Monthly Archives: June 2021

The Moral Premise – how to harness it.

The power of the moral premise
The power of the moral premise.

What is the moral premise? How does it differ from a dramatic premise? And why do you need it anyway? 

In his book, The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams points out that most commercially successful stories are forged upon the anvil of a moral premise—a clear message to audiences and readers about the reward or punishment associated with embarking on a path of virtue as opposed to a path of vice.

Stories that embody a universal truth about the human condition ring true, and, providing that other components are present—good characterisation, dialogue, as well as an intriguing plot—people are likely to reward such stories with good book or ticket sales.

The moral premise is a sentence that captures the meta-story of the tale—what the story is really about on the inside, whereas the dramatic premise captures what it is about on the outside.

Macbeth is an ambitious Thane who is triggered by a prediction that he will become king. Encouraged by his wife, he murders the rightful king and usurps his throne. This is the dramatic premise of the story.

But what the story is really about is its value-defining premise—how unchecked ambition leads to the murder of a king, and what consequences flow from such an act.

“The moral premise is the true pilot of the story, guiding all actions and events that comprise the tale.”

The moral premise has two parts. Together they encapsulate the totality of the moral landscape with virtue and vice on opposite poles. Simply stated: Virtue leads to a good outcome, but vice leads to a bad outcome. Macbeth is the much loved Thane of Glamis, respected by the king, and the wider community of friends and kingsmen. His initial state of virtue leads to love and praise within his rightful social place.

But his murder of the king activates the second part of the moral premise, his hidden vice—unchecked ambition leads to murder and mayhem.

Defining the premise in this way allows you to construct a tale in which the protagonist’s inner Journey from virtue to vice or from vice to virtue plays out as an outer journey for all to see.

Summary

The moral premise describes the protagonist’s movement from vice to virtue or virtue to vice, while the dramatic premise describes its physical enactment.

Click on the link to watch my latest YouTube video on how to Use Dramatic Irony in Stories

Constructing characters – who, what, how, and why?

The Spire, a masterful study in constructing characters.
The Spire, a masterful study in constructing characters.

As writers we are constantly engaged in constructing characters who hurt, desire and dream. We try to imbue them with deep passions and a need to achieve their goals at any cost. We try to write characters who are complex, multi-layered.

But how do we achieve this, practically? In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger suggests that we start by asking the following questions: Who is the character? What does the character want? Why does the character want it? How does the character get it?

One way to discover a character’s personality is to interrogate her.

Who is the the character? Is she shy, reclusive? Happy-go-lucky or introverted? Reliable and honest?

What does she want and how far will she go to get it? This is the external aspect of character – one tied to the external goal.

Why is the character driven? What is the psychology behind the need?

How does she get what she want? Is she a ruthless go-getter who stops at nothing – persuading, threatening, manipulating, or does she achieve her goals through kindness, by example, through wisdom and intelligence?

“A key to constructing characters is to ask questions that drill down to the defining aspects of identity and personality.”

In The Spire, (who) Jocelin, Dean of the Cathedral, (what) is obsessed with erecting a 404 foot tall spire (why) because he believes he has been chosen for this task to bring the people of the town closer to God. The project (how) is funded by his aunt, Lady Alison, a mistress  of the former King. But Jocelin’s plans fly against the advice of many, especially the master builder, Roger Mason, who believes the cathedral’s foundation cannot take the added weight. As the novel unfolds we learn that the project has more to do with Jocelin’s unyielding will than his desire to exalt his people by glorifying God through the building of the spire.

Characters are also aided or impeded by their values – their sense of justice, love, compassion, the belief that reconciliation is the only way to meet death without regret. A sympathetic character’s values will always be positive. 

But antagonists too believe they have values. The difference is that their view is subjective. A typical protagonist, by contrast, displays a more objective value system shared by the reader or audience. Interestingly, we get the most out of our characters by creating tension between their obsession and their value system. This is because inner conflict makes for absorbing stories. 

Summary

Ask the who, what, how, and why questions before embarking on constructing characters. The answers will help you write a more convincing story.

Click on this LINK to view my new YouTube video on how to create emotion in writing!