Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Moral Premise – Part 1

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).

Let’s look at an example together. To make things easy, I’ll choose a movie most of us have probably seen – Finding Nemo. 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.

In Finding Nemo, 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.

What’s next?
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.


Debra E. Marvin said...

I've read the book a few times. Yes. It takes awhile to sink in. To really mess you up, I also see it as a parallel to some other great teaching I've taken to and that is Susie May Warren's.

Here's what I mean - both focus on what the character is doing wrong in the first part of the story. They don't know it because they are 'believing the lie'. They are getting by on a notion about themselves or the world that is actually wrong but it's the basis for all their actions - Marlin believes he must hold tight to Nemo.

Dr. Williams calls this operating in the vice. The big wakeup moment comes, and the character starts operating in the new virtue.

What I've found is that I can pick those things for the two main characters as I integrate their secrets and needs with where I see the plot going but so far I have been unable to really nail down that moral premise until I'm well into writing the story. Somehow that premise becomes the same for both of them, even though they may be completely opposite in character and goal.

Jeanne T said...

Great post, Karen. Deb, I love Susan May Warren's way of talking about the lie journey too. :)I'm still figuring out how to make it flow through my story.

Let's see, a premise for Redeeming Love. Hatred leads to emptiness, but love leads to healing.

Very basic, I know. I look forward to seeing what those who are better at this put out there. :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Debra, thanks! I love that comparison with Susie May Warren's teaching about "the lie". You're right - in essence, these ideas are very similar.

You also hit the nail on the head when you say the main characters may be completely opposing in their goals. Dr Williams raises this idea of characters operating from opposite ends of the same virtue. A virtue taken to its extreme can also be a vice. Gives a lot of food for thought!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Jeanne, I think you did a great job!

I'd actually love to hear Dr Williams' take on this. I know he encourages writers to be as specific as possible when stating their Moral Premise. We could probably make this even more specific... somehow! :-) Will have to think on it some more...

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I'm looking forward to hearing what others come up with as well! Heading to bed now (it's late over here - almost midnight.) I'll jump back in tomorrow. (This evening for my friends across the pond.) :-)

Debra E. Marvin said...

What I've found out is that the hero and heroine feel they are fighting for two different things, but under the surface they eventually see they are fighting for the same basic truth. Again, it's not always easy to see until you are waist deep!

Pepper said...

And Debra, it does take a while to sink in.
Still sinking with me :-)

Awesome way to make this simpler, Karen. You are SUCH a fabulous writer.
And I bet you picked Finding Nemo for two reasons: you're a mom of little ones AND you are an Aussie :-)

Btw, I've actually started trying to write my moral premise out for my novels and having it nearby to remind me.
For my HR the moral premise is "Unforgiveness leads to isolation and bitterness, but forgiveness leads to relationship and love."

J. Hilton Steele said...

I have put a pink sticky with the Vice/Virtue statement. I have read the book but hadn't created a mantra to help me remember!


Peace, Julie

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Debra, YES, exactly!! Love how you expressed that!

Pepper, thanks, my sweet! And yep, I think you've hit the nail on the head with my movie choice. LOL. How many times have I watched Finding Nemo? Um.... LOTS!!! I'm a foremost expert in children's animated feature films... ha ha!

Love that you are being conscious about the MP of your novels. Have you found it helpful as you write?

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Julie, so glad you found that helpful! It does take a while to sink in, but the more I study the Moral Premise, the more powerful the concept becomes for me. :-)

Ruth Douthitt said...

Sounds like a great book! I have used Susan May Warren's books too. She asks you to stop and think about the spiritual journey of the character.

Even though my story is a middle grade thriller, my protagonist is dealing with abandonment issues and lacks trust. The moral premise would be for him to do what's right even if no one believes his story.

Thanks for the info. I will look for part II!!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Ruth, thanks so much for stopping by! I love that you're putting thought into the moral premise of your book - every book needs one, no matter what age it's for. Young people have a very keen sense of justice, of right and wrong.

I'd suggest you probably need to focus your MP a little more. I love how your protag is dealing with trust issues, and the problem he faces is whether others will trust HIM. It would be interesting to see if you could link those ideas somehow in your Moral Premise. The problem I see here is that the protag's main psychological issue of mistrust doesn't seem to be the thing he has to overcome in order to solve the story problem. His ultimate challenge is to "do the right thing", which is something altogether different. Therefore, the issue he struggles with throughout the book - his vice - should be the opposite of this - doing the wrong thing, or perhaps caring too much about what people think of him.

The other avenue you could go down would be to deal with trust as the central issue. In this case the MP structure would be something like, "Mistrust of others leads to.... (Negative consequences experienced in the first half of the book - alienation??) but learning to trust leads to _______." Either way, you need to figure out a way to link the protag's main internal struggle with the main external problem. He must conquer himself in order to overcome the problem he faces.

I probably didn't explain that very clearly. Does that make any sense?

J.H.M. said...

Here's an important question: What do you make of stories which have a clearly pessimistic moral premise or theme? Take, for instance, Lord of the Flies, or any Kafka novel (particularly The Trial). In these works, the essential points made about virtue and human nature are not positive or instructional ones, but more demonstrations of their ephemeral nature: Bad things will happen to good people just as often as not.

Stan Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stan Williams said...

Karen, Someone tweeted a link to your blog and I found it today. You understand the MP better than the author, I think. Your discussion with Ruth about finding the opposite of the virtue is dead on. Way to go.

In answer to JHM, in William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, the protagonist is Ralph who battles the temptation to be like Jack and give in to man's capacity for bloodlust and violence. Ralph pursues civilization and all that is good. The moral premise, which is true for all the characters can be described like this:

Giving in to our capacity for evil and bloodlust leads to savagery; but pursuit of our capacity for good and sacrifice leads to civilization.

Notice that the microcosm of the island parallels the nuclear war of the larger world, and the same truth holds.

The Lord of the Flies is not a redemptive story but a tragedy, because so many of the characters choose savagery. It's a case where the protagonist really is overwhelmed by the dark side of the MP. I suspect that had not Ralph survived and the boys rescued the book would not have been as popular.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Dr. Williams! I'm honoured to have you stop by, and thank you so much for your kind and far too generous comment! I attended your Moral Premise session at ACFW conference a few years ago, and it's been hugely influential for me as a writer.

I missed that last comment from JHM - thank you so much for providing that insightful answer.

I love that the Moral Premise holds equally true for a tragedy as for a redemptive tale. The Lord of the Flies is one of my all-time favourite books - it really is a deeply moral tale, even though its characters forsake morality for savagery. The repercussions of choosing the path of vice are painted in such a vivid and shocking way. The pessimism of the characters' trajectory is what makes for such a resounding moral statement.

"The Trial" is a bit trickier. I think it can be read as a criticism of totalitarian regimes. The reader is disturbed by the protagonist's unjust arrest - it doesn't sit right with us, because it is "wrong" and undeserved. The author accesses our moral centre for us to make such judgements. Kafka only presents one half of the Moral Premise - the negative side. (Unjust repression leads to death - the death of liberty, physical death.) We're left to shudder at the bleakness of a world given over to the Vices of repression and arbitrary control, and imagine for ourselves a better world. In other words, the book doesn't present the side of "Virtue" in any way, but that in itself makes us desire it more in our own reality. I think books like 1984 would also fit into this category.