Exercise: Examine a story you have written. Jot down its theme. (The theme usually contains the value system of the tale.) Do the values in your story rise to the level of a universal truth? If not, consider changing the theme to suit.

Summary

Enduring writing contains superlative style and content, but more importantly, it affirms high universal values.

Two Lives – the hero’s twin struggles

To]wo lives in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a novel by Stavros Halvatzis
in The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos has to unearth the secrets in his past, settle the suppressed conflict in his two lives, in order to survive the raging storm which has engulfed his small town of Mission Beach, Queensland.

One of the most common errors in writing is the failure to motivate the hero’s actions, the failure to sync up his two lives.

All too often the hero acts too wisely or performs too competently during the story, especially at the start. His actions do not reflect his current state of knowledge, skill, and moral awareness. Typically, this is because his inner and outer lives are out of step with each other. This is a most common ailment that presents as a glaring lack of motivation in a character.

Let me explain: If, as is the case in a typical tale, the purpose of the story is to showcase the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge through a series of hard knocks, it stands to reason that the quality of his actions must be lower at the beginning of the story than at the end. A hero can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the antagonist, taking the high moral ground, too early. He has simply not earned that right yet.

“The quality of a character’s actions is related to the quality of his moral awareness—these two lives are causally linked.”

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t break free of the guilt that has paralysed him for decades until he recognises the truth about his past through a series of suppressed recollections about his childhood. His freedom must be earned, not dropped into his lap by the writer. Facing up to the reasons for his actions is what the story is about.

And so it is with most stories.

One way to add to realism to your hero’s actions, then, is to link his outer growth to his inner growth—to sync up his moral knowledge to his acquisition of physical skills and resources. This will go a long way in making your story feel more authentic.

Exercise: Examine one of your stories. Record your hero’s moral strength as well as his physical skills, as measured against the story goal. Go to each pivotal moment in the story—turning point, mid point, etc. How do these twin journeys relate to each narrative twist? How does a defeat in the world affect your hero’s moral growth? Does it lead to a change in perspective that better prepares him to cope with the next challenge? If not, be sure to show the consequences of his failure. Do this for every major action your hero undertakes. Your story will feel more authentic for it.

Summary

Coordinate your hero’s two lives in order to help authenticate his actions.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Characterising details – what are they?

Book cover of a nook which contains a chapter on characterising details.
Characterising details—an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.

Characterising details do not only provide important facts about story characters, they grant insight into their traits through a show-don’t-tell technique.


In her chapter, CHARACTER OBJECTIVE AND CONFLICT (Creating Characters: The complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Mary Kole defines characterising detail as “[a] multilayered piece of information or action that teaches us something deep-seated about a character.”

Height and hair colour are usually not significant details. Far better are small but telling actions that tell us something hidden about a character.

Someone who drops a sweet on the ground, looks left and right to see if he’s being watched, then picks it up and surreptitiously pops it into his mouth, does tell us something significant about that character: that he so compulsively loves sweets that he’s willing to eat germs off the ground to reacquire them, and that he is ashamed or embarrassed by his action. Importantly, it does it through the show-don’t-tell technique, making it a more rewarding reading experience.

“Characterising details are snippets of telling action that shed light on a character’s hidden traits.”

Place descriptions, too, may serve to characterise through a similar technique.

“The house was in desperate need of repair. The floors were damaged and caked with grime and dirt, the wall plaster was peeling, the ceilings were descending into the rooms like great arching sheets of cloth. There was a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time to do it in.”

This is not a bad description, but here’s a better one:

“Matthew studied the shell of the house. He’d have to start right away if he were to have it ready before she arrived—rip down the damaged ceilings, replaster a good portion of the walls, sand down the wooden floors and fit in new boards to replace those destroyed by termites. Finally, he’d have to paint and varnish the whole catastrophe. And all this in a week. With no money. It was an impossible task, but that, of course, was what Matthew did. Pursue impossible tasks. Like impressing an impossibly beautiful girl who had ignored him for a year.”

This passage is more effective because it not only puts us in the head of the character, it shows us something about his grit, drive and objective, too: to try and win the attention of a beautiful girl who doesn’t know he’s alive.

Exercise: Find a passage in your own writing that describes the motivation of a character. Does the description contain superfluous details that leave the reader un-engaged? Replace them with detailed actions that characterised through the show-don’t-tell technique.

Summary

Characterising details are snippets of telling information, usually revealed through action, that tell us something important about a character

Supporting Characters – Essentials

Great supporting characters from the Harry Potter saga.
Great supporting characters from the Harry Potter saga.

Supporting characters are ones who act to highlight your protagonist’s needs and shortcomings.

In her chapter, CRAFTING EFFECTIVE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS (Creating Characters: The Complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Hallie Ephron provides several examples of such characters. She points out that Dr. Watson’s function as Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick is to be a sounding board for the brilliant sleuth’s ruminations.

She goes on: 

“Virtually every mystery protagonist has one [supporting character]. Rex Stout’s obese, lazy, brilliant Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin—a slim, wisecracking ladies’ man. Carol O’Connell’s icy, statuesque, blonde Detective Kathy Mallory has garrulous, overweight, aging, alcoholic Detective Riker. Robert B. Parker’s literate, poetry-quoting Spenser has black, street-smart, tough-talking Hawk.”

“Supporting characters should come across as ‘real people’ while simultaneously performing a specific set of narrative functions.”

In designing your cast of supporting characters, then, remember to utilise the principle: Opposites attract. To that end, weigh up your protagonist’s traits against those of your supporting characters and offer a contrast between them: Holmes is brilliant and unconventional; Dr Watson is slow and a stickler for decorum. Inspector LeStrade’s dislike of Holme’s whimsical flair provides an incessant critique of Sherlock’s investigative technique. 

You get the idea.

The point is that a level of conflict between your supporting characters and your protagonist, whether these characters are friends or foes, is a requirement if the story is to engage us.

Of course, it is not all strife and conflict with supporting characters. They can often provide comic relief. Shakespeare’s unforgettable Falstaff comes to mind. Still, even here, the main function of such a character is to act as a foil to the protagonist.

Getting the names straight

A last word on naming your supporting cast. Ephron admonishes us to assign names to characters that help us differentiate between them. She states: 

“It’s not easy for readers to keep all your characters straight, so help them out. Don’t give a character two first names like William Thomas, Stanley Raymond, or Susan Frances. Vary the number of syllables in character names—it’s harder to confuse a Jane with a Stephanie than it is to confuse a Bob with a Hank. Pick names that don’t sound alike or start with the same letter. If your protagonist’s sister is Leanna, don’t name her best friend Lillian or Dana.”

There you have it . A snapshot of supporting character functions to get you started.

Exercise: Go through any story you’ve written but not published. How many of your supporting characters act as a foil to your protagonist? Do they provide a humorous or critical commentary on your protagonist and his views? If not, strike these characters from your story, or combine them into one more pithy character.

Summary

The supporting characters’ function is to throw your protagonist into bold relief through praise or criticism, while simultaneously coming across as ‘real people’.

Anti-heroes – essential characteristics

Walter White as one of the quintessential anti-heroes in Breaking Bad
Walter White’s Breaking Bad is one of the most quintessential anti-heroes in recent times.

WITH the erosion of morality as an absolute set of values centred around faith in a deity, there has arisen an ethical relativism which has contributed to a crop of protagonists who are best described as anti-heroes. But just what is an anti-hero? 

In a chapter titled, CREATING AN ANTI-HERO, taken from the Reader’s Digest book, Creating Characters, The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction, Jessica Page Morrell defines this character type as someone with specific reasons that explain his behaviour.

Hence, anti-heroes are not simply rebels or ‘bad asses’ for the heck of it. Their actions and beliefs spring from a personal, clearly reticulated philosophy.

“Anti-heroes are protagonists whose values do not align with traditional morality but rather spring from their own individual philosophy.”

Morrell offers the following role-defining characteristics of anti-heroes:


  • Anti-heroes are not role models, although we secretly would like to kick ass like they do.
  • They can be selfish and essentially bad people who occasionally are good. 
  • They are sometimes unglamorous and unattractive in character as well as in appearance.
  • They can be motivated by self-interest and self-preservation, but there is usually a line anti-heroes won’t cross, which sets them apart from villains. 
  • They often have motives that are complicated and range from revenge to honor. 
  • If they are forced to choose between right and wrong, will sometimes choose wrong because it’s easier. 
  • They can play both sides with good guys and bad guys, profiting from both. 
  • They can sometimes be coerced to help underdogs, children, or weaker characters, and they sometimes do so voluntarily. 
  • They can embody unattractive traits and behaviors, such as sexist and racist attitudes, and violent reactions when wronged. 
  • They can show little or no remorse for bad behaviors. 
  • They are a mess of contradictions.




These characteristics, then, distinguish anti-heroes from classical heroes since the latter tend to act out of a sense of honour, nobility, altruism, or a belief in God. 

What is lost by having characters act outside conventional morality is the behavioural clarity based on centuries of human development within the context of a religious and cultural vision. 

What is gained is a more original, if ambivalent, nexus of character action that perhaps more vividly represents modern society, for good or ill.

Summary

Anti-heroes are not necessarily evil. They are characters who act according to a philosophy that is often at odds with received morality.

Plot and character – how to integrate them

Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character
Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character

How are plot and character related?


In the previous three articles I laid out the following steps for writing a new story:

  1. Define the premise.
  2. Boost the premise.
  3. Grow the premise into a summary.

In today’s article I complete the process by showing how to integrate the hero and his nemesis with the plot. This is the last stage of story preparation.

Plot and character

To engage us, a hero needs to be in jeopardy; he needs to be active but vulnerable. He must also be sympathetic, yet flawed or wounded, and he needs to harbour a secret. In my story I have a protagonist who feels guilt for having led his followers to the dangerous world of the surface.

Additionally, my hero is hiding a secret of an imminent danger to himself and his followers at the hands of cannibals. This knowledge generates great conflict in him, inviting us to participate in his mental and emotional state. 

But a hero should not be a wilting daisy either—weak, indecisive, or incompetent. That is the domain of the anti-hero. To this end I intend for my hero to stay one step ahead of the enemy in order to increase our admiration of his strategic abilities—he is dynamic.

Lastly, his decision to offer up his infected body to the cannibals for them to feast on, when he is finally cornered, is a clever but devastating move. Importantly, the story’s plot emerges from the hero’s psychology—his flaws and values, his character arc. 

“Writers need fully to understand the essential aspects that motivate the hero and his nemesis. In the light of this understanding, the actions of their characters will yield a plot that is fully integrated.”

His nemesis, too, is driven by his wounds and weaknesses, but also by his pride. As the physically and emotionally scarred leader of a tribe of cannibals ranging over an apocalyptic land, he has long yearned to be more like the blue-eyed heroes of myth—more like the young man he is hunting. He believes that if he were to defeat this interloper, humiliate him in front of the tribe and his own followers, he would usurp his power and elevate himself to the status of legend. This ambition makes him susceptible to the trap our hero lays for him. 

Both our hero and his nemesis, then, act in a way that is in keeping with their psychology—through actions that reflect their scars, ambitions, hopes and fears.

This sort of dual-character-sketch approach, brief as it is, cuts to the core of what makes each character tick. It grants us an understanding of who these people are and why they act the way they do. It offers a method for integrating character with plot— the last stage of story preparation rendered in this series of articles.

Summary

Integrate plot and character by having the action spring from the scars, ambitions, hopes and fears of the hero and his nemesis.

Story beats – how to write them

A typewriter as an illustration of story beats.
Great stories are made up of powerful story beats that perform act-specific functions.

What are story beats, and how does one write them?

Last week I showed how to turn a story premise into a summary by adding a life-altering event to the hero’s path, and factoring in the ending of the story.

This filled out the story somewhat, but it was still missing important narrative beats. In order to make the acquisition of these beats a little easier let us now pose an overarching story question as well as three act-specific ones. Note that the overall story question overlaps with that of the last act’s.

The overall story question is: Does the hero succeed in defeating a tribe of cannibals to lead his followers to a place of safety?

This question helps to keep our sights trained on the through-line of the story—what has to be answered at the end of the tale.

Following on from that, we can use our summary to generate appropriate incidents within each act. Remembering that each act is governed by a question aimed at providing a narrative outcome, we have: 

Act One: Is the land above as idyllic as it first appears to be? 

How about: 

After a short euphoric encounter with the land above in which our hero notices a large eagle watching them from the sky, the landscape turns gloomy: The sun dims under thick plumes of smoke wafting over from the distance, the bones of dead creatures proliferate on the ground, the hero’s grandfather becomes ill and has to be carried on a make-shift stretcher, and acid rain begins to waft down. 

A day or so later a tribe of disfigured wretches approaches the group. A terrible storm is brewing and the tribe offers to lead the youngsters to safety. The leader seems in awe of our hero, rambling on about the legend of a blue-eyed king who will emerge from below the ground to lead the world to salvation. Speaking in a broken dialect, he promises to return the next day for our hero’s decision. 

That night our hero falls into a stupor where he dreams that the tribe is really a band of cannibals responsible of much of the hellish state of the terrain. Convinced that his vision is prophetic he awakens the others and persuades them to leave their campsite before the tribe returns. 

“Story beats are best generated by asking questions related to the state of the hero’s plight within the context of each act.”

Act Two: How does the hero manage to stay ahead of the cannibals against the odds?

Perhaps our hero forms an occult bond with the giant eagle that has taken an interest in the band of youngsters? Perhaps he can see through the eagle’s eyes, giving him an edge as he and his followers flee across the dangerous terrain?

But then the cannibal leader shoots down the eagle with a poison arrow at the story’s mid-point and everything changes.

Our hero now realises he can no longer keep the group safe from the murderous tribe. He has to change strategy: He willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if they agree to let his followers live. The leader, who is obsessed with the idea of stealing the hero’s power by having him accept a humiliating defeat, agrees. 

Act Three:  What goes wrong with the bargain and how does the hero finally outsmart and defeat the cannibal leader and his tribe?

Perhaps our hero has foreseen his own death in another dream and knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others. However, he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stock, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe is wiped out after the feast, allowing his followers to escape. 

This final act answers the overall story question too—the hero does indeed defeat the enemy, but at the cost of his own life.

Although these beats are far from complete—I still need to tie in the hero’s weakness/flaw/secret (his character arc) into the antagonist’s motivation and plot twists in a more detailed way—they do grant me confidence about the potential of the story.

Summary
Story questions resolve into narrative events within the context of each act.