Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wobbly Moral Premise Statements

I received this comment and question from a reader in Hong Kong. He apologized for his English, but it was actually pretty good. Nonetheless I've edited it in the post below for clarity. In honor of this question, I must post a picture of the Chinese edition of The Moral Premise. (I had nothing to do with the cover design...neither did my publisher, or so I'm told.)

      Dear Dr. Williams, 
I am a screenplay writer from Hong Kong. Yes! You have a loyal fan all the way from China. : )  
I really love your book and your blog. You have such a kind heart to share your ideas.
Here's my question: I always find the moral of my story wobbling. Maybe I want to say too much within one story. Or, maybe, I don't know how to shorten the moral to a one-line moral premise statement.  
Regarding a recent project here's my dilemma. 
Is self-preservation, survival or stability of life enough of a motivation to carry an entire story?  Is survival and stability more important than the basic human need to love, to be loved, and to make real friends? Should one take risks for love and justice? 
Self-protection leads to safe, stable life and money, but also loneliness and isolation. By protecting oneself, one must lie, and to reject chances to help others.
Meantime the hero might be haunted by his own action, because he does not confront the righteousness in the bottom of his heart. 
In the beginning of my story, the hero always ignores justice by remaining neutral; at least that's how he comforts himself. He is says to himself, "I am only being neutral, I don't take sides." Later on, he finds the youngster he 'trained' has become evil. The youngster has become so self-protective that he wants to destroy justice. That's one of the moments that awakens him that he's going at it all wrong.  
I find myself stuck in condensing al this in a one-sentence moral premise statement. It seems that the story is about self-protection, but it's also about "what one does returns to him."  Does "self-protection" articulate what I want to say? Is it that I am looking at my story from too many perspectives or trying to include too many moral concepts, thus diluting a central theme? 
Is it okay to dig deeper into such philosophical questions? Or, will that only make my story more wobbly (or ambiguous)?  

Dear G:

It may seem that you are taking on too many moral concepts and thus you're not sure what the story is about at its moral core...thus it seems wobbly and not about one thing.

It is true that a single moral premise can affect other thematic issues other than the one explicitly stated in the main moral premise statement.  But you need to be able to understand how all the "sub" themes reinforce the "main" theme.

A good example of this is explained in my blog analysis of the moral premise themes in the movie KITE RUNNER.

In KIT RUNNER the central virtuous theme is COURAGE. But the movie embraces other themes that are logically related to courage by helping us understanding that the total lack of courage can lead to paranoia, and that an excess of courage can lead to arrogance. Further that the courage is needed to be able to forgive and seek justice. The blog diagram of the inner journeys shows the relationship of nine themes: paranoia, courage, arrogance, bitterness, forgiveness, tolerance of evil, lazier-faire, justice, and totalitarianism. That sounds like a mouthful, but each of those concepts are logically courage.

The same may be true for your story.

If the central virtue is "self-preservation" then the absence of that virtue could lead to "self-destruction" or "suicide." Similarly the excess of that virtue would be "arrogance," "tyranny," or as you say, "the destruction of justice."

In a similar way an excess concept of justice (tyranny) can lead to isolation as people stay away from individual that like bullies.

And as you suggest when your protagonist acts a certain way, that may cause others to treat him the same way. So if he bullies others they may bully him back. Of if he bullies a bigger bully, he's sure to be in for a surprise.

So, your moral premise statement may not be wobbly at all, but just needs to be focused.

Just be sure that the various theme (or values you're writing about) ARE logically realated to the core moral premise and it's SINGLE conflict of values.

It could be: "Self-destruction" or "Arrogance" leads to isolation and death; but a "healthy self-preservation" and "generosity to others-for-the-sake-of-your-own-safety" can lead to friendship and life."

Again, see what I do with these movies and their moral premise arcs:


卓韻芝 said...

Dear Dr. Williams,

Thanks for answering my question (in just a few days!) and take it seriously. I think I need some time to digest.
Get back to you soon. or a more proper thank you letter soon.


卓韻芝 said...

Dear Dr. Williams,

Thanks for answering my letter(in just a few days) and took it seriously. I guess I need some time to digest your reply.
A more proper thank you letter will be sent after I digested everything you've said.
Never thought you would reply me at all. This is golden.

(I've left comment two days ago but seems it didnt sent successfully.)