Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Recently I received a gracious letter from Sina H. Pour with a question attached. (Sina gave me permission to use his full name.) He's a film worker based in Stockholm, Sweden and an aspiring screenwriter.  Since I had recently completed a screenplay that violated one of my own rules, which was also at the root of Sina's question, I thought I should write a blog to myself in answer. 

Here 's the question with one of the gratifying things he said about The Moral Premise. Thanks, Sina for your kinds words; they keep me going. 

The moral premise should be evident in every scene, but what does this mean in practice? How is the moral premise made evident in EVERY scene? Is it only the vice for the first half of the film and the virtue for the second or the entire premise for every scene throughout the movie?

I truly hope you are able to answer this cry for help, but most of all I hope you see this as an honest testament of the power of your book and how it has affected writers across the globe. Your work is of great importance to us and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Dear Sina:

The variations on what I explain below are infinite, and may not be as obvious to the audience as I will try to make the example below. Movies work because they force the audience to work. How does the audience work? They work to fill in the narrative gaps purposely left by the screenwriter, director, and editor to create intrigue, suspense, identification, that is the dramatic force that keeps the story ever moving forward. That story "work ethic" is involved in what I'm about to explain, but at a subtle level. A layer purposely made subtle of the filmmakers.


As you know EVERY act, EVERY sequence, EVERY scene, and EVERY exchange of dialogue, (or cut in an action sequence) is the result of CONFLICT. To keep it simple, if two people are in a scene, they are each trying to get the other to do something. Those "somethings" are opposite in some way. The conflict is the consequence of the two characters embodying or subscribing to opposite moral values, e.g. greed vs. generosity. Each is trying to get the other to change. To some degree, along the journey, this happens in different ways, in different strengths, and with different sub-plots in every scene.

Thus every scene will embody in some way the greed vs. generosity concept of values, which forms the motivational basis for the moral premise statement...

greed leads to _____ but,
generosity leads to _________.

Greed and Generosity are like two themes... one dealing with the motivation to give and the other dealing with the motivation to take. e.g.

Greed leads to isolation and sadness, but
Generosity leads to friendships and joy.

What gives a story deep interest, while still being about the same thing, is that greed and generosity can apply to many aspects of a person's life.


One character may be greedy with money, but the other may be greedy with time. Each of these aspects of their lives can serve to generate subplots. In this case, you have two subplots but one Conflict of Values, or one moral premise.

A character can also be greedy with possessions, or status, or appearance (e.g. "One character is driven to always look better than another.") At the same time these characters' counterparts may be more generous with money, time, possessions, status or appearance (e.g. "I don't mind looking like the slob if it makes you look better.")

Of course when a character takes a journey they take both a physical journey and a psychological journey. Making it simple: a protagonist at the beginning of a movie may be generous with her time, but greedy with possessions. We will see that contradiction or conflict in her life as she interacts with another character who has the opposite motivations, e.g. he is generous with his money, but greedy with his time. Conflict. As the story progresses the characters change for reasons that are logical based on the experiences put upon them by the writer-filmmaker. Such experiences, or scenes and sequences are logically connected by cause and effect as we find in Natural Law. And so, in every scene there is both a subtle and an explicit representation of the two values. And to say it again, there may be only those two UNIVERSAL values, but if there are five characters each pursuing goals in different aspects of their lives, we  may have a dozen different expressions of greed and generosity that show up in the various scenes of the film.


It's important that the character's outward actions are motivated by their internal values. In a movie most of what you show is a character's actions, (with some dialogue to tell the audience what's hard to show.) But just as real people take no action without being motivated by a value (i.e. "value" = "moral motivation"), so your characters must not act without being motivated by a value.


Now, in really good movies the physical story will be a metaphor for the psychological journey. That is how the audience SEES what's going on INSIDE the characters. Thus, the hero may want to be elected to an important office because she is greedy for power. Wrong reason. And as a result of that vice in her life (a greedy lust for power) she can't make progress because the town's people see what she is like and they won't vote for her or help her. But when visiting the home of a friend our hero meets a little crippled girl who can't walk very easily or get around the house. She likes to sit by the window, and look down on the street but she can't always get up to the wide windowsill. But she is naturally generous with her time and she makes a pretty flower with paper for her big brother. She does it out of the generosity of her heart. And he, naturally, wants to show his appreciation to her for her love, and so he says, "Hey, sis, would you like to sit up on the sill and watch the people and cars." She smiles real big... and her brother lifts her up and puts her on the sill. Now, our hero, who is visiting the family for something he didn't really want to be there for (she's greedy with her time)... sees this beautiful act of generosity (actually two acts of generosity), and it connects. Our hero realizes that it is not her selfish greedy desire for power that accomplishes things, but the desire of the people when she chooses, for generous (not manipulative) reasons, to serve the people. And it's when she loses her greed for power, and embraces her generosity of time for others, that the people elect her to the seat of power (without her ever trying)... not to rule over them, but to serve them. So, the metaphor of the sister and brother reveals the journey our hero must take from her vice of greed) to the virtue of generosity.

There are many, many ways to make the moral premise practical.


The key to telling a well-rounded story about one thing is to examine the lives of each of your characters. Give them goals in various aspects of their lives and then give each of those goals an arc that is describe by the moral premise. Realize that characters can move toward the good, toward the bad, or not move at all, although your protagonist needs to change.

The more prominent the character, the more aspects of their lives your story will investigate. Your hero's life may be examined in this way with say, five different subplots, one of which will be the movie's spine. For example: personal life, professional life, family life, public life, and hobby life. While a very minor character's arc may only involve one aspect and thus one sub-plot: his financial life. Each of those aspects of the character's life needs to have a goal and a moral premise arc -- which constitutes a sub-plot.


So, in each scene the conflict of values is evident in one or more aspect of a character's life, as they strive toward a goal and meet the challenge that the conflict of values in their lives present. And in good movies, not all characters change dramatically. Humans change slowly. So must your story characters. At the beginning of BRUCE ALMIGHTY, Bruce Nolan has a fear of commitment to Grace (they are not married), and at the end of the movie, although his actions toward Grace have improved (and he's no longer expecting a miracle), that fear of commitment is still evident: although he's introduced her as the future Mrs. Nolan, THEY ARE STILL NOT MARRIED. So from the beginning to the end the two poles of the conflict of values will be evident, but in different amounts as the journey progresses.  (See Table 12 in The Moral Premise).


What was my own rule that I had violated? I had five minor characters that did not have arcs or subplots of their own. They were just there like absent-minded decoration, popping in or out of the story as was convenient.  What was worse, I had been through this particular project over the past 3 years about a dozen times making two major revisions and many other tweaks and polishes.  Finally, finally, something clicked. I think it was a indirect comment from a reader. Suddenly making the next pass jumped to the top of my priority list. Finished it yesterday. Now each of the minor characters have clear beats that correspond to the moral premise and reinforce what the movie is really about. And yes, it stretched the script 4 pages. But the extra length is well worth it. When we do this the story gets better, always. See my post about Tamera Alexander's recent book and the note from her editor. Same thing.


Malik Bendjelloul's SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is a lesson for all us procrastinators and so-called perfectionists. I'm talking about myself. I recently saw a tweet that I've adopted as sort of a New Years Resolution. Whomever tweeted this recently, thank you:
Perfection is the enemy of good.
I keep telling myself that I can't do that film, or that documentary because I don't have the money. God knows I've produced enough stuff, but so much of it is just stuff, or if it's good enough I excuse myself from finishing it because I "say" I don't have the time or money. 

(Okay, so I did get a doc on PBS with a budget of $25 and 6 months of free labor... but c'mon, it's a story about replacing the engines on a boat.)

Along comes Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul with no money (well, he has a healthy travel budget at least) and an iPhone, takes a four year journey to make a film about a singer-songwriter who's been living within yards of my weekly travels through Detroit. Heck the production company I owned for the first 3 years of it's existence was about 5 miles away from this guy.

Now, I'm not pretending for a moment I could have done what Bendjelloul has done, or make it as good as he's done, or win an Oscar as he so admirably has done. (Did he really shoot this on an iPhone?)  It's not envy. It's inspiration delivered by a switch kick in the ego-butt.

If a guy from Sweeden with an iPhone can find a story in South Africa about a songwriter in Detroit with a true soul who's gone missing for 40 years.... the rest of us have absolutely no excuse. No excuse.

I have an iPhone....and Final Cut... and some good mics... and access to a lot of good stories. What is my problem?

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Stephen Tobolowsky on Kevin Pollak

Stephen Tobolowsky is one of Hollywood's best known character actors. Perhaps best known for Ned Ryerson in GROUNDHOG DAY. I started watching this and couldn't stop. Only start this if you have 2 hours.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Larry Jordan and a Great Lesson in Filmmaking

I recommend a subscription to Larry Jordan's YouTube channel. I have frequently referenced his material for help, and I've paid him money for "efficient" help one time.  But here is his best post every. A wonderful short story (a true one) of a great lesson. I recommend it highly to all my students, past and present. Bless you all in your story telling efforts.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Tamera Alexander on Moral Premise Coaching

Tamera Alexander is a best sellling Historical Romance Fiction novelist whose recent novels center on postbellum (Civil War) Nashville. Although she's consulted with The Moral Premise on her work before we met, I've had the opportunity to help Tamera directly on her last two projects. Below is a link to our coaching page on which is a 3.5 min audio snippet from a recent radio interview where she plugs the Moral Premise and how I've helped her in the early stages of her writing.

Tamera's Audio Endorsement is on our Coaching Page.

But as much as she says I help her, I must say that Tamera is very resourceful and comes up with wonderful character ideas, how the character's generally interact and how the story ends. Before she comes to me she's done a ton or historical research. All of that research along with her initial ideas gives me wonderful fodder to help her envision and construct the story's turning points and metaphors.  

In my own fiction writing, I'm a plotter -- and I see metaphors abundantly and clearly. Thus, it is very easy for me to outline scene-by-scene, and establish most of my turning points and twists before I start writing. However, when I write the freshness of the prose suffers from knowing way too much about where the story is going. Thus, I need help keeping the prose spontaneous.

Tamera, on the other hand, is a pantser—she likes to write by the seat of her pants. As a result she says, massive rewrites have been required to fix the novel''s structure and to integrate a consistent conflict of values and the consistent use of metaphors. She claims that as the result of The Moral Premise and our coaching sessions the rewrite process has been dramatically reduced, the metaphors are richer and the plots and subplots more tightly interwoven. Thus, the meaning of the story is richer. On her last book, To Whisper Her Name, her editor at Zondervan wrote this to her.... followed by a comment to me from Tamra:
Dear Tamera,
I have never struggled so much to add value to a manuscript.  To Whisper Her Name is a beautiful love story set against the backdrop of a healing nation.  I loved the characters and couldn’t find a single one that I thought we could do without!  You have captured Belle Meade and its rich history perfectly. 

Tamera here: Thank you again, Stan, for your contribution to plotting this novel. You helped me tremendously in "seeing" more of the story than I've ever seen before. Ready to plot another one? : )
Later, Tamera explained that her editors could not find any story threads to shorten or eliminate because the subplots were so closely interwoven to the main story. They published a book that had many more words in it that they had planned. And all her fans cheered.

Tamera is a very skilled writer. There are times when I will re-read a paragraph several times to enjoy the language. And when we talk about her plot and the metaphors to weave, she gets it quickly.  I'm thrilled to help her see what she's obviously and subconsciously already knows deep in her writer's heart. She is one of my proofs that a good understanding and execution of the story's moral premise, deftly applied to each character's arc, and the attending metaphors reinforce the story's emotional heart and dramatic core. I'm proud to have helped her do that, and it's always fun to read scenes that we devised a year earlier.

Five Stages of Grief

Five Stages of Grief

A useful structural tool is the Kübler-Ross Model of the five stages of grief. In my last workshops I have a slide that lists 7 stages, but I'm going to change that back to 5, because 2 of the 7 are unlike the others. So, 5 it is.  Here's a graphic that somewhat demonstrates the story algorithm. I say, "somewhat" because the ups and downs of one story dynamic to the next are never the same.

Where does this apply? Anytime you have a character going through a very difficult life change — death of someone close, divorce, serious loss of income, professional disappointment -- in short a grieving of any kind. It can just as easily be used in comedy, as Danny Rubin used it in GROUNDHOG DAY. (I've promised Danny to do an analysis on his masterpiece, but will need a couple days to work it out. )


Although you can structure your story in five acts, or five stages, you're better off foundationally meeting audience subliminal expectations of the 3 Acts with the help of the 13-16 turning points and sequences as described in this blog under Story Structure Basics, in The Moral Premise book, and in other good story technique books (e.g. Hauge, Snyder). Then, layer on the 5 Steps of Grief, if they apply. This will give you more turning points and twists in your story, hopefully positioned where the story is relatively slow. I have, as of this post, updated The Story Diamond Writing Aid, where you'll see the five stages overlapping with everything else. The PDF download is linked below. Click on image.

The Story Diamond Key