Here are some examples of the (moral) premise:
King Lear: Blind trust leads to destruction.
Ghosts: The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.
Romeo and Juliet: Great love defies even death.
Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.
Othello : Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.
Tartuffe: He who digs a pit for others falls into it himself.
We can see from the above that the moral premise/theme reveals a character’s inner motivation and is intimately linked to his inner journey. The protagonist is relentlessly driven by this motivation to complete that journey. It’s important to note that the moral premise contains a direction and momentum, emerging from the conflict between the character’s emotions, other characters, and the world.
With that in mind, we can say that the premise = Character’s emotion + Conflict (or direction) + Results (the end).
If we plug in the premise/theme of The Matrix into this formula, for example, we may come up with: Self-belief leads to victory over the enemy.
With the theme/moral premise firmly in place, we can generate the log-line (the one-line synopsis of the plot, as opposed to the moral of the story), before moving to the synopsis itself, the treatment, and the fist draft of our screenplay, or novel.
But these latter topics are the subject of a future article.
The moral premise, or theme, is the force that drives the protagonist to complete his inner journey.