Moral Premise

Contents

These are my notes regarding the book Moral Premise, by Stan Williams. The story of a novel is the inner conflict between two conflicting values, such as:

  • Self-respect v. self-destruction
  • Independence v. Dependence

Moral Premise Forms

General Form of the Moral Premise

(In Comedy)

Vice leads to undesirable consequences; but Virtue leads to desirable consequences.

(In Tragedy)

[Virtue] leads to [success], and [Vice] leads to [defeat], but [Unrelenting vice] leads to [destruction].

(No Redemptive Arc)

Although the Bond character may not journey through a redemptive arc, the movies still communicate a clear theme that could be stated this way: The pursuit of power leads to death and defeat; while The pursuit of justice leads to life and success.

Formal Structure of a Moral Premise

  • [Vice] leads to [defeat], but [Virtue] leads to [success].

A Moral Premise is the practical lesson of a story. What I really want to point out, however, is that the term moral does not literally refer to just what is right, but rather to the discourse of the distinction between what is right and wrong. That means any juxtaposition between what is perceived as right and what is perceived as wrong is moral in nature. And that most such juxtapositions lead us naturally to conflict — the element without which storytelling cannot exist. (pp. 19-20)

[D]evelop the protagonist’s outer motivation in the first draft of the story outline and treatment. Then you can make the Moral Premise connection (or theme connection) during the second and third draft of the treatment. … [M]uch of the main character’s motivation hinges on the Moral Premise that to wait even until after a first draft of the script will require considerable and unnecessary rework. (p.38)

Law of Moral Premise

In essence, that is what this book is attempting to do — to explain one of the natural laws of storytelling — the natural law of the Moral Premise. With that, let me introduce the form of the Moral Premise, its natural law, and three corollaries. When applied together they give a work the best possible foundation for box office success.

Rule Impact
Natural Law of the Moral Premise A story’s consistent application of a true Moral Premise improves success.
Corollary A A story’s inconsistent application of a true Moral Premise will lead to a work’s demise.
Corollary B Any application of a false Moral Premise will lead to a work’s demise.
Corollary C The target audience determines the truth of the Moral Premise.

Comedy v. tragedy. In comedy, the hero uses the Moment of Grace to accept the truth of the Moral Premise. In tragedy, the hero refuses the truth presented in the Moment of Grace.

Identification Pattern

  1. Audience recognizes that natural law contains a system of moral absolutes
  2. Moral choices have a consequence consistent with natural law.
  3. Suffering, which is a consequence of natural law, can lead to purpose and hope.

Format for stating the Moral Premise

The Moral Premise comprises four parts: a virtue, a vice, desirable consequences (success), and undesirable consequences (defeat). These four parts can be used to create a statement that describes precisely what a movie is really about, on both physical and psychological levels. The Theme is the shorthand description of the Moral Premise.

This is the formal structure of a Moral Premise:

“[Vice] leads to [defeat], but [Virtue] leads to [success].” (p. 61)

Steps for Generating Moral Premise

Step 1. Determine the Controlling Virtue. A controlling virtue is something that I as a writer hold in great esteem. It must also be a virtue commonly held by the readership.

Step 2. Determine the Controlling Vice. Use the table below (or other) to find the polar opposite vice to your chosen virtue.

Once you select the motivating vices and opposing virtues, you are ready to give your characters depth. That means, of course, assigning vices to your hero, and virtues to your villain. Yes, I wrote that correctly…vices to your hero and virtues to your villain.

Step 3. Determine the Moral Premise. Use whichever format helps you best:

[Vice] leads to [undesirable consequences], but [Virtue] leads to [desirable consequences];

or

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

The Moral Premise statement must be a natural law, an absolute truth. It must be true for any person, anywhere, throughout time. Thus, it must be general. Your story is very specific , but this truth, upon which your story is based, is the identifying element for your audience of millions.

Step 4. Determine the Work’s Genre.

Step 5. Determine the Protagonist’s Physical Goal.

Step 6. Determine the Protagonist’s Physical Obstacles.

Step 7. Determine the Major Dramatic Beats. The goal of this step is to create Arc Tables for your main characters. Create one table, per page, for each main character. At the top of every table for each character write out the same Moral Premise statement—your guide for completing the rest of the table. (p.135)

  • Column A, List each goal relevant to the story
  • Column B, Identify the generalized vice practiced
  • Column C, Event or moment that offers the character a clear choice to change
  • Column D, Character’s virtuous trait that leads the character toward success.

Step 8. Sequence the Dramatic Beats. If you have completed the Arc Plots for seven characters, and each character has three goals (one major, and two minor), you will have described no less than 63 major dramatic beats. 103 That will probably be too much to cram into a 90-minute or even two-hour movie. You might want to consider giving your “lesser” main characters only one goal at first. (p. 137)

Plot

# Scene What's Happening
1. 1A Establish the physical and moral process protagonist uses to make decisions
2. 1A-TP Inciting Incident New opportunity is presented with a clear, identifiable goal.
3. 1B Opportunity rejected and status quo sought
4. 1B-TP (Disaster 1) Forced to accept the new opportunity.
5. 2A Attempted progress to new goal using old methods (vice of the MP). Much failure and evidence of need to change.
6. 2A-TP (Moment of Grace, Disaster 2) Grace is offered to the protagonist to change the method of achieving his goal. The strong hand of the antagonist forces the change
7. 2B Solid progress, but there are still setbacks
8. 2B-TP (Disaster 3) Major obstacle confronted forcing commitment to the new goal using new method. Either a key discovery shocks/motivates or incites the wrath of the antagonist. (p.144)
9. 3A Physical / spiritual peril increase by an order of magnitude, hero's back is against the wall.
10. 3A-TP Final Incident Hero willing to face "death" willingly and ready to embrace it to achieve goal. This is a real, sincere sacrifice.
11. 3B Fight to the death/success
12. 3B-TP (Climax) Goal is firmly achieved or lost.
13. Denouement Tie together the loose ends, and find a way to state the Moral Premise visually and, if necessary, in succinct dialog. This is where you can tell the audience what the movie was really all about.

Tables

Good Guy Arc Plots

A
Character Name
B
Behavior Before
(Vice Practiced Before)
C
Change Event
(Moment of Grace)
D
Behavior After
(Virtue Practiced)
Career Goal (Describe) In striving toward a career goal (character) practices (vice) and experiences (defeat). In the career subplot, describe how (character) is offered a choice between (vice) and (virtue) and embraces (virtue). In striving toward career goal, (character) practices (virtue) and experiences (success).
Family Goal (Describe) In striving toward a career goal (character) practices (vice) and experiences (defeat). In the family/group subplot, describe how (character) is offered a choice between (vice) and (virtue) and embraces (virtue). In striving toward family goal, (character) practices (virtue) and experiences (success).
Personal Goal (Describe) In striving toward a personal goal (character) practices (vice) and experiences (defeat). In the personal subplot, describe how (character) is offered a choice between (vice) and (virtue) and embraces (virtue). In striving toward personal goal, (character) practices (virtue) and experiences (success).

Bad Guy Arc Plots

A
Character Name
B
Behavior Before
(Vice Practiced Before)
C
Change Event
(Moment of Grace)
D
Behavior After
(Virtue Practiced)
Career Goal (Describe) In striving toward a career goal (character) practices (vice) and experiences (defeat). In the career subplot, describe how (character) is offered a choice between (vice) and (virtue) and embraces (vice). In striving toward career goal, (character) practices (greater vice) and experiences (defeat).
Family Goal (Describe) In striving toward a career goal (character) practices (vice) and experiences (defeat). In the family/group subplot, describe how (character) is offered a choice between (vice) and (virtue) and embraces (vice). In striving toward family goal, (character) practices (greater vice) and experiences (defeat).
Personal Goal (Describe) In striving toward a personal goal (character) practices (vice) and experiences (defeat). In the personal subplot, describe how (character) is offered a choice between (vice) and (virtue) and embraces (vice). In striving toward personal goal, (character) practices (greater vice) and experiences (defeat).

Virtue-Vice Pairs

VirtuesVices
FriendshipBetrayal
LoyaltyAbandonment
FidelityUnfaithfulness
HonorDishonor
CourageDesertion
SacrificeSelfishness
LoveHatred
PerseveranceSlothfulness
GenerosityGreed
HumilityPride
HonestyHypocrisy
KindnessCruelty
JusticeInjustice
PatienceImpatience
ClevernessRashness
UnityDivision
FreedomImprisonment

George Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations

  1. Supplication
  2. Deliverance
  3. Crime pursued by vengeance
  4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
  5. Pursuit
  6. Disaster
  7. Falling prey to cruelty or misfortune
  8. Revolt
  9. Daring enterprise
  10. Abduction
  11. The enigma
  12. Obtaining
  13. Enmity of kinsmen
  14. Rivalry of kinsmen
  15. Murderous adultery
  16. Madness
  17. Fatal imprudence
  18. Involuntary crimes of love
  19. Slaying of a kinsman unrecognized
  20. Self-sacrificing for an ideal
  21. Self-sacrifice for kindred
  22. All sacrificed for a passion
  23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
  24. Rivalry of superior and inferior
  25. Adultery
  26. Crimes of love
  27. Discovery of the dishonor of a loved one
  28. Obstacles to love
  29. An enemy loved
  30. Ambition
  31. Conflict with a god
  32. Mistaken jealousy
  33. Erroneous judgment
  34. Remorse
  35. Recovery of a lost one
  36. Loss of loved ones Conflict

Williams, Stanley D (2006-06-15). The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success (p. 16). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.

© 2015 Ben Wilson. All Rights Reserved