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Thursday, August 25, 2011

How Important is Moral Premise?

I used to think characters were the most important aspect of fiction writing. (This from a character-driven novelist/therapist. Go figure.) But after doing some research, I’ve come to the conclusion that the moral premise might be the most important thing in a book outside of the actual story premise.

The moral premise of a story is a single sentence statement describing the lesson of the story as it reflects on real life. Filmmakers have gotten the hang of this quicker than fiction writers, but Aristotle knew way back when that there was a correlation between a play’s moral message and it’s popularity. (Read his Poetics.)

When the moral premise of a movie sits “right” with the audience, that movie does better in the box office. This is was Dr. Stan William's book, The Moral Premise, is all about. Word of mouth spreads like my white cat sheds hairs—prolifically. On the flip side, if the moral premise is deceitful, the movie doesn’t do so well and people don’t tell their friends to go see it.

The same can and should be said for fiction. 

There are three ways people learn: experience, observation, and lecture. Lecture has the least to recommend it, experience the most, or the reason that the learner is using more of their senses. The more senses engaged, the greater the emotional tension and physical/emotional risk, thus the deeper the learning.

But fiction is unique in that is puts the reader in the position of learning via vicarious experience. The reader is (hopefully) transported into a new world that should become real to them. The reader should put themselves into the protagonist’s shoes, feeling the butterflies before a first kiss or the building apprehension the longer the killer goes free.

Some authors are simply gifted storytellers, weaving a tale that enthralls us. Others utilize the moral premise as well as draw from their innate author skills, and these are the books that capture the nation and beyond.

I’ll draw upon the cult following of The Twilight Saga to make my point. This set of books took America by storm. Stephenie Meyer wrote a book that spoke to the hearts of women (and men who will admit it), both young and old. Why?

Twilight is about love conquering all and not being able to choose with whom you fall in love. It’s a modern-day fairytale. (Why do you think factories are still pumping out DVDs of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast? They know that little girls everywhere dream about a prince coming one day. It’s timeless.)

Meyer’s book is essentially about Bella finding her prince. True, he’s a vamp, which means they have a few obstacles to overcome, namely Edward’s lust for her blood. But what book wouldn’t be complete without obstacles? It’s the obstacles that become your story premise.

Hopefully this simplistic assessment of Twilight’s universal appeal through its moral premise will get the wheels turning in your head about your story’s premise.

Q4U: Can you narrow it down to one sentence? Is it something that people can relate to, that they will want to talk about on their commute into town?


Deanna Schrayer said...

Absolute fantastic post Jeannie! I can't think of a single moral sentence, (at the moment), in any of her books, but Joyce Carol Oates creates the best fiction there is [based on morality]. A couple of great examples is "them" and "We Were The Mulvaneys". In fact, these are both not only fantastic reads but super tools for any writer looking to study how to write emotional content, among other aspects of a story.

Thanks much for this post!

Joanne Sher said...

Ohhh - you got my brain going now! Way too true and thought-provoking.

Jessica Nelson said...

I think the moral premise is genius. Thanks for reminding me about it!

Edward said...


Shilpa Mudiganti said...

Very interesting...Once we determine that, it is going to have an impact on the content of the book too.

Jaleh D said...

Personally I don't feel Twilight is that great an example for love conquering all as a premise. I mean it does get that across, but just sticking with the moral premise concept, Twilight made me grit my teeth. The idea that "the boy" can treat "the girl" with such disrespect made me want to throw the book across the room. (I only didn't because it was a library book.) He constantly belittles her weaknesses instead of teaching her how to overcome them. "You can't take care of yourself. You have to have a protector." (Not to mention the squick factor of his stalking her including intruding into her room without permission and it being considered sweet.) I can't stand stories with that sort of message.

Girls can lean on and be supported by boys, but they also need to be able to be strong and sometimes be the support for the boys. That's one of the reasons I love to watch Bones. Brennan is very capable and can stand on her own, but sometimes she needs Booth to help her out. And she does the same for him. They've saved each other at various times over the course of their partnership. And because both characters are written to be independent, the times when they are vulnerable are all the more compelling.

I do love Cinderella stories, especially the ones where the falling in love is based on something more than simply seeing each other and fate. Never After (movie), Ella Enchanted (book more than the movie), Ever After (with Drew Barrymore), and A Cinderella Story (with Hilary Duff) are among my favorite adaptations.

I very much agree that moral premise plays an important role in guiding attitudes. While I had no friends, my tweens primarily, books gave me hope that things could change and in the meantime taught me about healthy relationships of all sorts, so that when things really did change, I had a foundation to rebuild myself with. It was still hard as heck, but I wouldn't be where I am now without books.

Sorry for such a long response. Guess it hit home for me. Premise and characters are at the heart of why certain stories resonate so strongly with me. But I usually can't find the words to describe why. Moral premise is probably a good place to start.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

Jaleh - I appreciate your thoughts on this. Twilight certainly is polarizing, isn't it? People either loved it or hated it...but either way, they talked about it. Word of mouth got out. Something in it resonated with the audience in a profound way...sort of like Lord of the Rings did with a very different type audience.

I'm all over the Cinderella adaptations that you just mentioned. Sweet, sweet stories. I haven't watched Bones at I'll have to look into that series. (I just already have too many that I like!) :)

mplanck said...

A great article, Jeannie. While I couldn't come up with a single sentence for the moral premise of my latest book, I believe that theme is important.If society fails to maintain or articulate a code of moral behavior, writers and artists may step into the gap. Not that we should revert to: "And the moral is, dear children..." But honest commentary through storytelling often helps to guide us through the ambiguities of life.

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