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