In my last blog post, I shared with you the one ingredient common to every commercially successful story.
If you’re not up to speed with the rest of us, take a minute and go read the post here. I promise we’ll wait. J
Back again? Great. So now you know that for your story to experience commercial success – for it to resonate with a broad audience – it must be built upon the foundation of a Moral Premise. You also have an understanding of what the Moral Premise is, how it differs from the concept of a theme, and how the Moment of Grace becomes a pivot point between the protagonist’s pursuit of vice and his pursuit of virtue.
This week, we’ll be looking at how to apply the principle of the Moral Premise to our stories. Dr Stan Williams, the brilliant author of The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, breaks down the process into 8 straightforward steps.
What do you want your story to really be about? And how do you go about narrowing down all the possibilities to one key idea? Do you just close your eyes, poke your finger at a list of virtues and see where it lands, then run with it?
No. Because if you choose a value which means little to you, your story will flounder in the shallows. Your audience will sense your lack of passion. Dr Williams explains this so eloquently I’ll quote him directly:
“A controlling virtue… is a value that you, the writer, must hold in the highest esteem. It is something you are passionate about getting more of; something that gets you out of bed in the morning to write about. It has to be a value that connects with your view of humanity on every level. It is something that is eternally true, and hopefully of importance to most, if not every member of society… your audience.”
2. Determine the controlling vice
The controlling vice must be directly oppositional to the controlling virtue. For example – greed vs. generosity, or love vs. hatred.
Williams then shakes things up by advising writers to allocate vices to the protagonist, and virtues to the villain.
Yep, that’s right. Kinda the opposite of what you might expect, huh? But he has a point. In order to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, our villains need to have a sympathetic side, while our heroes need flaws to overcome so we can relate to them and see them grow throughout the story.
3. Determine the Moral Premise.
Let’s brush up on the structure again.
(Vice) leads to (defeat); but
(virtue) leads to (success).
Here, Dr Williams lets us in on another pointer. He suggests thinking of the defeat and success elements as the physical/ external goals of the protagonist, while the vice and virtue components sum up the characters’ psychological or internal goals.
Are you beginning to see the power of this tool? Nail this step, and you’ll have a structure that embodies the internal and external story arcs, conflict, and resolution of your novel.
4. Determine the (story’s) genre
Williams rightly points out that the writer’s choice of genre creates certain inherent expectations, which will predetermine much of your story’s structure.
You’re writing romance? It’s a given that the guy and gal will end up together. If you fail to deliver on this for your readers, you’ll lose their trust. If you’re writing women’s fiction, on the other hand, you have a bit more wiggle room. Women’s fiction authors like to do unexpected things such as killing off the male lead halfway through the book. (Insert evil laugh here.)
Whatever your genre, knowing its accepted parameters will help you define the structure of your book.
5. Determine the protagonist’s physical goal
You already know what your story is really about. (See Step 1.) Now you need to relate this to the physical goal of the story so that the external action becomes a metaphor for the internal truth of the tale.
Often, the physical goal (the hook) is what you begin with – the original spark of an idea for a book – and the internal truth follows as you learn more about your characters. Whichever order you develop these in, it’s essential that the two are related in order to convey the Moral Premise in a powerful and consistent way.
6. Determine the protagonist’s physical obstacles
That is, the things that prevent him or her from achieving the physical goal. Often, this will be an antagonist whose goals oppose those of the MC.
7. Determine the major dramatic beats
Williams iterates, “If the physical goals of the various characters do not refer implicitly to the Moral Premise, then you are writing two different (stories). Stop. Fix it. A successful (story) is about only one thing, like a well-constructed sentence or paragraph. Each sentence in a paragraph supports the topic sentence. If it doesn’t, get rid of it, use it in a different paragraph, or a different (story).”
8. Sequence the dramatic beats
Here’s where you take the information you’ve worked out about your characters – their goals, virtues and vices – and structure them into a plot: a sequence of events that will propel your protagonist to the climax.
Williams delves into great detail at this step, with extremely helpful structural advice. Such detail is beyond the scope of this article. Want to know more? You’ll need to buy his book! I highly recommend it.
Did you find this breakdown helpful? My lightbulb moment was when Dr Williams says that if our characters’ goals don’t refer implicitly to the Moral Premise, we’re writing two different stories. Uh – GUILTY! To be totally honest, I’ve probably been writing four different stories! I’m so happy to finally be able to pinpoint the main structural flaw of my novel! Anyone else have a lightbulb moment…? J
Image by chaiwat, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Image by chaiwat, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
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.