Stan: Thanks again for welcoming me to your village. It was two years ago since my last visit. Where's the chocolate barn? Did they tear it down? All I can find is a big sinkhole with Willy Wonka chained at the bottom.
I enjoyed presenting at the ACFW Conference in St. Louis last year, and my wife, Pam, and I loved meeting many of you.
Myra: Your Early Bird session was definitely the highlight of the St. Louis conference for me! As for the chocolate barn, we found it much more cost effective to fire Willy and develop our own brand. So, what do you have in store for us today, Stan?
Stan: This blog has three parts. (1) Answers to your questions about the moral premise; (2) An interview with Tamera Alexander (whom I've coached) about how she uses the moral premise and why; and (3) a little bit about my background and how all this moral premise stuff got started.
Myra: Sounds great! For those who haven’t read your book or who missed your previous visit with us, can you describe briefly what “Moral Premise” is and how it relates to fiction and screenwriting?
Stan: The Moral Premise is a story structure concept that in its generic form has been acknowledged by nearly every story guru and author since the invention of the novel by Henry Fielding when he wrote Joseph Andrews in 1742. But it can be found in the works of Homer, the Bible, and Aesop. In fact, it is impossible for stories to connect with an audience without a true and consistently applied moral premise.
Luckily, the Moral Premise of a story can be stated in a simple single statement that describes the psychological and physical motivations and arcs of all the characters. It goes like this:
A psychological vice (a value) leads to a discrete physical action that results in a negative physical consequence. But,...or, put simply.
A psychological virtue (the opposing value) leads to a discrete physical action that results in a positive physical consequence.
Bad motivations lead to bad stuff; butThat seems so simple, until you realize that the whole story must be about the conflict of that one set of values (the vice and its opposing virtue), which is metaphorically illustrated in a dozen or more ways in the individual and unique lives of your characters.
Good motivations lead to good stuff.
To reemphasize, every character (whether it be human, animal or a town) must struggle with the same conflict of (moral) values, but in different ways in the different aspects of their lives. And each character's inner moral struggle is metaphored in their physical world and actions. You might say one's worldview creates one's world. The result is the banishment of writer's block, a final story that cannot unravel, and a visceral connection with audiences. One thing the Moral Premise does not solve, however, is the disciplined, hard work of writing.
There's also a good explanation of this in the Seekerville October 15, 2010, post.
Myra: Wow, it may sound complicated on the surface, but the basic concept is really so simple--and powerful. If you could name one movie and/or one novel that best exemplifies the effective incorporation of Moral Premise, what would it be, and how would you verbalize the MP of this book/movie?
Stan: All successful movies and books have true and consistently applied moral premises, whether or not the writers or directors know it. Of course, if I'm right, knowing it can improve your changes at success. Although I'm quick to point out that a good moral premise is no guarantee of success. There is a lot more to a good story.
Since preparing the ACFW presentation for the St. Louis event I still lean favorably to the book and movie titled Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts. The long form of the moral premise statement can be stated this way:
Relying on fate (luck, determinism) leads to loss of hope (homelessness) but
Relying on self-determination (free-will, bleaching) leads to hope (and home).Myra: Perfect. I definitely had to watch that movie again as a result of your workshop explanation. And now, some questions from our Seekervillagers.
Piper asks: Novels used to be seen as a way to instruct people on how to behave: Is the purpose of the Moral Premise to instruct about the disadvantages of misbehavior?
Stan: Piper, the purpose of the moral premise is to guide (or instruct) writers on how to write a novel that will connect with their audience. Any story that connects with its audience will implicitly instruct them how to behave in accordance with natural law, and thus find an increased level of happiness. Now, there are some critical nuances and assumptions in that statement. The most critical is what I mean by "connect," —that the reader or audience will recognize the true and consistent portrayal of natural law at work in the story. If that is true, then the story (assuming all else is done with deft craft) will instruct people how to live a happier life.
Janet K. wants to know how you find the moral premise of your book. Can there be more than one moral premise?
Stan: Second question, first. There can be more than one moral premise in a successful story. But each is related to the others, or you might say they are nested, or exist along the same Nicomachean Ethics Scale. Oh boy, there's a term. (See http://moralpremise.blogspot.com/search/label/Nicomachean%20Ethics). A novel or movie will not explore divergent moral premises, unless it's epic in length with clear divisions, such as Francine Rivers' "Mark of the Lion" series.
The answer to Janet's first question is more important. A book may or may not have a moral premise. Or, if a moral premise does exist it may (a) not be true, or (b) it may not be consistently applied to each character. Falsehood and inconsistency are the harbingers of failure.
If a book does have a true and consistently applied moral premise (measured by financial success or connected eyeballs), then here's what I'd do to discover it. You can use this same process beforehand to determine IF your story has a true and consistently applied moral premise.
1. Examine each character's inner moral arc, and their external physical arc. Diagram what you see in terms of motivational values, actions and consequences. How do the characters' motivations change from story beginning to story end? The most important character to do this with, of course, is the protagonist.
2. Look for an incident near the center of the story where the protagonist recognizes that he or she has been using the wrong motivation to achieve his or her goal. Is there such a scene? Do they decide to change -- for the good or the bad? In all stories the protagonist is imperfect and needs a solution to a problem, or needs to attain a physical goal. To attain that goal the character needs to change. In a redemptive story the change is for the better. In a tragedy the change is for the worse. This moment of realization and motivational change is the character's Moment of Grace (MOG). All main characters will have a MOG. Does your story? The protagonist's MOG will be near the middle of the overall story; but the other character's MOG could be anywhere the story dynamics demand. Remember, as in real life, all characters change, but no character changes quickly or abruptly.
3. Diagram, chart, or table what a character valued before their MOG, and what they value after their MOG. These two values need to be polar opposites. In a properly structured story you'll notice a pattern developing between all the characters. They will all be struggling with the same thing in different ways. That is how you reinforce the underlying meaning of your story without ever having to say what it is. Audiences and readers like to figure things out. Don't tell them, show them. The many story threads will all weave together to form a single blanketed theme scented with spices.
Amber’s question: I want to have a moral premise in every book I write, but I struggle with having my moral premise too strong. How do you work your moral premise into the story without giving the reader the “hit over the head with a Bible” feeling?
Stan: Simple: Never state the moral premise directly. Never quote a Bible verse. Really. I think the best Christian fiction is morally not fiction at all. It is true. And if it is true, then that truth will be self-evident in the action that your characters take. Note that throughout the Bible it's not what is said or what is thought that proves your faith and gets you to heaven. It is what is done, it is what action you take, it is your works that confirm one's faith (Mt. 7:24ff, James 2:14ff.). The same is true of your characters. It matters not what they turn over in their mind, it matters not how much they read Bible verses to each other. What matters is what they do. How do they act? What are their works? It's not that works save them, but without the works there is clearly no faith. Faith and works, thoughts and action—two sides of the same coin.
Let me get down out of my pulpit. You can articulate the MP, but do so indirectly. That is, don't say much. For instance, sometimes at the end of the movie, after all the action, heartache and tragedy, as the hero lies in a pool of his own blood, there will be enough energy left to look up into his friend's eyes and whisper, "It was the drink, weren't it Maddy? Here I am a-dying and, damn if I ain't got more confidence now than all those times a toasting m'buddies with brew. Don't make much sense." But never would you say, "Burt, see I told ya once I told you a thousand times. Alcohol leads to destruction; but sobriety leads to success." BLEEP!
Let your actions speak louder than your words. See how Scripture is used in Where the Heart Is. It’s funny, somewhat irreverent, by characters who are not theologians by any means—"O God, forgive us the fornication that occurred right here on this table upon which we are about to eat. Amen."
In short, SHOW, don't tell. Whenever you start quoting Scripture you're telling. Just SHOW the consequence and let the reader figure it out.
From Vince: Edgar Allen Poe wrote this: “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” Could you relate this idea to the more encompassing idea expressed by the Moral Premise?
Stan: Actually, Vince, I think you just did it. About the only thing I might add is that the traditional definition of "theme" is one-half of the moral premise. A theme will point the value-action-consequence in one direction only. The moral premise points in both directions.
Rose would like to know if you have a worksheet that ties all this together that writers can use as a guideline to make sure we don't leave anything out.
Stan: Rose, are you asking for a crib sheet so you can cheat? Go to The Moral Premise website and click on the "Writing Aids" tab. There are two versions of Mugs, a Story Diamond worksheet, and a Bookmark, all designed to provide some short-cut reminders. But unless you have a practical understanding of how to apply the moral premise, these won't be much help. Read the book.
Julie S. has three questions for you:
1. Has there been a shift in what resonates with readers, as far as applying the MP, since you last visited Seekerville?
Stan: When I speak of reader resonance I refer to natural law. Unlike fads or trends, natural law doesn't change. So, intrinsic to a proper understanding of the moral premise is that what resonates with readers will not change over venues, eras, or genres. It's all about natural law truth of the human condition. No shifting, except in the eyes of the bad guy.
2. What future trends do you see in terms of themes and genre? Folks seem to want the Amish books for their “back in time” beliefs and strict code of conduct. What is next?
Stan: Again, these "trends" don't intrigue me, nor do I track them. Hollywood seems to have a fancy for such trends because investors are typically paranoid, looking for the easy connection. But I believe ANY story, well told, will do good. What it takes is a fresh perspective or hook, and deft craft. That is why genre stories always sell. The underdog sports team is always a winner. Twilight is another good example. It's not literature, but it sells. And the hook was different enough to intrigue. BTW: Stephen King wrote (evidently... could be Internet legend) that "Harry Potter is all about confronting fears, inner strength, and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend." So, a huge difference. But they are both genre and I suspect that Rowling and Meyer ignored the trends.
3. What are the three most important things to remember as we work on our WIPs, in terms of MP?
Stan: 1. Underlying conflict of (opposing) values must motivate all the actions of all the characters.
2. In the story's timeline there must be a Moment of Grace where each character realizes that things can go different if they change their values.
3. The physical story, in most every major respect, should be a metaphor (subtext) for what is really going on at the moral level.
There are more; see the bookmark under Writer's Aids, but these are the most important subsets that support a true and consistent moral premise statement.
Myra: Thanks, Stan. As always, you have taught us well! Anything else you would like to add?
Stan: I'm still waiting on Scotty to fix the transporter so I can share in all that e-food you "guys" write about.
Stan: While we wait for Scotty, I have a treat for you. Not food, although for me the aroma of a melted Hersey's dark chocolate bar in my hand is like caffeine. CN I HV SM MRE! IM FLNG GRT, RLLY.
Over the last year I've been helping a number of ACFW writers structure their novels. I'm always impressed with the bold, intriguing characters and settings y’all come up with. Deep inside those of you who are pantsers, there lurks great stories that you can't quite see for all the fascinating possibilities.
One such author is Tamera Alexander. I thought you would benefit from hearing what Tamera does with regard to the Moral Premise and how we work together, usually by email and phone. Here's a YouTube post Tamera did for Seekervillagers, and then an interview of sorts that hopefully will be instructive.
Stan: Tamera, you are admittedly a pantser. Yet, your books are rich in research of historical eras and places. What are the broad development steps you take before you begin to write, and where does the moral premise effort fit into your process?
Tamera: First, I research the time period and the location. So much of what I’m writing now in the Southern antebellum mansion stories is real history populated by real people who actually lived. So that definitely shapes the fabric of the stories.
Once I have my characters and basic story in mind (IE: this is a story about an fraudulent artist who finds herself in the home of the richest woman in America, and about a young attorney determined to protect his client’s personal and financial interests at all costs), I begin the writing process by discovering the backgrounds of the male and female protagonist. These are freeform documents (no characterization charts for me, please, those drive me insane). And this stage is for my eyes only. I don’t worry about grammar or structure. I just write. And I write in first person point-of-view, as if seeing the world through the hero and heroine’s eyes. I work to discover their strengths and weaknesses. And what they want more than anything. And why.
Stan: For you, what are the mechanical or functional features of the moral premise that are the most useful to you?
Tamera: The structure of the moral premise: [Vice] leads to [defeat], but [virtue] leads to [success], gives me the tools to see the key elements of my story with x-ray vision, if you will. Remember the character sketches from above? Well, understanding my story’s moral premise enables me to see those threads more clearly. The moral premise also reveals the characters’ true outer and inner motivations and shows me where these need to be tweaked, which saves a ton of rabbit trailing and rewriting.
A phrase I keep by my computer is from p. 21 of Stan’s book, “…good stories are about…the making of a moral (psychological) choice that results in a physical action, and ends in a physical and psychological consequence.” Later in Ch 4, Stan shares, “As writers, we may not always understand the natural laws of storytelling, but we can understand that for every action there will be a reaction…and for every cause there is a natural effect.”
Even though I know far more of my story before writing now than I used to, there are still “ah ha” moments in the first draft where something will bubble up to the surface that “fits so perfectly,” and yet that I hadn’t planned or plotted, per se. Which just goes to show that on a subconscious level, when you have some of the tools of story structure beneath your belt, the moral premise and muse are in cahoots with each other to guide the story. Love that!
Stan: For you, what are the practical writing advantages of using the moral premise?
Tamera: Working with a moral premise keeps me from wandering in the story. It helps me to write tighter. And it makes rewrites far more manageable. And enjoyable! My rewrites for my last novel took 9 days. Nine! That’s unheard of for me. And I actually love the rewrite phase! But instead of deleting rabbit trails and cleaning up extraneous plot threads, this time I was delving deeper into characterization and polishing the metaphorical aspects of the story.
Stan: In the development of your most recent novel, To Whisper Her Name, a Belle Meade Plantation novel, you spent some time with Stan Williams by phone talking about the moral premise and your story. Can you describe the flow and perhaps some specifics of that coaching session so we can see how Stan and the moral premise concept helped you?
Tamera: Before our scheduled call, I sent Stan a document literally entitled “This is what I know about my story so far…” And that’s exactly what it is, all I know about the characters and story (plot) and setting so far.
When we started the call, I told him I wished I knew more, and that I could give him more to work with. He said to just start talking. So I did. And I was amazed at how he was able to see the moral premise so clearly in the “scattered” threads of the story I had so far. Which tells me two things: 1) I still have much to learn in regard to understanding and defining story structure, and 2) I do much of this instinctively in my storytelling. Which is fine, at first blush. But not when I don’t do it consistently, which I don’t. And which you need to do for a strong story.
I’ve already decided that from now on, I’ll start out each novel with a coaching call to Stan to get my moral premise honed and sharpened, and to more clearly define my male and female protagonists’ inner and outer motivations. It’s worth every penny and is paid back to me time and time again as I write.
Stan: What was the result of that effort in your editor's eyes?
Tamera: One of my editor’s exact wording (after they read the first draft of To Whisper Her Name) was, “I have never struggled so much to add value to a manuscript…” Reading that was gratifying. And is not credited solely to me, of course. I credit my writing team (which includes Stan Williams and his Moral Premise) and to what I’ve learned about story structure. Not that I didn’t still have work to do in the rewrite phase. I did. But it wasn’t the major overhauling I’ve done in the past, because there weren’t any “extraneous” threads. All the threads of the story built on one another, as they should once they’re filtered through the moral premise.
Stan: Can you describe your effort to find the moral premise of your story in the second Belmont Mansion book? What happened when you sent your preliminary notes to Stan and asked for advice?
Tamera: In writing Belmont Book 2, I had the key elements of the story (characters, basic plot, and setting), but I was missing the “driving force” behind the characters’ motivations and desires. I’d been writing and struggling, writing and struggling… So, as I’ve done previously in preparation for our phone consultations, I sent Stan the outline for my story––a document literally entitled “This is what I know about my story so far…”
When we spoke the following day, I apologized for not sending him more. But he said (in effect), “Quite the contrary!” He saw so much within the preliminary notes I’d sent him, things I simply didn’t see, UNTIL we defined the moral premise of my story. Then “ah ha” moments started popping up everywhere.
By nature, I’m an instinctive writer (a seat-of-the-pants writer, some might say), but the tools of story structure (and of The Moral Premise) can be learned. They’re definitely enhancing my writing process and my love of story. And storytelling.
Stan: The Coaching package Tamera (and some of the others of you) have taken advantage of is Level 4 under the Coaching Tab at The Moral Premise.
Where did Stan and the Moral Premise come from?
Myra: Stan, that interview with Tamera Alexander was so instructive and eye-opening! Let’s switch gears now and give our tired brains a break. Would you mind telling us a little about yourself, where you grew up, educational background, anything about your family, etc.?
Stan: I grew up in Detroit suburbs among a functional family of devout Evangelicals on a cliff over looking Fundamentalism. My values were formed by our family's deep respect for the Bible, and a legion of missionaries and preachers that were not only house guests but the decedents of ancestors that reached back centuries. Yes, adventures full of high drama, and trunks full of diaries.
If you came to the ACFW workshop last year you heard a little about my early 1900 maternal grandmother who left the woman's suffrage movement to be a missionary in India. An uncle on my father's side was the famous London Missionary Society adventurer-ship builder John Williams who was martyred by Pacifica cannibals on the beach of Erromanga (today, Vanuatu) in 1839 as the Captain and crew from the rail of the brig Camden looked on with horror.
I have 1.5 sisters, no brothers, a few distant cousins, nephews and nieces — Wigs, Tories, Republicans and a few Democrats for spice. My dad ran for Michigan governor on the Prohibition ticket when I was a kid. With my first (and only) wife, Pam, we have three children and nine grandchildren who live near us in S.E. Michigan.
I graduated from Greenville College (Greenville, IL) in 1969 with a B.A. in Physics, after which I worked for McDonnell Douglas in the space industry as an electronic engineer and astronaut trainer (Skylab Crews in Houston). As exciting as that was I longed to be involved in media. When the Skylab project was over I ended up at Ford Motor WHQ in Dearborn, MI, where I worked my way up to become a film and television producer-director. I left Ford in 1981 to start my own production company, Full Circle Communications, which produced hundreds of projects for corporations until 1989 when I had to lay off my 12 employees and joined the ranks of the sometimes employed, but mostly I became an independent producer of media (film, television, and live shows). I'm still doing that.
Somewhere in all that I earned a M.A. in Interpersonal Communications (Eastern Michigan University, 1980), and later my Ph.D. in Film Studies and Narrative Theory (Wayne State University, 1998).
At the same time I was finishing my dissertation (that involved a study of fallacious logic in narrative story structures), I became disillusioned with Evangelical Christianity that claimed unity in the doctrinal essentials, but disagreed about a great many essential Christian doctrines, e.g. salvation and baptism. Long story, short, I became Roman Catholic in 1998 and Pam followed 9 months later. It was like coming home. (WIP, 26 chapters so far).
A short time after that, in an effort to produce a documentary about Catholicism, a friend and client convinced me to start a distribution company that we call Nineveh's Crossing (http://www.ninevehscrossing). It's a Catholic media distribution company that releases television series to networks, and sells DVDs, CDs and books.
I have taught filmmaking and screenwriting as an adjunct at a couple universities and a trade school, and I spent two years teaching logic as part of a home school enrichment program. That segued into a Story Symposium workshop that I led over two years with a small group of teens (3 hours, once a month). In June I took the class to the movie set of AFTER EARTH where my students met Will and Jaden Smith and his team. Then, in August we finished shooting a film (Bad Luck Bella) that one of the students wrote and directed.
I spend some time each year in Hollywood lecturing, meeting with clients and helping with events. Most of my "Hollywood" time, however, is spent in Michigan consulting by phone and the Internet, some with novelists, like you. Here's a link to my Biola Media Conference interview of TV writer Monica Macer, and avant-garde rocker and film producer, Steve Taylor.
Myra: Fascinating, Stan! What’s your favorite way to spend vacation time?
Stan: Work. There's too much to do to take long vacations. The world is a mess and needs help. I am willing to take an evening and go sailing. Sometimes after a big project I'll sleep and read for a couple days. We have a 41' ketch that we sail on the Great Lakes, although this summer and part of next it's out of the water in repairs. Pictures of one trip to the Upper Great Lakes here.
Myra: Do you have any favorite books or movies?
Stan: Anything well done and engaging. I have no real favorites, except maybe Stanley Kubrick's and Arthur C. Clark's 2001: A SPACE ODYESSY (released in 1969 the special effects surpass anything shot today). I've seen it 14 times. Book other than Bible? Perhaps Emmanuel Velikovshy's speculative-science Worlds In Collision that co-joins cosmology and Biblical events.
Myra: Your website bio mentions a cat and “a menagerie of yard mammals.” What exactly are we talking about here? The typical squirrels, rabbits, and deer, or something more exotic?
Stan: We live in an older subdivision on the outskirts of Metro Detroit just before you get to horse ranches and farms. It's an older ranch on 1.2 acres with trees and a creek that attacks deer, fox, squirrels, muskrats, ground hogs, chipmunks and the occasional lost teenager on his or her way home from school or a party.
Myra: Hmmm, that creek sounds intriguing! What led you to a career in the filmmaking industry?
Stan: I think film and media are somehow in the genetics of the family. A deceased uncle, Burton Emerson Williams, was the founder of the National Press Photographers Association and was a famous White House photographer most of his life. The Burt Williams Award is still given out to news photographers who have completed at least 40 years of service. http://www.nppa.org/about_us/honors_and_recognitions/williams/
Another of my dad's brothers owned the first motion picture film laboratory in Florida. At an early age, perhaps 8, I started experimenting with trick photograph using two (120mm) pinhole cameras. I'd shoot multiple exposures of my sister doing baton tricks around the yard, making it look like she was one of quintuplets.
Yet, I never pursued film or media until college when I became enamored with radio production. I was the production manager at WGRN for several years during college, had my own radio show, et al. When I got a job I took up photography as a sideline. Love it. Still do.
Myra: Was there an “aha” moment when the ideas behind the Moral Premise began to take shape in your mind?
Stan: It was a slow gestation process that began while reading for my doctoral research (and ended with a prescription for stronger eyeglasses). After several years of reading about stories, screenplays and box office receipts, I realized there was a mystery about why some movies were popular and others were not. The theories presented at the time were how MPAA ratings, A-list stars and directors, marketing dollars, and national temperaments all had to be just right for a movie to score big. But, in fact, you could have the best of all those factors and still bomb at the box office. Famed screenwriter William Goldman writes in the introduction of his famous book Adventures in the Screen Trade that when it comes to what makes up a successful movie, "Nobody (sic) knows anything." Well, I had been to Hollywood and seen the pictures in the magazines, and I knew Goldman was wrong. There was too much money being made in Hollywood, and the people I had met were pretty smart. Someone had to know something. I decided that nobody knows what it is that they know but deep down they know it well.
So, I set out to try to discover what it was. Obviously I was predisposed to issues of morality because of my Christian upbringing. The resulting dissertation, titled "Narrative Argument Validity and Film Popularity," uncovered what I thought were key elements of a film's ability to connect with audiences. I soon realized that these same moral elements affect any story's connection to any story audience, whether fictional novels or the personages that attract the litter we call paparazzi.
I finished the dissertation in 1998, and tried to get some of the Hollywood story gurus to take my research and make a course out of it. There was no money in it for me, but I was convinced my research uncovered what had been known since the beginning of storytelling, but all the writers were calling it something different. Finally in 2004 I began to write the book myself. The Moral Premise and my dissertation are not the same, except that the dissertation research formed the basis for the book. I sent the finished manuscript (after a query) to my favorite movie publisher, Michael Wiese Productions. Two days later I got an email from Michael saying they'd love to publish it. They had only two small things they wanted to change. It was my writing partner, Bill Wiitala, who suggested I write Chapter 4 that required I restructure a few things overall. The book came out in 2006.
Stan: Okay, folks, that's it for this edition of The Moral Premise visits Seekerville. I'll visit the com box throughout the day. Blessings. StanMyra: Stan, you never fail to twist our brains into new avenues of creative thought! Thank you so much for your amazing insights into the Moral Premise and for sharing so personally about yourself.
Visit with Stan in the comment section today to enter the drawing for a copy of Stan’s breakthrough book, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success.
|Comment for a chance to win! Details here.|