How the Moral Premise Drives your Story

The moral premise in there will be blood
The Moral Premise in There Will be Blood

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ALL great stories have a moral premise – a deep structure that shapes the narrative from below the surface of the novel or film.

The moral premise is why writers write stories. It is the expression of cause and effect seen from an ethical and moral perspective.

“The Moral Premise exists at a level below the plot, shaping narrative actions and their consequences according to its own internal logic.”

Some of the writers have only a vague notion of their moral premise upon commencing their stories. They know there will be good characters, evil characters and in-between characters, and they leave it at that, choosing, rather, to concentrate on the machinations of the plot. After all, the plot is where all the visceral, sticky, fun stuff happens.

Yet, the moral premise is inherent in every story whether we consciously put it there or not. It should, therefore, be as much a part of our conscious intent as the plot. Ignoring it may result in our thinking we are writing one sort of story while we are really writing another.

Even more importantly, the moral premise helps us understand the reason our protagonist acts in the way that he does. It helps us craft the trajectory of the story.

The Moral Premise in There will be Blood

In There Will Be Blood we follow the consequences of what happens when Daniel Plainview, a man with no scruples or morals, gains wealth and power through oil. His initial charitable act of adopting the son of one of his workers who has been killed in a drilling accident, soon gives way to relentless self-interest.

He sends the boy away because he has become deaf in yet another drilling accident and is now a burden to his operations. The boy later returns, but as Plainview sinks deeper into the mire he becomes incapable of maintaining friendships or family bonds.

He murders the man who has claimed to be his long-lost half-brother when he discovers he is an imposter. He rejects his adopted son when he learns that he wants to make his own way in the oil business. And finally, he murders Eli Sunday, the evangelist with whom he has been butting heads over land and oil.

If we take the moral premise of the film to be that the pursuit of wealth and power, at the expense of love and family, leads to loneliness and defeat, we can place each scene in the story along a trajectory that finally ends in Plainview lying drunk in the bowling alley in his home – bloodied, spent, alone. In a sense, he is as dead as the body of Eli Sunday sprawled next to him – the man he has just murdered with a bowling pin.

Summary

The moral premise guides the writer in identifying and placing narrative incidents along a trajectory in a story.

Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

5 thoughts on “How the Moral Premise Drives your Story”

  1. Great post. I, like everyone who has seen the 2017 Beauty and the Beast was biased to the original 1991 hand drawn film before I even walked into the cinema. I imagine it’s me being sick and tired of digital cinema that was created by obese computer geeks that can never capture the magic and discipline of the moving line.
    Having said that – it’s the moral premise of the fairy tale that makes this story a classic. It challenges the idea that goodness is defined by appearance , a idea which Disney has been heavily criticized pone. We associate goodness with beauty , which is perhaps the only flaw of the 1989 film the Little Mermaid – she gives up every thing she knows to be with a man whom she judged on his physical appearance.

    The moral premise that drives the notion of looking beyond outer appearances and seeing and accepting people for who they are is perhaps the most significant contribution to why the 1991 Beauty and the beast became the first animated film to be nominated for best picture at the academy awards.

    In short: Morals are the gears that drive characters who drive the stories

      1. Don’t get me wrong, the film is well worth the watch, but then again thanks to marketing the film has become to big to fail. It will be my mission in life to produce the 100th animated classic of the Disney collection – which will be hand drawn form beginning to end. They still have 44 to go , which is more than enough time to master morals in stories.

  2. Interesting, Stavros, thanks. It’s always stimulating when the premise promises to be complex and leads to different interpretations and, as a result, lively discussions/arguments.

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