Friday, July 30, 2010

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.



Anonymous said...

Arthurian lore is replete with knights who are simultaneously chivalrous and rash.

Stanley D. Williams said...

A typical comment of an anonymous poster who would benefit from an examination of "equivocation" and "moral relativism." Not understanding the differences, especially after reading this post, one can understand the concept of "internet troll" and why they don't want to be identified. My post was very clear. In context, any knight who was simultaneously chivalrous and rash would never have been remembered with valor. Read the post again and think this time.