Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Double Moral Premise

Almost a year ago, a screenwriter (known to me only as PopcornFlix) wrote me the following email, and we had a couple of follow-ups, that I will try to post as part of this one long post. (I'm sorry I haven't posted anything in such a long time. I've been involved in a start-up company, and I've been heavily absorbed in marketing duties.) But here is the email that I find very intriguing, and obviously worthwhile else I would not have held onto it for so long, and finally posted it. My delay, believe me, had nothing to do with questioning it's validity.


Dear Stan,

I bought your book, and found it useful. I'm a long-time pro screenwriter, so I've read my Egri. You added some interesting distinctions that were worth a ponder.

Your analysis of THE INCREDIBLES sent me back to the DVD, and I discovered something very interesting that prompted me to write this note.

THE INCREDIBLES has, in fact, TWO Moral Premises: The first, as you described, is "working alone" vs. "working as a family." The second, no less articulated is "using your talents authentically" vs. "denying who you really are."

It's particularly interesting that the second Moral Premise uses the same structure as the first. Syndrome uses a "distorted virtue" to gain his success. His talent is inventing things, and he uses his talent to become rich and powerful. Then he turns to vice (being something he isn't) by staging a robot attack so he can pretend to be a superhero, his robot destroys his control technology and he loses.

The signs are very clear in the movie. When Buddy Pine first bothers Mr. Incredible, he says "you always say, be yourself, and I've decided who I am." Then he explains that even though he doesn't have powers, he invents things. Later, when superheros are outlawed, we get to see Bob Parr's conflict between trying to be ordinary (inauthentic) and a superhero (his true self). Dash complains that he's not allowed to use his abilities to compete. "You always say 'do your best,' but you don't mean it." There's also the catch phrase and call back: "If everybody's special, then nobody is."

It seems very obvious to me that THE INCREDIBLES has two Moral Premises, and they each function as they should, complete with Moments of Grace. This raises the question of WHY, and in what narrative situations is it of benefit to have dual Moral Premises?

I started looking for other examples of Dual Moral Premises. JURASSIC PARK has one premise about family vs. single life, but another about nature vs. technology. It's also worth noting that nearly all the technology-supporting characters get killed by the dinosaurs. (Dr. Grant, the hero, is introduced as a man in tune with nature who feels that machines "have it in for him.")

TERMINATOR 2 has the Moral Premise about "sacrificial love," as you mentioned, but it also has a second Moral Premise about fate vs. free will. "The future is not set, fate is what we make." is the mantra of that premise.

MATRIX also seems to have Dual Premises. First, there is "faith vs. skepticism," which is articulated in Neo's journey to believe he is The One. The second premise has to do with "free will vs. fate." There are numerous moments in the film where the premise is discussed. The real world vs. the Matrix is a metaphor for free will vs. fate. To be in the Matrix is to accept fate. To choose to unplug into the real world is to claim your free will.

The easy examples are from sci-fi movies. I'm interested in finding examples in other genres, figuring out how the second premise functions, and what benefit it brings. I do notice that the examples so far are big hit movies, which makes this even more interesting.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Thanks, PopcornFlix.


So, I wrote back & told him I liked his theory and suggested some further tests. Here are my questions to him, and his responses.



Glad you like it. I really want to crack this. Let me know if you can think of any other examples.

Let me break down the Second Moral Premise of THE INCREDIBLES: "Use your talents to be who you really are."
[STAN: Each moral premise must have: a. Two opposing psychological values.]
Be your unique, authentic self vs. force yourself to be something you're not.
[STAN: Each moral premise must also have: b. Two opposing physical consequences that are logically connected to the values.]
Being authentic leads to victory, heroism and love, vs. being something you're not leads to anger, strife, humilation and failure
[STAN: There must be a true-to-life relationship between a. and b.]
The lawsuits force the Parrs to renounce their authentic selves and pretend to be ordinary. Their inauthentic lives are filled with conflict and misery because all of them are straining to be themselves.
[STAN: There must be a Moment of Grace where the Moral Premise is accepted or rejected (even if only subliminally).]
Bob never gave up being a super, he just hid it. When Syndrome offers him a job using his powers, he accepts it.

Helen gave up her authenticity for the family. When her family is threatened (Bob the breadwinner is in trouble), she calls in the old favor and becomes Elastigirl again. Edna gives her the Moment, and she takes the suits.

Syndrome is subliminally give the MP because governments have been buying his inventions, and he's rich. But he refuses to embrace his Bill Gates-like success. Instead, he squanders everything (including his life) trying to use his technology to pretend to have superpowers, and then to give his technology away to eliminate the specialness of the Parr's authenticity. Syndrom is the symbol of eliminating the authentic life.
[STAN: d. All main characters decisions and consequences are in sync with the moral premise's predictions.]
The Parr's become successful when they embrace their true identities as THE INCREDIBLES. Frozone becomes successful when he insists on his superhero identity and gets his super-suit from his wife, who wants him to be ordinary so she can have a night out.

Syndrome uses his gifts to pretend to be something he isn't, and his robot attacks him. He is stripped of his false powers -- be he doesn't learn.

In the epilogue, he uses his false powers to pretend to be a supervillain and steal Jack-Jack, who is a symbol of pure innocence and authenticity. Before he can get away, Jack-Jack uses his real powers to slow Syndrome down, and Bob makes him drop Jack-Jack by throwing the car into Syndrome's jet -- the authentic powers overcoming the inauthentic. But Syndrome is killed by his pretension; his cape kills him. If he had been a real superhero, with real powers, he would have had his costume designed by Edna, who knew the dangers of capes. Syndrome dies because he has refused the Moral Premise.
[STAN: M. I think your analysis of The Incredibles with the Moral Premise you came up with is better than the one in my book. You've also reinforced what makes a good story great— the reinforcing of themes and values on multiple layers, as I suggest in the Preface of the book.]
I'm still looking for patterns in the Dual Moral Premise (DMP). In INCREDIBLES, JURASSIC PARK, MATRIX and T2, there's an obvious fantastic element, and the second MP seems connected to it.

For example, MATRIX is about the nature of reality, and its SMP is "free will vs. fate" JPARK is about cloning dinaosaurs, and its SMP deals with "nature vs. science." T2's SMP is also about "free will vs. fate," but its fantasic element is time travel -- which also connects to fate.

My hypothesis is that in stories that have sharply separated A & B stories (superheros+family life = INCREDIBLES) may be prime candidates for DMP. I suspect that it may be useful because the stories are so thematically separate that they each need a theme to connect with the audience. The question then becomes where is the trigger point for adding the SMP? I'm not sure about this yet, just a hypothesis.

Let me know what you think.



Well, P.F., I think that any good story construction is well served by its creators trying to make sense of what the story is really about on as many layers as possible. I don't talk about it in the book, but one of the best structured movies is Rubin and Ramis' GROUNDHOG DAY (1993). I recall in a screen writing workshop diagramming the movie using the THREE ACT structure, and then the 12 STEPS OF THE MYTHIC HERO, and then over lapping ALLISON FISHER PURCHASE FUNNEL (used in romantic comedies) , and finally the FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF. And guess what THEY ALL FIT. For everyone of those models the story had turning points. It was amazing. And that's why the movie works, because it worked on so many subconscious levels. So, I see the Dual Moral Premise the same way. The more TRUE moral premises a movie has the better chance it has of working, and making sense to more people.

Now the big problem I'm sure many writers have with my book and this whole idea is whether or not it's a "good" idea to start with the moral premise, as I suggest, and from it construct a story. I definitely support that process in the book, and I guarantee it will eliminate writer's block. As to whether it will create a block-buster story, I have no vote. Chapter 4 talks gives aa few examples of how genius works, and coming up first with the moral premise IS NOT necessarily one of the factors. But coming up with at least ONE moral premise is definitely necessary, whenever it is done.

So, thanks, P.F. for the great post.

Much blessing, and I hope you all let us know when your movies are on the big screen.


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