Writing the Moral Premise and the Biggest Mistake Writers Make
Writing the Moral Premise and the Biggest Mistake Writers Make
The idea that any good story has a moral heart is not a new idea. Writers, story gurus, developmental editors, everyone who has had any experience with storytelling talks about the importance of having a moral element that drives the protagonist (and antagonist) in any good story. There are many terms people use: moral argument, moral problem, moral flaw, fatal flaw, inner-fault the list goes on, but regardless what the proprietary language used, everyone who advocates for this basic principle is talking about the same thing: a story rooted in a moral premise.
Writing a moral premise and delivering a real protagonist with a deep and personal moral flaw, while not rocket science, is an elusive and confusing skill most writers lack, mainly because they don’t know what 'moral' really means, and because they settle for generic solutions, rather than going for the deep emotional treasure at the heart of every moral character.
What Does Moral Mean?
The first thing we have to do is come to a common ground on what it means to even have a moral premise. Here is a workable definition:
“‘Moral’ refers to the principles, behaviors and conduct that define a person’s sense of right and wrong in themselves and in the world.”
(Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, Focal Press 2015.)***
Moral is not being addicted to drugs and alcohol, or being crazy, or finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, or being confused about life, etc. Moral is about right and wrong and how you impact other people with your behavior. Yes, addiction and emotional illness affects other people in our lives, but the focus is still internal, not external. Moral storytelling is focused on teaching lessons about how humans act as humans toward other humans, not just how we hurt or harm ourselves. Thus, creating a moral story premise is critical for telling a real story, because all stories are about us and what it means to be human.
I have been harping on this for many years, and I have my own approach to the problem, which I think breaks down the moral premise into its basic components, making it easier for writers to find the most powerful moral component for their stories. This approach also addresses the biggest problem writers make in this area, for example settling for generic rather than a personal morality.
In this approach, a story’s moral component is made up of three building blocks:
The moral blind spot: this is the core misbelief that the protagonist has about him/herself that is fundamentally wrong, but that colors all their actions in the external world—but they are blind to it—they don’t know they have this belief, but others can see it, if they look hard enough. This is the core of all character motivation.
The immoral effect: this is the external world action that the blind spot takes on the page, or on the screen, in any story. The blind spot leads to behavior and all behavior is motivated by the protagonist’s moral blind spot. The protagonist is hurting other people in their world, due to their blind spot and the way, manner, form of that hurting is their behavior motivated by their blind spot.
The dynamic moral tension: this is the driver of all dramatic action in the middle of any good story. The protagonist is constantly put into situations where they have to choose between acting morally (healing the blind spot) or acting immorally (falling back on their blind spot). They always make the bad choice. Back and forth, back and forth they are given the chance to change, but they don’t—until they do—and then the story is over. This pressure, between being offered the choice to change and always making the bad choice, creates dramatic tension and is what ratchets up the dramatic and personal stakes during the middle of any story.
(Taken from Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, Focal Press 2015.)
It is critical for writers to understand these three building blocks for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, the moral component makes the difference between having a passive or active protagonist (what I call the passive-active loop). When the moral component is present, then the protagonist is proactive—all action sources from them as they act out their moral blind spot as behavior, which complicates their lives, forcing them to act again, etc. They are creating the problems in their lives based on their blind spot/behavior, so they are active.
If, however, there is a weak or missing moral component, then the protagonist is pushed around by events and then can only react, making them passive, leaves them on the dramatic winds of the story. Their actions are not motivated from within themselves, they are only acting to external stimuli, like Pavlov’s dogs (the classic story vs. situation conundrum— click here to see my earlier post on this story vs. situation).
The second reason for understanding the moral component (and the purpose of this article) is that it helps the storyteller find a personal moral flaw for the protagonist and not simply a generic flaw—thus deepening the connection with the reader/audience and creating a more dramatic/comedic ending for any story. This is a huge problem that many writers grapple with, because they don’t fully appreciate the importance of breaking down the 'moral issue' into its basic components.
Generic vs. Personal:
What do I mean by personal vs. generic moral flaw? Let’s walk through an example to illustrate, rather than lecture: The Verdict (Twentieth Century Fox, 1982).
Generic Moral Flaw: Frank, an ambulance-chasing, alcoholic, loser attorney uses people for personal gain and only sees people for what advantage they can get him. He uses people for financial leverage and that is the only value he sees in people. Other human beings are targets, not people. Their worth is defined only by what Frank can get out of them for himself.
What is his flaw? Others who have tackled this problem have identified the following:
- Frank is controlling and manipulative, so he has to see this is wrong.
- Frank has to learn how to act justly in the world and not use people.
- Frank selfish and self-centered so he has to learn how to give selflessly
- These are all generic in nature, not personal. They are generic because none of them describe the why, they only describe the what of Frank’s behavior. There is no clear light shown on his motivation for why he is controlling, or unjust, or selfish; just that he is one or more of those things. This is what most writers do with their protagonists. They afflict them with a generic issue that appears to be personal, but really isn’t. In the above scenario we have no clue why Frank is acting the way he is acting; all we know is that he’s doing it and that it’s bad and he needs to stop and be nicer. This generic approach is not bad or wrong, but it robs the writer and the reader/audience, of the fullest expression of the story. It is the 'cheap seats' solution to deepening character at the expense of real depth. Consider the alternative approach. Personal Moral Flaw: Use the same setup and description as the generic moral flaw.
So, what is his flaw? The way you discover the personal flaw is by asking personal questions that go under the generic hood:
- Frank is acting like a jerk in the world. What would someone have to believe about themselves to justify such bad behavior?
- What is Frank afraid will happen if he does act justly, or is not controlling, or is not selfish?
- What horrible price will he have to pay if he doesn’t act immorally?
- What is Frank terrified of exposing about himself, and so covers it up with his jerky behavior?
These are the kinds of questions (there are others) that must follow, once you the writer decide on the general conduct that will define your protagonist in their story world. You just can’t say “he’s using others” and leave it at that. You have to ask, “why is he using others?” This is the only way to find out his real motivation for acting the way he does. Additionally, without knowing this motivation, you cannot have a convincing change for the protagonist at the end of the story. That final change/lesson-learned will end up as generic and lackluster as the original flaw, for example, 'he has to learn to be nice to people'.
In this personal scenario, Frank is acting badly in the world by using other people; they are targets, not people. Why does he do this? Because, people have no value or worth beyond what he can squeeze out of them. What would someone have to believe about themselves to justify such a belief about other humans? They would have to believe that they have no value or worth as well, because they are human too and all humans are worthless.
So, this is Frank's personal moral flaw, or blind spot. He doesn’t know he feels that way about himself, but that’s what’s motivating his behavior toward others. The whole story of The Verdict is about him fighting for the worth and value of a person that society has deemed worthless—a woman in a coma in a hospital bed. Frank learns, not that he has to be a champion and act justly, what he really learns is that even a coma victim matters and if someone like that matters, then he matters and has value, and he and she are both worth fighting for. Do you see how this is more personal and not high-level or generic? Do you see how this has more heart and emotion and how asking deeper character questions about real motivation gets you to the foundation of why a character really is the way they are? Do you see how this makes for a better protagonist and story?
Frank’s Moral Component vs. a Generic Moral Flaw: So, to clarify:
Frank’s moral blind spot is that he has no value and thus doesn’t matter. This leads him to devaluing everyone and preying on them out of resentment and bitterness (immoral effect). He is given opportunity after opportunity to act morally, but he stays stuck in his own blind spot—until he sees the moral light and his reason for action changes, and he learns his lesson (dynamic moral tension). Sadly, in the movie this happens before page 30 of the script, so the drama is robbed of a great middle, but even so, it is a textbook story with a model moral setup that powerfully transcends the generic-flaw problem.
Contrast all of this to the generic approach earlier. The generic approach is shallow, limiting and so broad as to be dramatically bland.
There are many strategies 'out there' for writing a morally challenged protagonist, but I believe the vast majority of those strategies miss this critical piece we are discussing here, for example, how to make the moral flaw personal and the foundation of motivation. Almost everyone skims along the moral surface and avoids going deeper into the real character development that must be done. So, while many writers start off in the right direction, but cut themselves off at the knees by not following through with the tough character questions that deepen their protagonist. In order to transcend the generic moral-flaw problem, make sure to do the following:1. Make sure the moral issue of your protagonist is really a moral issue and not superficial. This means understanding the meaning of 'moral' in a storytelling context.2. Ask the key personal questions that will uncover the real motivation for why your protagonist is acting the way he/she is acting. Always start with, “What would someone have to believe (incorrectly) about themselves to justify their bad behavior?”
3. Break down that motivation/belief into the three building blocks of the moral component: moral blind spot, immoral effect and dynamic moral tension.4. Make sure that whatever lesson is learned in the end, or whatever change your protagonist goes through, that it resolves the original blind spot, or that it makes it worse (assuming the character doesn’t change for the better, ala Michael Corleone in The Godfather).
If you implement these basic steps with each new story and protagonist, your chances of having a deeper, more satisfying drama or comedy will be greatly increased and readers or movie audiences will be more deeply engaged and committed to the protagonists journey from start to finish. You will have avoided the biggest mistake most writers make when constructing a moral premise.
About the Author
Jeff Lyons is a traditionally published fiction/nonfiction author, screenwriter, and story development consultant in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with major studios like NBCU and Columbia Pictures, and leading independent producers and film and television production...