Monday, September 28, 2009

Simplifying the Moral Premise

This post from George Chatzigeorgiou, a moral premise fan from Greece whose material I have posted before.


While watching films and noticing how the moral premise works in them, I've found that in many good films, although there is a moral premise, it doesn't have the fully realized structure that is presented in the book, mainly plot arcs and moments of grace for main characters besides the protag. For example, the kind of films some call "character study" do not have full arcs for secondary characters ("Taxi Driver" for instance).

Thus, I've compiled a set of general rules which I think can be applied in just about any film with a good moral premise. I find these rules very freeing, cause they help me apply a moral premise without feeling confined by a highly rigid, "idealized" structure that serves well as a general guide and as a general template, but I don't think it's necessarily meant to be fully realized. So let me know what you think, will you? (In my general rules I've also included Blake Snyder's advice that the movie's theme should somehow be stated through dialogue during the set up.) I also think that these rules serve as a simplified summary of what the moral premise's all about.

Summary of the rules of a good moral premise:

1) Have a moral premise as the movie's thematic core structured as: [Virtue] leads to [success], but [vice] leads to [defeat].

2) Make the theme crystal clear by including a distinctive theme statement (preferably in the set up), by infusing the movie with "moments of grace" (beats which awaken in the minds and hearts of the audience what the movie is really about), and by exhibiting both sides of the moral premise, as well as each side's consequences.

3) Keep the moral premise consistent throughout the movie and don't betray it. This, in short, means that any character choosing to practice the virtue side should ultimately experience success, while any character choosing to practice the vice side should ultimately experience defeat.



Akemi said...

Heh. this is great. I wrote something in august on my blog that speaks to the realization every character will be either be arguing for or against the theme in some way.

And that if it's against the main's character's point of view..that character will end badly. Though I've always hesitated to name that point of view a moral, which to me means a straight black and white view of a situation.

To me the main theme has always been the main character's choice, not necessarily good in the moral sense, just how hemanaged to figure things out, based on his past experiences or back story.

The secondary characters in the story would simply choose other ways, based on their back story. And their choices would be perfectly logical too. The results of their choices would be bad, but not necessarily, 'evil'.

Stan Williams said...

Akemi: Thanks for your post.

If you want your story to resonate and connect with general audiences then the good and bad that occurs naturally to your characters must follow natural law. Gravity and momentum in the physical realm have parallels in the psychological realm like distrust and jealousy.

In a movie, characters "act" for or against the central values of the story, which is also what the protagonist struggles with. The protagonist does not determine what is right or wrong... nature does that. The protagonist "chooses" and nature then makes its move. The same rules must apply to all characters, just as they apply to all real people like you and me.

There are natural absolutes about good and bad. All life (for us and for our characters) is about figuring out what we need to do to live in correspondence with nature. If you step off a cliff your body fall, if you cheat on a friend, your reputation falls.

Now, all good stories that connect with audiences are about one set of values as pitted against another. You can, as you suggest, write a story wherein the characters follow their back stories that are unrelated to the themes, values and back stories of other characters... but such stories are not about one thing, and usually do not resonate with audiences has having a purpose.

"Bad" can be a good thing for a character if the "bad" or "unfortunate" event, or an occasion to suffer, forces the character to act in a way that is morally good.

If you want your characters to connect with your audience then the characters must interact with psychological reality in such a way that moral good and bad are recognized as natural forces that have natural consequences. The physical "good" and "bad" CONSEQUENCE that happens to a character must be rooted in some psychological moral good or bad CAUSE. That is how the universe is wired. Stay true to that and your audience will understand your story.

Akemi said...

hi stan,

I didn't mean to say that the secondary characters would follow a story that is unrelated to that main theme. I totally agree that a story is about one thing.

I meant to say that the secondary characters choices when related to the theme are not what I would consider bad. Their choices would simply be opposed to the main character's physical goals. Physiologically though, the secondary character would be agreeing with the main theme.

For example: say the theme is to be true to your friendships.

The main character acts that theme: Staying true to your friends leads to victory. Not staying true to your friends leads to defeat.

A secondary character comes into conflict with the main character. With the same theme: He's trying to protect his friends, but he's in the way of the main character's physical goals. So they come into conflict because to let the main character win would be betraying his friendships.

Ofcourse the main character would win this conflict, because he's the main character.

SO in this case, how can the secondary character's choice be morally wrong or evil? It's simply a choice he has to make, based on the theme. Staying true to your friends.

A bad physical consequence happens for the secondary character. But his choice is not wrong, and he's staying true to the theme.

pierre said...

Hi Stan

I am a honors student in South Africa, I would like to know what your opinion is the core characteristic of a successful premise's looking at box office success.

I doing research on similar characteristics in premise looking at the box office successful films. I am specifically looking at romantic dramas.

Please can you give me some insight

Stan Williams said...

Pierre: My book, THE MORAL PREMSE, explains the answer to your question. In short, the answer is: a true and consistently applied moral premise to every aspect of the story and movie craft. If you can't get or afford the book, there are free essays that explain this at

Stan Williams said...

You said “the secondary characters’ choices…(may not) be necessarily bad, but just opposed to the main character’s physical goals.” This is fine and many successful stories do just this because (1) the protagonist is going down a road that will NOT lead to achieving the physical goal and the friend sees it but the protagonist doesn’t, or (2) because the secondary character has a different (although virtuous) goal for the character; e.g. the conflict in the story exists because the father wants the daughter to take one set of courses in college, but the daughter wants to do something else. Nothing terribly wrong with that. In the end the father may be right, or the daughter may be right. It depends on the story and the moral issues the protagonist (daughter) is dealing with. If she is having a problem with appropriate respect of authority, then it may work out that the father is the right one, and the daughter needs to learn a lesson by not being stubborn. At the beginning of all successful stories, the protagonist is rarely right, and as the story progresses they change either for the better or the worse.
Additional comments on your example: (1) The protagonist does not have to win to be the protagonist. In Shreck I, Shreck does not achieve is main goal… his goals change when he better understands what he wants. In a tragedy the protagonist succeeds in one way or fails miserably in another, or fails altogether. The secondary character may be the co-protagonist or may be a co-antagonist. Depending, this secondary character may or may not achieve his or her goal, and depending on which side of the moral premise the character is pushing or testing, the goal and the psychological motivation may be virtuous or vice. But a definition of the main character is not that the protagonist is always right.
Further….In your example protecting friendship would be a virtue. But betraying friendships would be a vice. All virtues are at some level of moral goodness, and all vices are at some level of moral evil. I’m defining evil here as anything that is contrary to the common good, health or beauty of the characters in the movie. It doesn’t have to be really, really bad. It can be just a little bit bad. But it is still evil. Lying to a friend, even if the lie doesn’t bring any great catastrophe, is sill a moral wrong and therefore an evil, although on the scale of things not very serious. Betrayal is always evil.
Finally… Choices have two components: They contain (a) objective content and (b) subjective intent either on the side of virtue (good) or vice (evil). The degree to which they may be one or the other changes, but almost all decisions have those components, especially in a drama.
(4) Now, let me ask you about your last comment. How is betraying friendship “true” to the theme of “protecting friendship?”

Akemi said...

Betraying friendship isn't true to the theme of protecting friendship. Not sure how you got that from my post... I was saying that physical conflict was created in my example because both the characters agreed with the theme..not to betray friendships.

A cast of characters in a story is created out of the theme. It keeps the story focused on that one theme. My feeling though is that the other characters (besides the main character in an adventure type, heroic story) should be arguing every facet of that theme. Simply because I feel it creates a deeper story, and a discussion, rather than the story simply telling the audience..this is how it is.

For example, the author wants to express the theme in her book of "Staying true to your friends leads to victory. Not staying true to your friends leads to defeat." However, with the cast of characters in the story, the author should also asking hard questions, creating an opposing argument like a lawyer :). Is there any situation where that isn't true?

It really drives me nuts when I feel a story is preaching to me: This is how it is. Because i can usually come up with several situations where there's a grey area. When a discussion is created in the story, creating a proof of the main theme, that's when I stick around.

Stan Williams said...

There seems to be a contradiction in how we’re defining terms, and thus we’re talking past each other. You and I are defining some terms differently and thus we’re not understanding the other. Let me step back, therefore, and try laying some foundational concepts:
1. A theme is one-half of the moral premise. Two contrary themes constitute a full moral premise. Thus “Betraying friendship leads to isolation and defeat” is a theme; and the contrary theme is “Defending friendship leads to community and victory”. Link those two themes together and you have a full moral premise statement.
2. A conflict between characters means that they disagree on some moral value. If the moral value explores the concept of friendship, then the conflict needs to come from the protagonist and antagonist taking up the contrary themes. You statement “…physical CONFLICT was created…because the characters AGREED with the theme not to betray friendships” is thus misleading. (A) if the characters agree, then there is no conflict. (B) It is possible, however, that the characters might agree on one thing (not to betray friendships) and disagree on HOW to do that. (C) In this latter case the conflict is not about betraying friendships but something else. For example, it is entirely possible that EVERY character agrees with the moral premise (not to betray friendships) but are in conflict over how to “not betray”. Perhaps one character believes the way to protect friendships is through the giving of inexpensive symbolic gifts or expressions of sentiment through notes and cards. While the other character believes that such gifts are a waste of money and demonstrate that the friendship is superficial and not substantive. So, they end up disagreeing about the value and frequency of gift giving, and whether or not one kind of gift or the other is of value to the receiver. The value now being explored is not “friendship” but perhaps how that friendship is being expressed in terms of “thought” vs. “deed”. Is it the “thought that counts” or the “cost of the gift”?
3. Going back to the original moral premise, all good stories have the various characters exploring different aspects of both sides of the moral premise, e.g. BETRAYING and DEFENDING friendship. The protagonist, especially, needs to explore both sides of the moral premise. The protagonist does NOT take only one side, but “arcs” from one side to the other, and it does not matter which way the protagonist moves along that arc.
4. You are totally correct that the characters should explore both sides of the moral premise and ask the question “Is there any situation where that isn’t true?” Each character should take a different perspective of the argument and explore it. That IS what makes a story rich and yet be about one thing.

Akemi said...

Hi Stan.

You are right, we were talking past each other. Your explanation of how characters can agree on the moral premise, yet disagree on how to do it, makes things clearer for me.

You've just solved another piece of the story puzzle for me with that explanation. :)

Also, thank you for re-clarifying the moral premise statement. I've read so many books on writing that sometimes the slightly different explanations of theme get mashed together in my head.

Have you read Dara Marks inside story? it deals with the same subject matter.

Stan Williams said...


Thanks for introducing me to Dara Marks INSIDE STORY. Indeed it seems we are writing about EXACTLY the same thing but using different terms. I just wrote Dara and suggested we swap books and enlighten each other.

Also, glad I was able to help clarify our discussion. Keep thinking.


Akemi said...

you're welcome. :)

I really wish she had this same blog format as you do. I'd love to ask questions to clarify some things in her book too.