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.


Ngô Trọng Đằng-Giao said...


In one of your blogs, you firmly stated that in every good movie, the moral premise could be found in every scene. Every scene? How can this be possible, sir? I re-watched Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, A Beautuful Mind, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, The Matrix and The Departed (Martin Scorsese) hoping to find proof that collaborate what you declared and could not validate this statement of yours. So, let me verify:

1. By "scene", do you mean sequence? Would you please give me a few BEST examples that can illustrate the DNA code you advocate, please.

2. Do good writers consciously design it in every scene of the screenplay/movie or is it simply an unavoidable result of good writing?

3. Are there good screenplay/movie that deviate from this moral premise genetic code?

Thank you very much.


Stanley D. Williams said...


Buy scene I mean scene. A sequence will be composed of several scenes that last from 6-16 minutes in length. In a 120 min. movie you'll have 6-10 sequences. The best movies will reveal the conflict in EVERY scene, but some will miss a few for reasons of story dynamic. But without strong consistency the movie will flop at the box office.

In a recent guest blog several readers figured out that the moral premise for Gone With The Wind might be:
Clinging to lost hope leads to poverty and lost identity; but

Advocating delusions leads to destitution and anonymity.

The movie is a tragedy for Sarclett. I have not analyzed the film, but it seems nearly every scene is exploring Scarlett's clinging to lost hope, or advocating a delusion she's imagining.

Examples of this "DNA" and a full explanation can be found in the post this comment thread is attached to. I guarantee that the moral premise conflict is in most if not all the scenes of the movies you cite. I think reading the blog carefully, formulating a moral premise for that film which connects to every character's arc, and then revisiting the film, will reveal this to you.

Writers both consciously and subconsciously design scenes with this conflict in mind. Chapter 4 of The Moral Premise explains how this happens with successful writers. Some are plotters and they figure it out ahead of time. Others get it by osmosis or by trial & error as they get feedback from friends and readers over the years that the script is being developed. Others are in-between.

I continue to see a direct correlation between box office success and the consistently and truth of a film's moral premise portrayal. So, The answer to your question No. 3 is "no." There are many movies that are in the middle of the extremes. Aronofsky's NOAH is a good example of a film that could have done a lot better at the B.O. had Noah's arc followed Natural Law and found a Moment of Grace in the middle and not waited to the end. The movie feels like a tragedy with Noah being motivated by the negative side of the moral premise (justice without mercy) right up to the end of the picture, when he finally relents and becomes merciful. That throws the Natural Law arc of his character off the moral premise balance, spending far too many scenes with him striving for a harsh justice, when all the other evidence is for a quicker balance of mercy.