In his groundbreaking work, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, Dr Stan Williams makes a bold claim that we storytellers would do well to heed.
The claim is this: that EVERY commercially successful story (be it a movie or novel) has at its heart a true and consistent Moral Premise.
Without this crucial element, Williams argues, your story is destined to fail.
Dunno about you, but this tickles my curiosity. I don’t want my story to fail. We pour so much time and energy into our books. We want them to do well.
Furthermore, Williams says, knowing the Moral Premise of your story will give you focus and energy as you write, and significantly decrease the amount of time you need to spend rewriting.
Let’s take a poll. Hands up who dreams of being told you have to scratch 60% of your work and start again, because you really only “found” the heart of the story in the last third of your book? Not me. The thought makes me shudder. You got a theory that helps me avoid massive, soul-destroying rewrites? I’m sold.
With all this in mind, I’ve recently begun to read through The Moral Premise. My novel is in need of structural help. I couldn’t go past the bold claims made by Dr Williams’ book. So far, I’ve found myself nodding and taking notes at ferocious speed.
So… what IS the “Moral Premise”?
Most of us would be familiar with the concept of a “theme” – the underlying truth of our story. The thing that sums up what our story is REALLY about.
But according to Williams, the theme is only half of a true Moral Premise. A theme such as “Love conquers all” tells us where our characters will end up (love will conquer), but not where they’ve come from or what obstacles they’ve had to overcome to get there. As such, a traditional understanding of theme fails to describe the CONFLICT of the story.
And what is a story without conflict?
Williams structures his Moral Premise this way:
(Vice) leads to (defeat), but
(Virtue) leads to (success).
In this animated film, Marlin is a clownfish living in the Great Barrier Reef. When tragedy leaves him a widower, with only one remaining son – Nemo – his protective instincts kick into overdrive. He’d do anything to keep Nemo from harm, but in the process he’s smothering his son. Then Nemo is taken by divers, and Marlin has to navigate an entire ocean to find his son and bring him home.
Throughout the movie, the quest to find Nemo is the external story, but the “real” story is about Marlin overcoming his fears for his son. This is seen clearly at the climax, when Nemo and Marlin are finally reunited against all odds. Within moments, however, a school of nearby fish are caught in a net, and Nemo insists he knows how to save them. Marlin has to face his worst fear – the possibility of losing his son yet again – and choose to release Nemo to swim back into danger.
The Moral Premise of the story could be expressed like this:
Overprotective anxiety leads to losing those we love, but
Releasing those we love leads to finding them again.
Do you think, just maybe, some parents might be able to identify with this?
In this way, a simple cartoon about fish transcends its genre with a universal message. And in the process – no coincidences here – becomes a runaway blockbuster success.
Unity of Purpose
Once you understand the Moral Premise of your story, you can write with “unity of purpose”. In other words, the book should clearly be about ONE thing. Note how even the title of Finding Nemo serves to reinforce its Moral Premise.
Here’s where things get really interesting for me. Williams argues that every main character, not just the protagonist, should struggle with the same Moral Premise in different ways – even, if need be, from opposing ends of the scale. Contrast Marlin’s obsessive anxiety with the character of Dory – a fish so laid-back she can’t remember anything for more than five seconds.
Not only that, but every scene should serve to reinforce the Moral Premise. Page by page, each scene gives psychological “evidence” that points toward the author’s final verdict, proving the Moral Premise to be true. Failure to CONSISTENTLY apply the Moral Premise across all characters and scenes, Williams contends, is a set-up for commercial failure as well. And he has the research to prove it.
The Moment of Grace
Williams describes this point – halfway through the story – as the fulcrum on which the tale turns. Before this midpoint, the protagonist lives out the negative side of the Moral Premise. At the Moment of Grace, the Moral Premise is made very clear, and perhaps for the first time, we see what the movie is “really” about. The character is given a choice to continue on the path they’ve begun – the path of vice, leading to defeat – or to begin pursuing virtue.
Unless you’re writing a tragedy, the protagonist should choose the latter path. This doesn’t mean things are all smooth sailing from then on. Oh, no. The obstacles continue to mount, leading to the climax, but ultimately (if the character has learned his/ her lesson) the final pay-off is success.
the Moment of Grace is when Marlin and Dory are swallowed by a whale. Marlin hangs on desperately to avoid being washed deeper into the whale’s stomach. Meanwhile, Dory is “communicating” with their host, and informs Marlin of the whale’s message – “You just have to let go!” This, of course, confounds Marlin.
“How do you know something bad’s not going to happen?” he shouts at Dory.
Her breezy and honest answer? “I don’t!”
Marlin finally lets go, and the whale shoots the two out of his blowhole and into the air. The whale has transported them safely into Sydney Harbour. Marlin’s moment of literally “letting go” is a metaphor for the deeper meaning of the story – the moment he realizes his need to let go of his fears for his son.
Well, that’s where I’m up to so far in the book. I’ve finished Part I. In Part II, Dr Williams promises to explain step-by-step how to apply the Moral Premise to our own story structure. That’s what I plan to unpack here at the Alley in my next blog post. Stay tuned! And meanwhile, why not pick up your own copy from Amazon? Find it here.
Are you familiar with the Moral Premise? Who’s read the book? Let’s make this hands-on – it’s always the best way to learn. I’d like us to have a go at developing a Moral Premise together for a book most of us will have read – Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Have at it! I don’t have a “right” answer, so don’t be afraid to weigh in with your ideas! I’m with you – learning as I go. J
Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys or gazing at her brand-new baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.