Tag Archives: amwriting

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

The good story – how to get started.

The film, Big, evidences a tight narrative technique which results in a good story.
The film, Big, evidences a tight narrative technique which results in a good story.

There are many ways to get started on a good story. Here are two of them:


1: Be gripped by inspiration and allow it to guide your hand.

OR

2: Use existing knowledge of writerly techniques to write and edit your story until it sparkles.

Now, you have little control over the first. Inspiration has a will of its own. Like a haughty cat, it may ignore your most entreating calls.

The second way, however, is yours to summon. You can utilise your knowledge of story structure to get started right away. Sites such as mine, and many others, offer advice for free—for the love of story.

Will this way guarantee a great story? Maybe not. But it will set you on the path of writing a well-structured one.

Learn your craft by adding to your chest of techniques every day. Work hard to be the best you can be and one day you will be.

In rereading Linda Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting, I was reminded of the usefulness of certain practices—in this case, the practice of naming scenes according to their function as a way of staying focused on how each narrative segment performs its task in service of the plot and character.

“A good story can be expressed through a series of well-conceived scenes flowing from a solid story structure.”

Apart from the inciting incident, the two turning points, the midpoint, the climax and the resolution that we all know about, Seger offers several others: the establishing scene, exposition scene, love scene, confrontation scene, pay-off scene, resolution scene, realisation scene, decision scene and action scene. Most stories have an assortment of these. It’s up to you which ones to include in your tale.

Here’s an example of a decision-realisation-action scene cluster:

In the film Big, Josh decides to put money into a vending machine at a carnival in order to become ‘big’. In the next scene he realises that he is ‘big’ and this leads to a series of actions as a response to the complications of being an adult. The overall result is a new situation that sees him working for a toy company as an adult though, inwardly, he remains a child.

In this scene cluster causally linked scenes make for tighter writing. Knowing the type of scene you’re embarking on tells you how to execute it.

In the light of this, I wouldn’t be surprised if that cat, resenting your sudden independence, and secretly craving attention, doesn’t decide to jump into your lap, after all.

Summary

Write a good story by utilising your understanding of the differing functions of scene within the context of story structure.

Want to know more about how to pace your scenes? Follow the link to my latest YouTube video!

Literature versus commercial writing – and the winner is…

To Kill a Mocking Bird is a wonderful example of literature that proved to be a commercial success.

I remember reading several comments on social media that criticised literature and art film while praising genres such as Romance, Crime, and low-brow Science Fiction. Literary stories and art movies were seen as boring, introverted, and static while the latter were described as pacy and exciting.

Now, it is true that literature and art movies, at their worst, can be torturously boring. But the same is true of popular novels and films – unrealistic characters and settings juxtaposed against weak plots spun around improbable actions resulting in formulaic endings. And all in the name of entertainment.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find stories peopled by thin, unrealistic characters entertaining at all. In fact I find many of them to be unreadable and unwatchable. This is not to say that there isn’t value and skill in popular stories. I would not be writing in established genres if I didn’t believe in convention. 

But I also believe that there are things we can learn from literature and art film.

Things such as integrity, uniqueness, and insight that lead to a strong connection with fictional characters.

“Literature need not cede exciting plots to commercial fiction. Literature can combine plot with well-crafted characters to create stories that are simultaneously gripping and insightful.”

I think where literature and art films often leave themselves open to criticism is that they are big on insights about characters facing ordinary problems and small on exciting plots. It is almost as if some of these works see plot as something artificial, contrived. Several recent Pulitzer and Booker winning novels relate the life history of protagonists in a way that seems like a mannered study in chronology, albeit crammed with perceptive observations about everyday life.

But the presence of an interesting plot is not antithetical to the search for truth and meaning – the purview of more serious works. After all, one of the most cherished modern stories, To Kill a Mocking Bird, manages to do both.

And, here, I think, may lie the solution to writing stories that are potentially more accessible to ordinary readers and audiences while being endowed with deeper layers of meaning – namely, stories that contain exciting and meaningful plots. 

I have a suspicion that the likes of Dickens, Mark Twain, and H. G. Wells, all popular writers in their day, might have agreed with me.

Summary

Literature or art films driven by strong and exciting plots make for popular and meaningful reading and viewing.

Unlikeable Characters – how to write them

Joffrey Baratheon, ranks amongst one of the most unlikeable 
characters of all time.
Joffrey Baratheon ranks amongst the most unlikeable characters of all time.

How to write unlikeable characters? No, this is not a typo. This article is about creating characters we dislike, or despise.

But hold on. Aren’t we supposed to write likeable characters? Indeed so, but not all characters need to be likable. Certainly, we have to like the protagonist. But surely not the antagonist and his allies? How else can we all pit likeable against unlikeable characters to create tension?

So, how do we make readers and audiences dislike a character? Here’s one approach. Consider these traits, several of which have been drawn from Margret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide. Some are more potent than others, depending on how unlikable you intend to make your character(s).

“Unlikeable Characters are an important part of the story-world. They are a foil to the kinder, more likeable characters and help define the scope of the moral terrain the story sets out.”

Unlikeable characters demonstrate some of the following behaviour:

  1. Lie and cheat
  2. Exhibit chauvinistic, sexist, or racist behaviour
  3. Humiliate others
  4. Ignore a plea for help
  5. Be deliberately unkind
  6. Break a promise without a valid reason
  7. Be cruel to animals
  8. Cause physical or mental pain in others – be a bully
  9. Behave selfishly
  10. Smell bad
  11. Poke fun at someone who can’t poke back
  12. Have bad habits – pick his nose in public, spit constantly, etc.
  13. Pick on someone vulnerable (after all, who roots for Goliath?)
  14. Blame the innocent to save his own hide

You get the idea. Apart from physical traits such as bad smells and irritating ticks and habits, unlikeable people violate our sense of fairness. They do not treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. Keeping this principle in mind will help you generate unlikeable characters as a counterweight to the likeable ones.

Check out my latest YouTube video: How to structure your story

Summary

Negative behaviour makes for unlikeable characters who serve as a foil to the likeable characters in your story.

Story beats – how to write them

A typewriter as an illustration of story beats.
Great stories are made up of powerful story beats that perform act-specific functions.

What are story beats, and how does one write them?

Last week I showed how to turn a story premise into a summary by adding a life-altering event to the hero’s path, and factoring in the ending of the story.

This filled out the story somewhat, but it was still missing important narrative beats. In order to make the acquisition of these beats a little easier let us now pose an overarching story question as well as three act-specific ones. Note that the overall story question overlaps with that of the last act’s.

The overall story question is: Does the hero succeed in defeating a tribe of cannibals to lead his followers to a place of safety?

This question helps to keep our sights trained on the through-line of the story—what has to be answered at the end of the tale.

Following on from that, we can use our summary to generate appropriate incidents within each act. Remembering that each act is governed by a question aimed at providing a narrative outcome, we have: 

Act One: Is the land above as idyllic as it first appears to be? 

How about: 

After a short euphoric encounter with the land above in which our hero notices a large eagle watching them from the sky, the landscape turns gloomy: The sun dims under thick plumes of smoke wafting over from the distance, the bones of dead creatures proliferate on the ground, the hero’s grandfather becomes ill and has to be carried on a make-shift stretcher, and acid rain begins to waft down. 

A day or so later a tribe of disfigured wretches approaches the group. A terrible storm is brewing and the tribe offers to lead the youngsters to safety. The leader seems in awe of our hero, rambling on about the legend of a blue-eyed king who will emerge from below the ground to lead the world to salvation. Speaking in a broken dialect, he promises to return the next day for our hero’s decision. 

That night our hero falls into a stupor where he dreams that the tribe is really a band of cannibals responsible of much of the hellish state of the terrain. Convinced that his vision is prophetic he awakens the others and persuades them to leave their campsite before the tribe returns. 

“Story beats are best generated by asking questions related to the state of the hero’s plight within the context of each act.”

Act Two: How does the hero manage to stay ahead of the cannibals against the odds?

Perhaps our hero forms an occult bond with the giant eagle that has taken an interest in the band of youngsters? Perhaps he can see through the eagle’s eyes, giving him an edge as he and his followers flee across the dangerous terrain?

But then the cannibal leader shoots down the eagle with a poison arrow at the story’s mid-point and everything changes.

Our hero now realises he can no longer keep the group safe from the murderous tribe. He has to change strategy: He willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if they agree to let his followers live. The leader, who is obsessed with the idea of stealing the hero’s power by having him accept a humiliating defeat, agrees. 

Act Three:  What goes wrong with the bargain and how does the hero finally outsmart and defeat the cannibal leader and his tribe?

Perhaps our hero has foreseen his own death in another dream and knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others. However, he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stock, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe is wiped out after the feast, allowing his followers to escape. 

This final act answers the overall story question too—the hero does indeed defeat the enemy, but at the cost of his own life.

Although these beats are far from complete—I still need to tie in the hero’s weakness/flaw/secret (his character arc) into the antagonist’s motivation and plot twists in a more detailed way—they do grant me confidence about the potential of the story.

Summary
Story questions resolve into narrative events within the context of each act.

Preparing your story – how to get started

Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.
Preparing your story — Jurassic Park as inspiration.

If you could summarise areas of writing as a way of preparing your story, what would they be?

For me the story premise and theme form the foundation of all accomplished writing. I spend time on ensuring that the story premise is the best it can be before starting on a new manuscript.

“Preparing your story refers to the initial process you undertake prior to commencing the writing of your screenplay or novel.”

A story premise, we are reminded, can take the form of a what-if statement: What if the DNA of a Jurassic animal is discovered, fully preserved, in a mosquito caught in a dollop of ancient tree resin? What if the DNA can be used to clone the animal?

The best story premises are engaging, original, and fit the mood of the times. The best themes, on the other hand, espouse social or moral truths that are universal. In the example above, the theme might be colloquially summed up as: Don’t mess with nature or it will mess you.

Characters come next. How many characters do I need to achieve the maximum dramatic impact; to explore the theme from a number of different points of view? Too many characters and the theme becomes muddled. Too few and it remains under-explored.

In Jurassic Park we have the hero, his love interest and his supporters arguing for one side of the theme—respect nature. Arguing for the opposite side—exploit nature for gain, we have the antagonist and his crew. But of course the real antagonist is the T-Rex, the rod of God striking down humans for their greed and arrogance.

Next, are the character arcs. How do the characters change, especially the protagonist? How does the protagonist’s wound get in the way of his goal? What does the character have to learn, or heal, in order to defeat the antagonist? When thinking about any character arc try to relate it to the theme of the story, remembering that the theme is the pilot that flies the tale to its final destination.

In The Land Below, Paulie, the story’s reluctant hero, has to overcome his lowly social status as an orphan and lead a band of rebellious teenagers to the surface against the opposition of the ruling elders. To do this he has to accept his leadership role by acknowledging his past.

I next expand the story premise into a beginning, middle and end—Act I, II and III. I generate the main story beats and place them into a logical sequence within each act. The beats now have a direction, all pointing to the theme.

Lastly, I think about how I will write each scene based on such beats. I remind myself that most scenes should start late and end early. I ask, what goal must each character try to achieve in each scene? How does this goal fit into the character’s overall purpose?

But because the character has both an outer and an inner life I also ask: What is the character’s emotional state at the beginning of the scene and how is it conveyed to the reader through his demeanour?

How do the competing goals of the characters in the scene create conflict between them? What are they hiding from each other? Finally, what is the outcome of the conflict? Who is the winner and who is the loser? How does the outcome of the scene change their original demeanour?

These questions help to keep scenes focused.

Taken as a whole, these steps are enough to get me started on a new story. Perhaps you may find such an approach useful too?

Summary

Review essential skills and clarify foundational elements as a way of preparing your story prior to writing it.


Genres—what are they?

Mixed genres in Cowboys and Aliens.
Mixed genres, mixed messaging?

Genres are categories containing stories that share common characteristics. The categories themselves are not inflexible. They absorb novel features from other genres and adapt to suit.

For writers, genres are recipes for concocting tales based on past exemplars. The Western, for example, showcases a number of recurring elements, such as saloons, side-arms, and horses.

For audiences a genre is an indication of a certain sort of story.

“Location, time-period, clothing, props, and language are some important markers that constitute points of difference between genres.“

Yet, a genre is neither set in stone nor used exclusively in telling a story. In the Science Fiction/Western, Cowboys and Aliens, two ‘hard’ genres are juxtaposed unexpectedly, which, in this instance, might explain the film’s failure at the box-office.

Certain genres, however, combine seamlessly. Action/Comedy films such as Bad Boys, or Crime/Comedy/Love Story ones such as Crazy Rich Asians use genres so effortlessly that they almost manage to merge them into one.

Some films are even more prolific in their use of genre-mixing. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a Musical/Comedy/Horror/Science Fiction/Love Story, has achieved cult status, perhaps because it parodies categories of all sorts.

The evolution of genre, much like genetic evolution, involves successful stories passing on their genes to their offspring. Because there is a requirement for novelty and originality, however, the code never stays exactly the same for too long. Mutation creeps in, which, if successful, get passed onto the next iteration.

We see this evolution in the Western, for example, where the protagonist goes from being a tough and decisive man in El Dorado, to an ambivalent and racist one in The Searchers, and finally, to a full blown anti-hero in Unforgiven – a killer of women and children.

The purpose of genre, then, is to guide one’s expectations by referencing existing stories. Genre helps audiences choose which stories to consume by promising more of the same, as much as it helps writers reference and update old tropes.

Summary

Genres are story categories that share similar characteristics. Genres not only assist audiences in selecting which stories to consume, they also provide the writer with a blueprint to emulate and adapt.

Twin Premises – Planning Your Story

Macbeth and the twin story premises
Macbeth, like all great narratives, flows from
twin premises.

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message and its affects. But how does this work and why should a writer care?



For pantsers about to commence the writing of their story, the answer is that they might not care. Pantsers write from the seat of their pants, allowing inspiration to dictate their narratives.

Plotters, on the other hand, need to work out the story before hand, often meticulously planning every scene before beginning the actual writing of their screenplays or novels.

There are some, however, for whom the approach lies somewhere in between. Inspiration can indeed swoop in at any moment and take over the writing process, but in its absence, they need the security of a map. They’ve set sail too many times only to wash up on the rocks without one.

“The twin premises provide the blueprint for writing a story. The one premise indicates what sort of events need to occur and to whom. The other shapes the direction of these events into an outcome that reveals a moral lesson.“

An effective compromise, therefore, is to spend time thinking about the events and characters that would go into the story, while simultaneously trying to nail down the point of it all. Which brings us back to the first paragraph:

The Story Premise is a brief outline of the story that encapsulates the events generated by the central conflict, and the desire through-line of the protagonist. The story premise of Macbeth might be: An ambitious Scottish general embraces the prophesy of three old crones and the urging of his wife to murder King Duncan and usurp his throne only to succumb to guilt, paranoia and death.

This gives some indication of the major characters and narrative events that comprise the tale.

The Moral Premise, by contrast, is the theme of the story. It gives direction to the dramatic scenes that comprise the plot. In Macbeth this might be: Ruthless ambition leads to death and destruction while accepting one‘s place in the Great Chain of Being sustains societal order and life. Not a popular theme by today’s standards, but a central moral premise in the Elizabethan era, nonetheless.

The aim of the twin premises, then, is to create enough scaffolding to support the writing of a story. Both premises must be present for the story to work. Whether the yarn will turn out to be quite the Shakespearean masterpiece is, of course, another matter all together.

Summary

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message.

Building Characters in Seven Steps

Building characters in The Godfather
Building characters in The Godfather

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby lays out seven steps to building characters:



The seven steps chiefly apply to the protagonist of the story since the protagonist is the vehicle through which the story is channeled. Truby illustrates these steps through an adroit analysis of several films. Here, we look at his break-down of The Godfather, taken directly from his book, although the pattern applies to any well-written story.

  1. Weakness and need
  2. Desire
  3. Opponent 
  4. Plan
  5. Battle
  6. Self-revelation
  7. New equilibrium

Hero: Michael Corleone.

Weaknesses: Michael is young, inexperienced, untested, and overconfident.

Psychological Need: Michael must overcome his sense of superiority and self-righteousness.

Moral Need: He needs to avoid becoming ruthless like the other Mafia bosses while still protecting his family.


“The path to building characters that are effective is one that tracks the protagonist’s journey from weakness and need to a new equilibrium, forged through the crucible of battle.“

Problem: Rival gang members shoot Michael’s father, the head of the family.

Desire: He wants to take revenge on the men who shot his father and thereby protect his family.

Opponent: Michael’s first opponent is Sollozzo. However, his true opponent is the more powerful Barzini, who is the hidden power behind Sollozzo and wants to bring the entire Corleone family down. Michael and Barzini compete over the survival of the Corleone family and who will control crime in New York.

“A strong opponent is someone who finds and exploits the protagonist’s weakness throughout the story.”

Plan: Michael’s first plan is to kill Sollozzo and his protector, the police captain. His second plan is to kill the heads of the other families in a single strike.

Battle: The final battle is a crosscut between Michael’s appearance at his nephew’s baptism and the killing of the heads of the five Mafia families. At the baptism, Michael says that he believes in God. Clemenza fires a shotgun into some men getting off an elevator. Moe Green is shot in the eye. Michael, following the liturgy of the baptism, renounces Satan. Another gunman shoots one of the heads of the families in a revolving door. Barzini is shot. Tom sends Tessio off to be murdered. Michael has Carlo strangled.

Psychological Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael still believes that his sense of superiority and self-righteousness is justified.

Moral Self-Revelation: There is none. Michael has become a ruthless killer. The writers use an advanced story structure technique by giving the moral self-revelation to the hero’s wife, Kay, who sees what he has become as the door slams in her face.

New Equilibrium: Michael has killed his enemies and “risen” to the position of Godfather. But morally, he has fallen and become the “devil.” This man who once wanted nothing to do with the violence and crime of his family is now its leader and will kill anyone who stands in his way.

Summary
Using a seven-step approach to building characters and story is a great way to mould protagonists who drive the plot forward in an organic and integrated way.

Epiphany and Self-Realisation in Stories

The hero’s epiphany in Casablanca.
The hero’s epiphany in Casablanca.

The epiphany refers to that moment at the end of the character arc where the hero realises a hidden truth about himself. This truth shines a light on a blind spot, flaw or wound, that has hampered progress towards achieving his purpose.


The epiphany is an internal event that impacts two layers of meaning—the psychological and the moral. The psychological allows the flaw to be confronted—a first step in healing oneself. Importantly, the epiphany allows the hero to gain true efficacy in the world and results in his turning the tables on the antagonist through external action.

But whereas the psychological dimension begins the process of healing the hero as an individual, the moral dimension allows the hero to apply the healing to the whole of society—it universalises the story by associating the action with the moral good.

“As a whole, then, the hero’s epiphany is the moment where self-deception is stripped away. The penny drops. The lesson is learnt. It is the culmination of the inner journey of the character.“

It goes hand in hand with the transformation of ‘want’ into ‘need’. Without this transformation the hero is fighting in the dark, ill equipped to fulfill his goal.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby (who refers to the moment of epiphany as the moment of self-realisation) provides the following examples of transformation:

“In Casablanca Rick sheds his cynicism, regains his idealism, and sacrifices his love for Ilsa so he can become a freedom fighter.

In Dances with Wolves Dunbar finds a new reason to live and a new way of being a man because of his new wife and his extended Lakota Sioux family. Ironically, the Lakota way of life is almost at an end, so Dunbar’s self-revelation is both positive and negative.

In effect, the hero realizes that he has been wrong, that he has hurt others, and that he must change. He then proves he has changed by taking new moral action.”

Summary

The hero’s epiphany refers to the moment in which the hero recognises his psychological and moral shortcomings and acts to overcome his last crisis and gain his true goal.