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].
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 A—List 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.