What is a story really about? By this, I don’t mean the causal chain of events that comprise the outer journey. I mean the inner core that projects these outer events and motivates the inner journey. One way to understand the essence of a story is to determine its moral premise or as I sometimes prefer to refer to it as: the pilot premise. This is the deepest layer of the story, without which, the tale is rendered rudderless.
In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D Williams makes a compelling case for the moral premise being that which explains and determines the direction and flow of events in a story. He claims that stories with a strong moral premise tend to do well at the box office. He sites films such as Starwars and Braveheart as examples of this. Here, the claim is that understanding the moral premise guides us to write a story that stays on track.
So what form does this premise take? Williams says it isn’t enough just to state the one side of the premise. In a film such as The Matrix, for example, part of the premise might be: humanity’s strength (reflected in a special individual–Neo), driven by love, leads to victory. This statement allows the writers to reflect Neo’s outer journey from a novice stumbling over his own feet to an accomplished leader with supernatural abilities (inside the matrix) with aplomb.
This first part on its own, however, can’t describe Agent Smith’s journey from mastery to crushing defeat at the hands of Neo. That aspect of the journey requires an additional part: non-human constructs, under programed instructions to control unruly elements in the matrix, are doomed to failure. It can be simplified even further: love (a human quality) leads to victory but an absence of love leads to defeat.
This second part of the premise guides the writers to chart Agent Smith’s journey as it clashes with Neo’s. The complete moral premise, then, represents the genetic code for a story that describes the entire inner and outer journey of a film such as The Matrix. It takes the form: X leads to victory, but minus X leads to defeat. Working out both sides of the moral premise beforehand, therefore, allows us to keep our story on course.
The moral premise comprises of two parts and can be thought of as the genetic code of any story: one part identifies the virtue which leads to victory, while the other identifies its opposite, which leads to defeat. Keeping the moral premise in mind allows you to craft a story that stays on track.
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