Friday, July 30, 2010

The Code of Chivalry

In posting the interchange between J.C. and myself, I came across this. I think audiences would like more of the list below... slightly edited.

  • Never attack an unarmed foe.
  • Never use a weapon on an opponent not equal to the attack.
  • Never attack from behind.
  • Avoid lying to your fellow man.
  • Avoid cheating.
  • Avoid torture.
  • Exhibit self control.
  • Show respect to authority.
  • Respect women.
  • Obey the law.
  • Administer justice.
  • Protect the innocent.
  • Exhibit Courage in word and deed.
  • Defend the weak and innocent.
  • Avenge the wronged.
  • Crush the monsters that steal our land and rob our people.
  • Fight with honor.
  • Never abandon a friend, ally, or noble cause.
  • Always keep one's word of honor.
  • Always maintain one's principles.
  • Never betray a confidence or comrade.
  • Avoid deception.
  • Respect life.
  • Defend freedom.
  • Exhibit manners.
  • Be polite and attentive.
  • Be respectful of host, authority, and women
  • To God, country, and the code of chivalry.
  • To friends and those who lay their trust in thee.

Chivalry vs. Rashness

Discovering what your story is really about, at the moral premise level, is always a challenge. Here's a short (edited) email exchange that can shed some light on the matter.  A reader writes:


Good morning!  I have read most of your book over the weekend and now am trying to apply the steps. But I'm stuck.

I'm working on a romantic comedy and the theme is Chivalry. Now this is where it gets confusing: I have CHIVALRY as my Virtue and IMPOLITENESS as my Vice.

My moral premise is this:

My hero has RASHNESS as his assigned vice and the villain has LOVE as his assigned virtue.

Am I headed in the right direction???

John Conley

Before I share my response to J.C. let me help the reader see what J.C. has done.

Notice he wants to relate to each other the virtues of CHIVALRY and LOVE.

And he wants to relate IMPOLITENESS and RASHNESS.

Now, let's go to my reply.

Dear John:

You are close.

But, you'll have to be settled in your mind that IMPOLITENESS and RASHNESS are the same thing, just different examples of it; and that CHIVALRY and LOVE are likewise the same thing and just different examples of the same virtue. But to me (and I think to your audience) they're not the same. Let me give you some examples of how I'd go about this.

"Love" is too general in my opinion to be a good core virtue. "Sacrificial love" makes more sense, because it can't be confused with "lust"... a vice. So the terms you choose need to be specific enough that they can't be confused in your mind or your audience's mind. And while you may never state the moral premise in dialogue, the ideas will come across clearly in the subtext. So you have to be careful.

Second, "chivalry" is not necessarily the same thing as "love".

In my Rodale Synonym Finder, "chivalry" is associated with these terms: brave, valor, fearlessness, daring, tenacity, justness, magnanimity, grit. (all of which surprise me because I thought "chivalry" meant "being a gentlemen and opening doors for ladies".  (My Rodale is dog eared for reasons such as this.)

Likewise, Rodale associates "rashness" with: unduly quick, hasty, reckless, careless, thoughtless, over bold, impulsive, harebrained, etc. (there's also the physical aspect of "rash" which means a skin eruption. Hmmm? Might be something to use as a metaphor.)

So, it is possible for a character to be both rash and chivalry, or rash and a good lover (either in the sacrificial or the lustful sense) -- as in "He recklessly pursued the crook with tenacity;" or "He was rashly chivalrous;" or "He was rash in his demonstration of his love for her."

Also, "impoliteness" implies a lack of concern for others, or courtesy for others, as well as being imprudently bold, or not understanding protocol or good manners. Well, maybe your character understands what good manners are but he ignores them out of selfishness or laziness.

So, open up a synonym finder and find truly opposing virtues and vices.

Good Luck,

Dear Stan,

I just finished rereading your book.  This time through I made sure to look up in the dictionary all the words that I did not know.  BIG IMPROVEMENT.  I can now apply the knowledge in your book.  Here is the moral premise for a TV show idea I'm working on.  The overall theme is "service".

"Serving others leads to prosperity; but serving one's self leads to suffering."


Serving leads to prosperity; not serving leads to suffering.

What do think?!  Do I have it?

Also I picked up a copy of Rodale's Synonym Finder.  Thanks for listing it as a resource.

One last question.  What's the best way to go about finding the Tone for any particular story you are creating?  Is it just a matter of looking around for something similar or is their a method that I can use?

--Thanks, John
Dear John,

Yes your moral premise statement sounds spot on. Both versions are excellent. The psychological virtue and vice are naturally opposite as well as the physical consequences. It's worth noting that the whole point of serving others is to alleviate their suffering. But when we try to alleviate ONLY our own suffering we cut ourselves off from the services and love of others... leaving us worse off. I think the natural law in all this is that we are made to be dependent on others. You know the old adage, "no man is an island."


Part of tone comes from the genre. Another part is the thread produced by the moral premise, assuming you consistently apply it. Tone also involves, obviously, emotion. You can have scenes that have elements that are mean spirited, but the overall tone of the movie will be dependent on how the filmmaker portrays the consequence of the mean spiritedness. (Example: AS GOOD AS IT GETS: Protagonist Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is as mean spirited as a character can get without committing a crime. But we have compassion for him because his OCD is so humorously displayed; we understand where he's coming from and we root for him to change. And by God's grace, by the end of the movie, thanks to his antagonist, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) he does.)

If a character is mean spirited, are the others in the scene also mean spirited out of revenge or do they illustrate compassion toward the person who is mean spirited? When my wife gets angry with me, am I angry back at her? The answer to that is, unfortunately, too often, yes. That results in an angry tone. But if I could be compassionate and connect better with her feelings, the overall tone might be one of consideration and compassion, accentuated by the contrast. The audience will naturally gravitate toward the virtue, which they know they'd prefer in real life.

What you suggest is an excellent way for any of the elements of a film. Copy the masters. All new stories have antecedents, that is, other films that have similar elements. Study them. Watch them over and over. Get the sense, the rhythm, the sequence of plot points. You might do well to replicate it (beat for beat in your own story) and see if you learn anything. No doubt you will.


Friday, July 23, 2010

What's Lindsay Lohan's Psychological Story Spine?

"Inspiration you will not find. It will find you." (George's professor,  "George Lucas in Love." )

That wonderful line is repeated in a more common form by George's "girlfriend" when she kisses him on the cheek and tells him, "Just write what you know." But how are you going to know what you need to write?

But if you do KNOW, what a liberating feeling for writers of any genre. Instead of knocking writer's block out of your head, become an expert on something. Who will dare argue with you then.

So, what has any of that to do with our latest new "love child," Lindsay Lohan?  Plenty.

But first, a comment about the picture at right, obviously taken during her more "natural" period, when she was feeling healthy and confident. She's a pretty girl, with a disarming, comfortable smile. I think this picture reveals her "true essence" and not the spoiled brat image she's more recently be able to convey as she  headed off to jail to have her hair extensions and false eyelashes removed by the guards (after she refused to do it on their own).

Do you see the character arc here? It's abundant. And I hope that Lindsay will be able to learn much about her true, natural beauty while sitting in her cell.  But, let's get back to the point.

"What point is that, Stan?"

Well, ah .... that characters you write about in your stories must reflect the true essence and real (but false) masks that regular people are and pretend to be. The artists that we revere, like Norman Rockwell, and even the great masters of the last centuries, frequently used real people to sit as models for their paintings.

Write what you know.

As fictional writers we sometimes get credit for "making up and creating" great characters. But, let's be honest. You're better off using real people as models. You'll stay more true to their true essence and false masks.

Usually, however, although we "watch" and contemplate those around us and in the news, we still may not know what makes them tick. We see the nuisances of their life, but what's driving them? Is there a childhood wound? Was the individual's parents as mentally deranged as our loving neighbor seems to be? What's the motivation for their erratic (and entertaining) behavior?  The problem is WE REALLY DON'T KNOW... but we need to know (even a tiny bit more) if we're going to write competently.


One day, while trying to figure out the personality disorders of some students, I was walking through a college bookstore. As I turned a corner I was almost run down by a seven-foot rack containing dozens of colorful, laminated Academic aids. Printed on three-hold punched, plasticized, tightly packed text cards, were the answers to all the college exams ever given. There was one for Physics, American History, Biology, Calculus, French and dozens more. And then I saw it, the answer to ever writer's dream. It was titled "PSYCHOLOGY: ABNORMAL" (emphasis in the original).

Like God guiding my hand I lifted it quickly from the rack. I started to drool. The colorful boxes were labeled with titles that lite up like flashing neon signs on a dark night: "MENTAL ILLNESS...Criteria & Definitions, Causal Factors, Cause of Disorders, Classification & Diagnosis, Treatments, General Causes of Abnormality."  Opening up the card (it's one 11 x 17 inch laminated sheet folded to 8.5 x 11) there are short, understandable descriptions of disorders usually first diagnosed in infancy, childhood, or adolescence (e.g. childhood wounds), Anxiety Disorders, Substance Related Disorders, Mood Disordeers, and it goes on and on -- with fairly specific descriptions like this one:
Dissociative Fugue: Characterized by episodes of sudden, unexpected travel away from home or one's ordinary place of work, accompanied by an inability to recall one's past and confusion about personality or the assumption of a new identity.
That could be the diagnosis of Colton Harris-Moore (aka "the Barefoot Bandit"), accompanied by:
Antisocial Personality Disorder: A pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood..."
Has anyone talked to his mom lately, who considered Colton her hero.

As for Lindsay Lohan, well, as I read the story about her refusal to take out her hair extensions, remove her false eye lashes, and how she had collagen lip implants just before entering jail,  there's this:
Body Dysmorphic Disorder: The preoccupation with an exaggerated or imagined effect in physical appearance.
Histrionic Personality Disorder: Characterized by pervasive and excessive emotionality and attention-seeking behavior, originating in early adulthood and manifesting in a variety of contexts.  Individual feels uncomfortable and unappreciated if he/she is not the center of attention. Individuals with this disorder will often behave in a melodramatic, histrionic, and flirtatious manner.
Then, again, she could be suffering simply from:
Immaturity: Maturity level is below the degree of what is expected at specified age or social milieu.
What's nice about the Quick Study aid is the focused summation of personality and psychological descriptions that would all a writer to focus the behavior of a character to a specific set of actions. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shirley Sherrod the NAACP: What Can We Learn About Storytelling?

The developing story about Shirley Sherrod, who is black, and who was (is/will again be) the Agriculture Department's director of rural development in Georgia, provides us with important lessons in dramatic story writing.

In Ms. Sherrod's case the video of her speaking to an NAACP chapter that was released by conservative bloggers, was snipped from a larger story that revealed the context, or truth, of her remarks. In other words, what the clipped video tells us is not the whole story, nor is it true of her perspective on race.  

What made her edited remarks news-dramatic, entertaining, provocative, and "got people to the theater," were four dramatic elements that WILL help every fictional story we create. 

1) JUXTAPOSITION OF SCENE. The story about her (a black lady)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

IRELAND: A Story of Love Betrayed.

In Ireland...

"The Greatest Wound ... in This Present Crisis Is the Betrayal of Love"

Below I provide a clip and then a link to a document I copied from the ZENIT NEWS SERVICE, 7-10-10. It is instructive but not because it's from a Catholic Cardinal who addresses the recent priestly-sex-crisis in an emotionally torn Ireland. It is instructive because it explicitly explains the importance of stories in a culture torn by troubles — troubles that are abrupt turning points, where protagonists make moral decisions, and change history forever. That is what happens in real life stories, and that is what must happen in our fictional stories.

As the title of the Cardinal's talk can be put into moral premise terms:

"The Betrayal of Love leads to the Greatest Wound; but the faithfulness of Love leads to the Greatest Healing."

Stan Williams

* * *
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor Addresses Ireland's Priests

MAYNOOTH, Ireland, JULY 10, 2010 ( Here is the address Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the retired archbishop of Westminster, delivered June 15 at the Maynooth Union Celebrations to mark the end of the Year for Priests. The address was written and the invitation extended prior to his appointment by Benedict XVI as the apostolic visitor for the Archdiocese of Armagh.

* * *

I am delighted to be with you this afternoon and I am very pleased so many of you are here. Perhaps before I begin I should say that this address was just about completed before my appointment by Pope Benedict as one of those involved in the Visitation here in Ireland.

When we come together on these anniversary occasions we have plenty of stories to tell. Being Irish it would be strange if we didn’t. Stories are important. They carry our history, our experience, our humour and our pain. When we tell them, we again put shape on a life and a history. Sometimes, they carry a memory of which we can’t let go. Often, they carry a moment, a person, an experience that still nourishes us. In sharing our stories we share ourselves and express not only our past but also our future hopes.

As well as our personal stories, there are also the grand ones; those that have shaped the identity of the nation and of the Church. How many times has the story of Ireland been told - its sorrow and its triumphs? To how many foreign lands has that story been carried by generations?

READ MORE >>  (Downloads PDF)

Friday, July 9, 2010


Back in February 2010 I wrote about how a producer I was working with had suggested that the vices of a particular story we were working on were at the two extremes of a moral continuum, with the virtue being in the middle. I had always said that any virtue taken to extreme produces a vice; but I had never diagrammed it or put it in a table until that day in the story meeting. It struck an immediate chord. You can read about that illumination at this post: EXPANDED CONFLICT OF VALUES AND THE MORAL PREMISE.

What that producer articulated was the result of some insightful thinking thousands of years earlier by Aristotle in an essay known as ARISTOTLE'S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS. (Wikipedia Article.)

I felt embarrassed to have missed such a basic piece of early literature that is reflected in the Moral Premise book. (As I have said, this is nothing I invented; but just trying to articulate it and make it useful for today's story writers).

A summary of Nicomachean Ethics and that "middle" or "mean virtue" discussed in the Feb. blog can be expressed in a table, which Aristotle constructed. Below is a simplification and expansion of his table thanks to ideas and prompting from several readers: Thank you Janet and Kit.

I have blogged several times since this was first posted about the Nicomachean Ethics Scale, and you can find those articles collected HERE (which is the TOPICS link in the right column).

The words in the table, like all words, contain contextual and cultural connotations that may be different from your understanding or your character's experiences. Therefore, the table should be used only as a guide or suggestion and not as a rule.

Feel free to add your comments and suggestions to the com box thread.

Click on the chart below to enlarge.

Moral Premise Analysis by Miquiel Banks

Some time ago I started receiving emails from an independent film reviewer, Miquiel Banks. Since then, Miquiel has been creating a series of beautiful on-line documents that are very much like the movies he's writing about -- there are nearly as many pictures as there are words.

But what interests me with Miquiel's work is that he's the first to repeated use the moral premise as a cornerstone of his analysis and writing.

I have not read everything Miquiel has review, and indeed I have not seen all the movies he's thought-through, but I've seen enough to recommend his effort and frequent good insights.

You an find his reviews here:
I'm sure he'd like to hear form you via scribd if you so choose.

In the meantime I've asked him about his source of film stills. But he's keeping that a secret.
Here's a link to his Karate Kid review. He came up with a good moral premise for the movie. He's done a lot of good work.

My moral premise analysis of Karate Kid (2010) is HERE

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


You want a bad example of a moral premise that seems to be right, but fails at the box office? Okay, here you go.

Pam and I are catching up on some Netflix DVDs that have been laying around. (We really should go see ToyStory 3 and a few others...but we were tired.)

Interesting premise, this film. Ben (John Krasinksi) and Sadie (Mandy Moore) "fall in love" and start living with each other. Six months later they decide to get married. Her family are lapsed church goers to what evidently is an Episcopal Church called St. Augustine where Rev. Frank (not FATHER Frank, is played by Robin Williams) has been the pastor for 20 years. Rev. Frank's specialty is pre-marital counseling. Of the hundreds of couples that have passed his "course" and that he has agreed to marry, none of gotten a divorce. The ticking clock is that there is only one opening in the church's schedule for the next two years, and that's in 3 1/2 weeks. Thus, the ticking clock, so to speak. But in the end we discover that is is of no consequence. False ticking clock — weak story beat.

As typical romantic comedies go, this story seems to have the physical and moral premise elements all in place to be really true and funny—the most dominant premise being that Robin Williams promises to "open" the movie. I should also say that Many Moore is a good draw, but John Krasinski seems to be out of his skin and awkward. But I'm not a reviewer postulating my preferences.

What makes this movie noteworthy for this blog is that while all the elements seem to be there, the movie was barely noteworthy at the box office. From a $35MM budget it did only $43.8MM in its opening domestic frame. Now Robin Williams is not truly an opener, as you might think. He's definitely the best at getting and delivering a joke. He can recite the Yellow Pages and make you laugh; but he's never been known for opening in a protagonist role and carrying the story.

Here are some bullet points that were obvious during the first viewing of LICENSE TO WED.
  1. The protagonist seems to be Rev. Frank, insofar as Robin Williams gets star billing, gets a great deal of screen time, AND the title of the movie LICENSE TO WED is about him. 
  2. True to form for a protagonist, Rev. Frank makes 80% of the decisions that drive the story forward, as he creates intriguing situations for the young couple to navigate as they prepare for marriage. ("No more sex until the wedding," "write your own vows," "learn to be a good back-seat driver",  "learn how to argue." etc.)
  3. But front to back, beginning to end, Rev. Frank, although a bit wacky, has no vice, only a sense of virtue that is wacky but not disordered. One key is that he is exactly the same at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning. No arc. What? A protagonist with no arc?
  4. O, but the young man or lady must be the co-protagonists. Well, that would seem like a good idea for a romantic comedy. Duh! But if you plot out the major moral decisions Ben and Sadie make on their own, you discover that there are about only two, one in Act 1 (when they decide to get married BEFORE taking Rev. Frank's course) and one in Act 3 (when they decide to get married AFTER Rev. Frank's gauntlet.) That would suggest they are the antagonists. What!?
Yep, things are a little backward here. Entertaining. Some good laughs. A nice ending. The young couple learn some valuable lessons (which hint at one of a number of true moral premises.) But ultimately the story disregards many of the natural laws of story telling, see points above, and the moral lessons are not consistently about one thing. Instead there's a pleasant potpourri of moral truths about "being friends before being lovers," "be dependent on your spouse more than others," "show deference to your spouse's needs," "respect and be gracious to your in-laws," and "don't agree to participate in stunts that are funny but have no purpose" (that last one was for the actors). The "argument lesson" and the "driving lesson" and the "one-on-one lesson" were cute scenes that did not reinforce any single story concept about Ben or Sadie other than Rev. Frank is crazy and this might be a funny movie to let Robin Williams ad lib. 

The truth of what I'm writing here was made clear when you watch the DELETED SCENE commented on by the director, Ken Kwapis. In each he tells you that these fully shot and edited scenes (many of them clever) had nothing at all to do with Rev. Frank's intervention in Ben and Sadie's relationship. Thus, they seemed out of place. The scenes were more traditional romantic comedy fair where the co-protagonist's false identity and true essence battle it out. But, Ken, tells us that in his mind the Rev. Frank interventions were what the movie was about, and thus the movie was about Rev. Frank... the minister ... who had no "ark".  And without an ark one sinks in deep water.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Can Games Have a Moral Premise?

I came across this post today by Reid Bryant Kimball a game designer, about how the moral premise can be used in game design. It's very well thought out and comprehensive.

Infusing Games with a Moral Premise

My main complaint with morality choices in games is that they seem to be a collection of random situations that the developers hope players will find engaging. But they are unconnected and don’t contribute to any sort of analysis of what the whole gaming experience means.
Cultures thousands of years ago first used values to help influence behaviors and decisions among their people. Values have been so fundamental to the evolution of civilizations that they have helped spawn legal and religious systems that continue to this day.
The strength of a society is often derived from how strongly the public defends its core values. If its people do not strongly protect their values, then it is deemed to fall eventually, as those in power subvert their own laws once deemed inconvenient. It’s worth considering creating games based on values, since values have served an important purpose for thousands of years and will continue to do so.
Read the rest of this interesting article by clicking on the link below. (Reid posted a comment below.)