Monday, February 15, 2010

Expanded Conflict of Values and The Moral Premise

UPDATE: What is discussed in this post is not some new discover. Not much is new under a billion year old sun, even if it's continually being rediscovered. See end of this post for link to another post that reaches back a few years to something called Nicomachean Ethics.

During a recent story meeting in L.A. our well-known host and producer solved a story problem we were having by introducing a brilliant expansion of the moral premise concept as it pertains to the conflict of values. I'm sure it applies to other well-known stories once we have time to think more about it. Perhaps readers will have some suggestions.

To introduce this expanded conflict of values idea let me first review some basics from the book and my workshops.  I'll use some old and new workshop slides to illustrate.

[Double Clicking on any slide opens a larger vision in a new window.]

Slide A
All drama requires a conflict of values, principally between the protagonist and the antagonist. The values can be identified by a virtue and it's opposite vice. For instance, generosity (a virtue) is related to greed (the contrary vice).  Both of these values (generosity and greed) can be depicted in different characters to different degrees. And both protagonist and antagonist, in the telling of the story, will move along a continuum of pure greed at one end (black) and pure generosity at the other end (white.) In a redemptive story the protagonist may be a little greedy at the beginning of the story, but by the end, he will have moved toward the virtue end of the scale and become somewhat generous. 

I've made the point, illustrated by the color arrows in Slide A, that if the "greed" and the "generosity" are too far apart, the story may come off as unrealistic and artificial. In 2 hours, it's hard to envision a protagonist going from a greedy crook to a generous social worker. Some movement, please, but not too much. Keep it real. At the end of a redemptive movie, a protagonist will still be imperfect, just not as as imperfect as he or she was at the beginning. 

Slide B

So, a good movie will deal with a Vice and a Virtue that are modestly separated in degree from each other.  The antagonist will try to pull the protagonist to the dark side, and the protagonist will pull the antagonist to the light side by defending herself against the antagonist's attacks. Depending on who wins, the movie becomes a comedy or a tragedy.

Slide C
Thus, for a movie with the moral premise:
A deceptive heart leads to rejection; but
A truthful heart leads to acceptance....
...our protagonist may start somewhere in the middle of the vice-to-virtue continuum,  then during Act 1 and the first half of Act 2, move toward the vice in an effort to achieve his or her goal. But in the second half of Act 2 and Act 3, she will move to the virtue side as the goal is achieved. In the example in Slide C, the character slides toward deception before she learns to tell the truth and moves toward success. This, of course, is story with a "redemptive" end, or what I call in the book a "classic comedy" as opposed to a "tragic drama."

Slide D
The scene where our character changes tactics or methods in their pursuit of the goal is halfway through Act 2 and is called the Moment of Grace. All main characters should have moment's of grace, and they should be plotted out before the script is written.

Slide E
In a typical comedy or drama the protagonist is opposed by the antagonist and while the protagonist makes a turn for the good at her Moment of Grace, the antagonist, likewise, has a Moment of Grace, where he turns deeper to the dark side. With respect to the example in Slide E, the moral premise for the antagonist might be something like this:
A deceptive heart leads to rejection; but
A habitual lying heart leads to isolation and despair.
Slide F
In a buddy drama or romantic comedy with a redemptive ending, the two main characters are co-protagonists, and each becomes the antagonist for the other. Perhaps they are both deceiving each other at the beginning of the story, and through a singular moment of grace they both learn that it's better to tell the truth. Of course, they don't learn that lesson real quick else the movie would be over in a flash; and since none of us learn anything very quick, we are able to identify with the slow learning protagonist(s) and the movie becomes more realistic. The "A (P)" and the "P (A)" designations in the diagram reminds us that each character is both a Protagonist to themselves and an Antagonist to the other.  While each character deals with the same dipole of values, the specifics of the plot for each particular story is different.  Jane may be deceiving Jack about where she lives, and Jack may be deceiving Jane about his education.

Slide G
In a similar vein (but in the opposite direction) a story could have both characters reject the moral premise's truth, and lie to each other more at the end of the story than at the beginning. Neither would achieve the redemptive goal, but rather a goal that is tragic.


Now, here's the expanded concept of how the conflict of values works in an expanded way. Credit goes to Will Smith for recognizing this and how is can be used effectively in story telling. Like other natural laws of story telling this has probably been used many times, but I have not seen it artiuclated or documented until Will brought it up in our meeting. It was pretty exciting and will definitely make the movie we were working on all that much better. (Note: The examples I use below do NOT refer to the project in development.)
Slide H
It's common knowledge that any virtue when taken to an extreme becomes a vice. We see such characters all the time in movies, like a mother who becomes so kind that she intrudes far longer and deeper into her adult son's life than a mother should; or religious sanctity that results in delusion; or generosity that goes so far as to discard personal responsibility in the giver's life or creates slothfulness in the life of the recipient; or over protection that creates debilitating co-dependencies.

Notice that in the graphic the tradition vice (to the left) is the abandonment of the virtue, while the other end is the virtue taken to the extreme by a manic, obsessive, or repressive disorder. Where the absence of the virtue is the result of some degree of evil, the other end is the result of an extreme effort to be good.  So, how does this work when we apply them to character arcs?

Slide I

Consider the expanded moral premise statement in Slide I:
A deceptive OR scrupulous heart leads to rejection; but
A truthful and compassionate heart leads to acceptance.
Notice the whole continuum deals with the values of deception and truth-telling, either truth-telling in its absence or to the point of being repressive and hurtful.  The Bible asks us to speak the truth in love, which suggests that we can speak the truth in a way that is either hateful or harmful.

Slide H
Thus, in a buddy film or romantic comedy or drama, our co-protagonists and co-antagonists may struggle with the values either side of the virtue. Each tugs on the other to move toward the middle and toward the virtue. One character is untrustworthy because he is always lying, and the other is untrustworthy because they are being so scrupulous and manic that the truth is contaminated. (Again, as a reminder, in films of these genres each co-protagonist is the antagonist to the other. )

Slide J
Finally, Slide J suggests a structure I've not considered before, but one that probably exists in many films. A tragic film where the characters, at their moments of grace, let their pride get the best of them, and refuse to move toward truth, manically displacing themselves toward their respective vices of deception and scrupulosity. Could be a comedy... I guess.

Comments? And again, thanks to Will Smith and his constant pursuit of excellence.

(See posts on: Nicomachean Ethics, especially the advanced use of this concept that I explain in my review of THE KITE RUNNER.)


Matheus F. Ticiani said...

...Slide J suggests a structure I'm not sure has been made. A tragic film where the characters, at their moments of grace, let their pride get the best of them, and refuse to move toward truth, manically displacing themselves toward their respective vices of deception and scrupulosity.

Well, I'm not sure they qualify, but I immediately remembered examples from two of my favorite movies of all time. In Sunset Blvd., William Holden ends up rejecting his last opportunity of redemption from Nancy Olson because he feels that his erros got him way past the point of no return. If Gloria Swanson may be considered also a protagonist (which I'm not sure), she also ends up completely alienated from reality when her delusions of success are taken to the extreme.

Also, in Badlands both Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek insist on their erros after their moment of grace, but then I don't think they are at opposite ends of the moral spectrum.

George said...

Yes Stan, I also find this is a good way to integrate the villain into the moral premise, when you have a protag whose vice is related to passivity. I'm working on a script in which my protag starts out as unassertive and mousy (vice side). Now I couldn't make the antagonist unassertive -cause he wouldn't be much of an antagonist- so I opted to have him expressing the vice side by being assertive to the point of hurting others to get what he wants, and not caring about justice.

I was wondering if you could explore in a future post how do we go about coming up with meaningful scenes, scenes that are connected with the moral premise, and with the hero's gradual journey from vice to the embrace of the virtue (in comedies). I've recently watched Zombieland, and I admired how each scene is connected with the moral premise and the hero's arc in a meaningful way, without being preachy...

P.S. I don't know what movie you and Smith were working on, but I have a Suspicion... :-)

Stan Williams said...

George. A couple of notes.

1. Very good example of how the vice can be at both ends of the continuum, and necessarily so. Thanks for this addition.

2. I'll try to post something along your question about coming up with meaningful scenes in a future post. It's a good question.

3. Most of the films I work on in L.A. have not been announced, some have of course. When they get released I'll post on them, unless there's a confidentiality issue, and usually there is. See this on Seven Pounds. I need to write something on it, someday.