Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Applying the Moral Premise to your story

In my last blog post, I shared with you the one ingredient common to every commercially successful story.

If you’re not up to speed with the rest of us, take a minute and go read the post here. I promise we’ll wait. J

Back again? Great. So now you know that for your story to experience commercial success – for it to resonate with a broad audience – it must be built upon the foundation of a Moral Premise. You also have an understanding of what the Moral Premise is, how it differs from the concept of a theme, and how the Moment of Grace becomes a pivot point between the protagonist’s pursuit of vice and his pursuit of virtue.

This week, we’ll be looking at how to apply the principle of the Moral Premise to our stories. Dr Stan Williams, the brilliant author of The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, breaks down the process into 8 straightforward steps.

1. Determine the controlling virtue.

What do you want your story to really be about? And how do you go about narrowing down all the possibilities to one key idea? Do you just close your eyes, poke your finger at a list of virtues and see where it lands, then run with it?

No. Because if you choose a value which means little to you, your story will flounder in the shallows. Your audience will sense your lack of passion.  Dr Williams explains this so eloquently I’ll quote him directly:

“A controlling virtue… is a value that you, the writer, must hold in the highest esteem. It is something you are passionate about getting more of; something that gets you out of bed in the morning to write about. It has to be a value that connects with your view of humanity on every level. It is something that is eternally true, and hopefully of importance to most, if not every member of society… your audience.”

2. Determine the controlling vice

The controlling vice must be directly oppositional to the controlling virtue. For example – greed vs. generosity, or love vs. hatred.

Williams then shakes things up by advising writers to allocate vices to the protagonist, and virtues to the villain.

Yep, that’s right. Kinda the opposite of what you might expect, huh? But he has a point. In order to avoid cardboard cut-out characters, our villains need to have a sympathetic side, while our heroes need flaws to overcome so we can relate to them and see them grow throughout the story.

3. Determine the Moral Premise.

Let’s brush up on the structure again.

(Vice) leads to (defeat); but
(virtue) leads to (success).

Here, Dr Williams lets us in on another pointer. He suggests thinking of the defeat and success elements as the physical/ external goals of the protagonist, while the vice and virtue components sum up the characters’ psychological or internal goals.

Are you beginning to see the power of this tool? Nail this step, and you’ll have a structure that embodies the internal and external story arcs, conflict, and resolution of your novel.

4. Determine the (story’s) genre

Williams rightly points out that the writer’s choice of genre creates certain inherent expectations, which will predetermine much of your story’s structure.

You’re writing romance? It’s a given that the guy and gal will end up together. If you fail to deliver on this for your readers, you’ll lose their trust. If you’re writing women’s fiction, on the other hand, you have a bit more wiggle room. Women’s fiction authors like to do unexpected things such as killing off the male lead halfway through the book. (Insert evil laugh here.)

Whatever your genre, knowing its accepted parameters will help you define the structure of your book.

5. Determine the protagonist’s physical goal

You already know what your story is really about. (See Step 1.) Now you need to relate this to the physical goal of the story so that the external action becomes a metaphor for the internal truth of the tale.

Often, the physical goal (the hook) is what you begin with – the original spark of an idea for a book – and the internal truth follows as you learn more about your characters. Whichever order you develop these in, it’s essential that the two are related in order to convey the Moral Premise in a powerful and consistent way.

6. Determine the protagonist’s physical obstacles

That is, the things that prevent him or her from achieving the physical goal. Often, this will be an antagonist whose goals oppose those of the MC.

7. Determine the major dramatic beats

This step involves creating character arcs for each character in your story, each of which must embody the same Moral Premise in differing ways. The essential rule here? KEEP IT ABOUT ONE THING.

Williams iterates, “If the physical goals of the various characters do not refer implicitly to the Moral Premise, then you are writing two different (stories). Stop. Fix it. A successful (story) is about only one thing, like a well-constructed sentence or paragraph. Each sentence in a paragraph supports the topic sentence. If it doesn’t, get rid of it, use it in a different paragraph, or a different (story).”

8. Sequence the dramatic beats

Here’s where you take the information you’ve worked out about your characters – their goals, virtues and vices – and structure them into a plot: a sequence of events that will propel your protagonist to the climax.

Williams delves into great detail at this step, with extremely helpful structural advice. Such detail is beyond the scope of this article. Want to know more? You’ll need to buy his book! I highly recommend it.

Did you find this breakdown helpful? My lightbulb moment was when Dr Williams says that if our characters’ goals don’t refer implicitly to the Moral Premise, we’re writing two different stories. Uh – GUILTY! To be totally honest, I’ve probably been writing four different stories! I’m so happy to finally be able to pinpoint the main structural flaw of my novel! Anyone else have a lightbulb moment…? J

Image by chaiwat, courtesy of

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys or gazing at her brand-new baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.


Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Great post, Karen.
I heard the idea about giving the villain a virtue not so long ago. Once the idea seeps in, the validity of idea rings true. How else could Kathryn Kelly have fallen for J-o-e. Just call me Joe? In You've Got Mail.

Anonymous said...

Karen, this is an amazing post for me. Thank you for outlining key points from this book! I think I'm going to need to buy it in the near future.

The whole thought of attibuting a virtue to the villain and a vice to the protag makes sense. I also liked what you said about defeats and successes being the physical goals and the virtue and vice being the internal goals. Such food for thought here. Thanks!!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Hi Karen,

This is such a great book. And learning to incorporate the Moral Premise BEFORE you write your story saves a whole lot of time.

I'm trying to go back to older stories now and make them work by figuring out the moral premise. Much harder!


Jenna C. said...

This was definitely a helpful post for me! Thanks! =D

chihuahuazero said...

Killing the male lead halfway through the book? Should try that one day. It'll definitely cause some moral conflict, depending on how it's handled.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

So here's my questions more on the concept (and I can move it to the other post if you think it fits better there): What about those virtue taken to the extreme--> vice?

I don't trust "unswerving loyalty" a lot more than betrayal. They both scare me, but I don't want to paint loyalty as something that can't "go wrong."

question a) How do we walk the line between too-simple (unrealistic) and too complex (can't hold it between the covers of one novel)?

Second, I am watching friends living way too close to the questions of my novel, with trust and loyalty and secret-keeping and questions of safety.

question b) When things are poking a little too close to reality, how do I both serve the story and hold on to my emotional stability?

(Does that make sense?)

I mean, I get the idea (or I see in front of me) how something completely can fall apart, and I know they'll wrap up pretty(ish) by the end, but sitting so close to brokenness in real-life, I'm finding it painful to "play" with brokenness in fiction.

Anybody have thoughts on that?

Pepper said...

Amy Jane,
I'm sure Karen will answer this much better than me - but I thought I'd give it a shot.

I want to address the issue of sitting 'close to the emotional fire' in our fiction.
Experiencing deep emotion when you write is a good thing. It usually makes for a better story - but if it's becoming too hard to emotionally separate fact and fiction, then it might be a hint to switch out the present story for something a little less exhausting for a while.

For me, when my fiction mirrors real life, I find it therapeutic to come up with an ending. The ending will invariably be different than real life, but it gives me some sense of closure.

There is a fine line between unrealistic and too complex...but there it can also be a changing line. Different people may view different plots, characters, or stories as 'too complex' or 'unrealistic'. That's why we get to enjoy so many genres :-)

As a Christian, I find focus in bringing my novel back to the heart of Christ. I may not do this overtly, but girding the characters' stories with Truth that doesn't "go wrong". Broken people live in a broken world - you're that means tough stuff happens, but the great thing about using our stories from an inspirational point of view, is that we can 'inspire' others to see beyond the brokenness to the Mender of Broken things.

Just my two cents, btw

Anonymous said...

This was great--both posts! I've heard "The Moral Premise" referenced many times in a way that says, "Surely you know about this great writing tool?"
Mmm...yeah. Maybe it's because I hadn't done my homework, but this whole "Moral Premise" stumped me.
In fact...even as I read both the first piece & this one, I was still scratching my head, even though it was explained clearly. I was confused up till point 5 as to how to apply it to not only my current WIP, but my writing on the whole.
Yep...point 5 was my lightbulb moment!
THanks for sharing!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Mary, so true! It's an idea that goes against the grain at first glance, but when you look deeper you see it done in every good story.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Jeanne, yes, buy the book! There's so much meat in its pages that I really can't do it justice here! Thanks so much for your encouragement - I'm glad this gave you food for thought. Me too! I'm still chewing over it. :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Susan, yes, I'm hoping I'll save time on future books by doing it this way. It makes sense to me to get the foundations solid first before starting to build. I hope you get new insights into your work as you look back over them through the lens of the Moral Premise.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Jenna, so glad! :) Thanks for stopping by!

Chihuahua Zero, I double dog dare you. :D Killing off characters can be quite cathartic. Provided there's a purpose to the carnage of course. :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Amy Jane, excellent question. Pepper did a brilliant job of answering the second half, so I'll address the first part. Dr Williams actually discusses this very point in his book - the fact that a virtue taken to its extreme is also a vice. He suggests placing different characters at both ends of the scale. So if your book deals with loyalty, you'd have characters who struggle with betrayal, as well as those whose excessive loyalty becomes blinding.

I think this in itself lends itself to satisfying complexity. Exploring a virtue does not mean idealising it or suggesting that a character will ever perfectly master it. Hence your characters will engage and struggle with the concept at all points of the spectrum. It does mean, however, that your protagonist will make progress, and that the process of grappling with their flaw will help them reach their goal. Fiction reflects life, but it IS different. Readers want closure - not perfection - but a sense of meaning, of pieces coming together. As Pepper suggested, this can be helpful as you process the messiness of real life. If nothing else, it's cathartic to create a larger sense of purpose from your characters' brokenness. GREAT questions.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Meghan, I'm so glad you found your lightbulb moment! I've only scratched the surface here, so I recommend buying the book and delving deeper to truly get a handle on this idea. All the best with your writing!

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Thank you Pepper and Karen.

Things I needed to read.

Sometimes I think my Lie (to refer again to SMW) is the idea that I have to have everything figured out (labeled and pinned to a card) before I have the authority to speak about it.

I am writing a crazy-fantastical story with enchantment and betrayal and stuff that just will not be taken seriously by some people. And I know that I'm supposed to finish it (I don't know what God is going to do with it, but he's made it very clear this is obedience) and I am so. scared. by my limitations in something I so clearly can't "let go". All these types of questions (do you have...?) psych me out, even when (or maybe because?) they have value.

I really appreciate you taking the time to frame responses that encourage.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

You're very welcome, Amy Jane.

I identify very much with where you're at with your story - the knowledge that God wants us to finish, and it's an issue of obedience, but at the same time the feeling that it's all too much, too ambitious, too far beyond my abilities... oh, yes. I so understand where you're coming from. Being scared by our own limitations. Yes. I'm a perfectionist, and a very "all-or-nothing" person - if I can't do it perfectly, I'll put it off or not do it at all. God's slowly teaching me how to do it anyway, do it badly, and use that experience to help me do it better. The main thing is that we DO it.

Obedience. Yes. God often seems to call us to things that are beyond our capabilities. My comfort is that if we step into the challenge with faith, he'll equip us as we go.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Speaking of perfectionism and "doing it anyway," I have to share my favorite quote on the subject:

"If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly."

G.K. Chesterton.

It's scrawled on half a note card and taped to my fridge.

Stan Williams said...

Thanks again for the posts and good explanations of the ideas in The Moral Premise. I've linked these two posts from my blog.
A Great Summary of the Moral Premise Book.

Related to comments about a virtue taken to the extreme and becoming a vice, here are a series of posts that explore Nicomachean Ethics .