Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

A few months back, I read Stanley D. Williams's book The Moral Premise. This is primarily a book for screenwriters, but the concepts apply to all types of storytelling. What it comes down to is this: "A Moral Premise is the practical lesson of a story."

Williams shares that the great stories have at their core, a moral premise, which is a statement that shows two opposing values. This book is meaty reading at first, but Williams provides several examples from well-known films that make the concept easy to understand.

Take the Incredibles, for example. The movie is about a family of superheroes doing battle against a villain in order to save the world. But at its core, it's all about family. Williams's official Moral Premise example in the book is: "Battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat; but battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory." And we see this in the story. Mr. Incredible sets off on his own, but only with the help of his family can they all overcome adversity.

Williams encourages writers to structure their stories around one Moral Premise. You can do this by using the following formula:

[Vice] leads to [defeat]; but
[Virtue] leads to [success].

Here is another example he gives from the movie Bruce Almighty:

Expecting a miracle leads to frustration; but
Being a miracle leads to peace.

I used this method for King's Folly. Originally, I felt like my book was all about "freedom." Few people in the story had true freedom. Too many were slaves or captives or suffering from their own bad choices or addictions or past. And some were being controlled by others and felt they were unable to make their own choices. So I took the concept of "freedom" and worked my way up to the following Moral Premise for the trilogy:

Carelessness leads to chaos and death; but
Wisdom leads to order and life.

"Carelessness" can mean many things. The king is careless about the lives of his people. He cares only about himself and his goals. And that leads to chaos and death. But those characters in the story who seek wisdom are able to find order and life.

Now that I had discovered a Moral Premise for King's Folly, I was able to make so many things shadow that premise. I suddenly saw careless characters everywhere, and their actions were creating death all around them. But for my characters who chose wisdom, things were going well.

Williams also walks the reader through charts for both a Good Guy and a Bad Guy character arc plot. I found these so helpful. Here you can brainstorm moments in the plot that take your character from the Vice and toward the Virtue (or to a greater vice in the case of the Bad Guy). Here is a sample of the chart I made for myself, inspired by Williams's examples in his book.



I'm going to use my Achan & Vrell novella as an example. My Moral Premise for that story is:

Relying on oneself leads to dissension; but
Working with others leads to harmony.

For column AList the types of goals the character will have throughout the story.

General Goal: Achan longs to find adventure again. He had SO MUCH adventure in the Blood of Kings books. But now he's king, and it's boring. And people criticize him for everything that goes wrong. And he and Vrell are having too many fights. So he figures, if he can find some adventure, that will make him happy. And it will distract him from his problems with Vrell.

Career Goal: To stop the Jaelport threat that is continually causing problems along the Gadowl Wall.

Family Goal: To have a son/heir.

Personal Goal: To be more organized.

Public Goal: To be able to protect his people and be valued by them. To be a hero again.

Now, I'm not going to show you what I have written in each column or it will spoil a lot of the story. But I'll give you my notes all the way through for the Personal Goal.

For column A, Achan's Personal Goal was to be more organized.

For column B (Vice practiced). This is an act one event where the reader gets to see the character stuck in his flaw and mirroring the Vice (of being completely unorganized and, to match my Moral Premise, relying on himself to cope with his organization and causing dissension as a result).
Scene that fits the Personal Goal: Achan has misplaced a letter from the castle scribe. He thought nothing of it until the scribe was murdered. Now the letter is very important and it's lost.

For column C (the change event). This is an act two event that shows the reader that the character is making an effort to change.
Scene that fits the Personal Goal: Achan asks a servant's advice on how to organize his office. The servant suggests he ask the queen. (This is a duh moment for Achan, as Vrell has offered to help him before, but he has been unwilling to ask her.)

For column D (Virtue practiced). This is an act three event that shows the reader that the character has changed. His Vice has become a Virtue.
Scene that fits the Personal Goal: Achan asks Vrell to help him organize his office. (Which is a nice moment because Achan has learned the Moral Premise of "Working with others leads to harmony."

This same progression of scenes applies to each of Achan's story goals (General, Career, Family, Personal, and Public). In act one he will practice the Vice. In act two he will be practicing change or learning something hard that will lead to change. And in act three he will be practicing the Virtue.

The Bad Guy chart looks exactly the same but for column D. There, instead of the Virtue Practiced, the chart would say "Greater Vice Practiced."

Having a Moral Premise for your story is similar to having a theme. And once you know it, you can structure your entire story around that one premise, whether that be with each character's growth or demise, or with your plot. It's pretty awesome. And in the end, you have a more cohesive story. Every character and scene plays toward the same theme. And the end result is powerful.

I highly recommend this book. Any ideas what the Moral Premise of your WIP (work in progress) might be? Share in the comments.

22 comments:

  1. Wow. This is definitely going to be a help in edits, just to make sure all my characters are moving through their inner/outer goals. Bookmarking promptly! :) Thank you, Mrs. Williamson!

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    1. It is helpful for tracking character growth or demise. I really love that about this process.

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  2. Very interesting, Jill. I've heard a lot about this book over the years, but I haven't yet read it.

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    1. It was fascinating. As usual, I have taken my own version of it to incorporate into my own process. But I think it really helps me with theme.

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  3. The general moral premise of my current WIP could probably be summed up as "Relying on oneself leads to weakness and failure, but relying on Adonai (God) leads to strength and success."
    Thanks for the interesting post; I really enjoyed reading it! I'll have to keep the idea of the moral premise in mind!

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  4. I've heard of moral premise, but never really gotten into it. Will be putting this book on my to-read list. Thanks!

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  5. I find myself at a crossroads. On one hands, the moral premise of my WIP could be: Pursuing revenge leads to emptiness, but pursuing justice leads to fulfillment.

    On the other, my MC facing his fear of fire is a colossal theme, so it could also be: Stifling oneself because of fear leads to despair, but facing one's fears leads to inner peace.

    I'll have to debate. Most likely, I'll stick with the first and weave in the second as a subplot. Thanks for the great post.

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    1. Those are both powerful, Jonathan! Perhaps he must face a fire in order to pursue justice?

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  6. In Dare, the first book in my trilogy, the moral premise is something like this: Fear leads to imprisonment, but courage leads to freedom. Both of my main characters go through this struggle, though the main guy needs courage to escape physical and spiritual imprisonment while the main girl needs courage to escape emotional imprisonment.

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    1. That sounds great, Tricia! Very succinct!

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  7. I don't have any idea what my moral premise is yet, but I think it's a really important concept. I'm plotting a rewrite for one of my novels, and theme has been on my mind a lot lately because I love trying to discover themes in the books I read, and I want to infuse them into my own books.

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    1. I love seeing themes in books too. This process/book is a great help for that, I think, Ana.

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  8. Fascinating concept! I think my moral premise for my not quite in progress work is something along the lines of "Legalism (is maybe the word I'm looking for) leaves you cold, but love is liberating." Or maybe "People are irreplaceable", though that's not formatted as a moral premise as nicely.

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    1. Either way, I like your theme, Miri. It's so true. :-)

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  9. The One Year Adventure Novel course by Daniel Schwabauer has something very similar to this. Mr. S calls the virtue and vice ideals—the positive ideal and the negative ideal, which are opposites. There are two other ideals on the scale—the contrary ideal, which is between the positive and negative ideals but skewed towards the negative, and the reversed or ironic ideal, which is the negative ideal taken to an extreme or masquerading as the positive ideal.

    In my WIP, my main character's positive ideal is Duty, and the antagonist's negative ideal is Selfishness. I'd write a moral premise, but I'm rushed for time.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Matthew! I'd like to read through some of the OYAN material someday. Mr. S is a great teacher. You're all so blessed to have him!

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  10. Great post, Jill. Very concise description of the moral premise. Congrats for explaining it so well. One more thing: Plots and subplots are defined by character goals. Each goal of each character in the various aspects of their lives represents a subplot. The Protagonist will have more goals in various aspects of his or her life than any other character. The less important characters may have only one goal for only one aspect of their lives. Make sure each goal is precise, visible and particular so the reader can "visualize" whether or not the goal is being achieved. To keep the suspense up, ensure that the goals are ironic to the character, that is, at the beginning of the story the goal should seem impossible. Moe good stuff at http://www.moralpremise.blogspot.com. Blessings to all.

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    1. Hello, Dr. Williams! Thanks for stopping by. And for writing such a clever book. It's been a great help to me.

      I see what you mean about character goals and subplot, and making those precise and visible. That makes sense. I'm going to tweak my plans now. :-)

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  11. Great post! I've been trying to figure out the moral premise/theme of my novel, and I know it's got something to do with forgiveness and love. But those are such big concepts, I've been trying to narrow it down a little more. Hopefully, this will help. :)


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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    1. I hope so, too, Alexa. Forgiveness and love are such powerful themes. You can do it!

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