Tag Archives: Moral premise

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.

How to Write the Moral Premise

Jesus and people

The Moral Premise

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.

Summary

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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