Monday, October 18, 2010

Is the Moral Premise a Misnomer?

The more time I spend time explaining things, on topics which I am supposedly an expert, the more I discover I'm not the expert -- or at least I don't know today, what I thought I clearly understood yesterday. Which reminds me again, that some of what experts believed 100 or 1,000 years ago about their discipline,  are utterly false today.

So, here is what occurred to me a few minutes ago.

The "Moral Premise" of a story, which I have been describing as enshrined in a "Moral Premise Statement" is a misnomer.

Sorry about that.

It might be better referred to as the "Moral-Physical Premise Statement (MPPS)". But that is awkward.

Here's an explanation...of what I understand today. All bets are off regarding tomorrow.

There is the "physical" arc of the story, which is also identified as the physical "hook," or the outward journey of the protagonist, or the physical spine, or  THE PHYSICAL PREMISE.

That physical story arc is paralleled by (or is a metaphor for) the psychological story arc, which is also identified as the inner journey, the moral dilemma, or spiritual journey, or moral spine, or (precisely) THE MORAL PREMISE.

What captures the audience's (or reader's) attention is the physical spine (what the story is ABOUT). But what motivates the protagonist and gives meaning to the story for the audience, is the moral spine (what the story is REALLY ABOUT).

What I have been calling the MORAL PREMISE STATEMENT (MPS) is actually a statement that marries the PHYSICAL PREMISE with the MORAL PREMISE.  E.g.:

[psychological vice] leads to [physical detriment]; but
[psychological virtue] leads to [physical betterment].

It is more accurate to describe this formula: "THE MORAL-PHYSICAL PREMISE STATEMENT (MPPS)." But I'm rebelling at the awkwardness of that, and prefer the simpler focus of the story's psychological and motivational arc - the MPS.

Why? Aside from the brevity of it, the "moral premise" is what the story is REALLY about. It is also the one aspect of the story that MUST BE true, if it's to resonate with audiences. Everything about the physical premise can be fiction; audiences don't really care about it's truth. (Just recognize the popularity of myths, or watch a Michael Moore documentary.)  It is the moral story that motivates every action of the character in the physical world. The physical world is simply symbolic, a metaphor, for what is going on beneath the surface, psychologically-morally-spiritually-emotionally. (And that's why, in part, Moore's documentaries can work with some people. The moral motivation behind his rants fundamentally seem valid and true.)

So, in that sense, putting the emphasis on the term "moral premise" is accurate. Stories really are about moral issues. It is the physical premise that brings us outward joy and entertainment -- explicitly, but it is the psychological premise that brings us inward meaning and entertainment -- implicitly. And it's the latter than sticks with us, and informs and guides our personal lives -- which are real.

So, for the time being, I will use MPS and MPPS interchangeably. They mean exactly the same thing. I proclaim them to be equivocal and the former a misnomer. "Forgive me father for I have grammatically faulted."

==== Some further thoughts ====

In an 10-20-10 email dialgoue with my student Ethan, I wrote this, which adds to this post:

The problem with what "words" to use to describe all this is that in Hollywood some of these terms are used day-in and day-out, and many are synonymous with others. You'll read or hear executives, directors, writers, gurus, et al... use the following words, and they're all referring to the same thing: hook, premise, outward story, spine, arc, hero's journey.   And a few others.

The original reason I came to the term "moral premise" is because Lajos Egri (my book is a sequel to his) wrote all about the "premise." But his use of the word in the 1940s when he wrote THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING was and still is confusing without a qualifier. To most the term "physical premise" refers to the physical journey, or hook. But Egri was speaking of the moral or psychological journey, not the physical one. Thus I chose the word "moral premise" to differentiate between what I (and Egri) were writing about and what most of Hollywood means when it uses the term "premise." 
But then I erred. I came up with the MPS statement, which is NOT JUST the moral premise, but is also the physical premise in general terms. The physical side of the MPS (the last terms in the two lines) is NOT the hook, or the TV guide log line, but only a very general, universal description of the arc.

Reading vertically along the left side, we have the psychological journey (or the moral premise), and reading vertically along the right side we have the physical journey (or physical premise) general terms. Reading left to right on the top line we have the moral to physical journey before the MOG (e.g. the protag's motivation and consequence), and reading left to right on the bottom line we have the moral to physical journey AFTER the MOG.  Altogether it's ... it's.... it's....???????  I think I need a naming contest.

Finally, the HOOK, or the LOG LINE, are very specific descriptions of the story. Whereas the Physical Premise (in the MPS) is very general.
Ideas anyone?

1 comment:

Myra Johnson said...

Stan, you are making my head spin--AGAIN!!! Will have to ponder this further.