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April 4, 2017

Creating a Strong Moral Premise for Our Story — Guest: Jeff Lyons

Figure with empty speech bubble and figure with exclamation point overhead with text: Why Do Characters Act the Way They Do?

A character’s arc—like all types of arcs—involves change, but what exactly is changing? Sure, a character could go from unsafe to safe, or not in a relationship to in a relationship, but that’s not about them changing—only their situation.

When a character changes—and learns a lesson along the way—readers sense more depth from a story. As a bonus, readers might learn something from that lesson as well. *smile*

We’ve talked before about how characters can suffer from a false belief—something that’s untrue, but that they believe about themselves or the world anyway. That belief causes them to act and behave in a way that’s holding them back from being fulfilled…until they change.

Today, I’m excited to bring back Jeff Lyons as he digs deeper into those elements by showing how we can fully develop their potential in our story. With his insights, we can ensure that we’re not saddling our protagonist with generic character flaws to overcome, but rather that we’re creating well-rounded characters with personal motivations for their struggles. Fantastic stuff!

Please welcome Jeff Lyons! *smile*

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Writing the Moral Premise and
the Biggest Mistake Writers Make

by Jeff Lyons

The idea that any good story has a moral heart is not a new idea. Writers, story gurus, developmental editors, everyone who’s had any experience with storytelling talks about the importance of having a moral element that drives the protagonist (and antagonist) in any good story.

There are many terms people use: moral argument, moral problem, moral flaw, fatal flaw, inner-fault, the list goes on. Regardless what the proprietary language used, everyone who advocates for this basic principle is talking about the same thing: a story rooted in a moral premise.

But writing a moral premise, and delivering a real protagonist with a deep and personal moral flaw, while not rocket science, is an elusive and confusing skill most writers lack, mainly because they don’t know what “moral” really means, and because they settle for generic solutions, rather than going for the deep emotional treasure at the heart of every moral character.

What Does Moral Mean in Storytelling?

The first thing we have to do is come to a common ground on what it means to even have a moral premise. In a storytelling context, what does moral really mean?

Here is a workable definition:

Moral refers to the principles, behaviors and conduct that define a person’s sense of right and wrong in themselves and in the world.”

(Taken from Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, Focal Press 2015)

Moral is not about being addicted to drugs and alcohol, or being crazy, or finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, or being confused about life, etc. Moral is about right and wrong and how you impact other people with your behavior.

Yes, addiction and emotional illness affects other people in our lives, but the focus is still internal, not external. Moral storytelling is focused on teaching lessons about how humans act as humans toward other humans, not just how we hurt or harm ourselves.

How Is the Moral Premise Important for Storytelling?

Creating a moral story premise is critical for telling a real story, because all stories are about us, and what it means to be human.

I have been harping on this for many years, and I have my own approach to the problem, which I think breaks down the moral premise into its basic components, making it easier for writers to find the most powerful moral component for their stories.

This approach also addresses the biggest problem writers make in this area, i.e., settling for generic rather than a personal morality.

In this approach, a story’s moral component is made up of three building blocks.

3 Building Blocks for the Moral Component of Any Story

  • The Moral Blind Spot:
    This is the core misbelief that the protagonist has about him-herself that is fundamentally wrong, but that colors all their actions in the external world. They are blind to it—they don’t know they have this belief, but others can see it, if they look hard enough.
    This is the core of all character motivation.
  • The Immoral Effect:
    This is the external world action that the blind spot takes on the page, or on the screen, in any story. The blind spot leads to behavior, and all behavior is motivated by the protagonist’s moral blind spot.
    The protagonist is hurting other people in their world, due to their blind spot, and the way, manner, form of that hurting is their behavior motivated by their blind spot.
  • The Dynamic Moral Tension:
    This is the driver of all dramatic action in the middle of any good story. The protagonist is constantly put into situations where they have to choose between acting morally (healing the blind spot) or acting immorally (falling back on their blind spot). They always make the bad choice. Back and forth, back and forth they are given the chance to change, but they don’t—until they do—and then the story is over.
    This pressure, between being offered the choice to change and always making the bad choice, creates dramatic tension and is what ratchets up the dramatic and personal stakes during the middle of any story.

(Taken from Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, Focal Press 2015)

How Can Understanding the Moral Component of Our Story Help Us Write?

It is critical for writers to understand these three building blocks for two fundamental reasons.

Firstly, the moral component makes the difference between having a passive or active protagonist (what I call the passive-active loop).

When the moral component is present, then the protagonist is proactive—all action sources from them as they act out their moral blind spot as behavior, which complicates their lives, forcing them to act again, etc. They are creating the problems in their lives based on their blind spot/behavior, so they are active.

If, however, there is a weak or missing moral component, then the protagonist is pushed around by events and then can only react, making them passive leaves on the dramatic winds of the story. Their actions are not motivated from within themselves, they are only acting to external stimuli, like Pavlov’s dogs (the classic story vs. situation conundrum—see my guest blog here titled “How to Make Every Story Idea the Best It Can Be”).

The second reason for understanding the moral component (and the purpose of this article) is that it helps the storyteller find a personal moral flaw for the protagonist, and not simply a generic flaw—thus deepening the connection with the reader/audience, and creating a more dramatic/comedic ending for any story. This is a huge problem that many writers grapple with, because they don’t fully appreciate the importance of breaking down the “moral issue” into its basic components.

Generic vs. Personal Moral Flaws

What do I mean by personal vs. generic moral flaw? Let’s walk through an example to illustrate, rather than lecture: The Verdict (Twentieth Century Fox, 1982).

Generic Moral Flaw:

Frank, an ambulance-chasing, alcoholic, loser attorney uses people for personal gain, and only sees people for what advantage they can get him. He uses people for financial leverage, and that is the only value he sees in people. Other human beings are targets, not people. Their worth is defined only by what Frank can get out of them for himself.

What is his flaw? Others who have tackled this problem have identified the following:

  • Frank is controlling and manipulative, so he has to see this is wrong.
  • Frank has to learn how to act justly in the world and not use people.
  • Frank is selfish and self-centered so he has to learn how to give selflessly.

These are all generic in nature, not personal. They are generic because none of them describe the why; they only describe the what of Frank’s behavior.

There is no clear light shown on his motivation for why he is controlling, or unjust, or selfish; just that he is one or more of those things.

This is what most writers do with their protagonists. They afflict them with a generic issue that appears to be personal, but really isn’t. In the above scenario we have no clue why Frank is acting the way he is acting; all we know is that he’s doing it and that it’s bad and he needs to stop and be nicer.

This generic approach is not bad or wrong, but it robs the writer, and the reader/audience, of the fullest expression of the story. It is the “cheap seats” solution to deepening character at the expense of real depth.

Consider the alternative approach…

Personal Moral Flaw:

Use the same setup and description as the generic moral flaw.

So, what is his flaw? The way you discover the personal flaw is by asking personal questions that go under the generic hood:

  • Frank is acting like a jerk in the world. What would someone have to believe about themselves to justify such bad behavior?
  • What is Frank afraid will happen if he does act justly, or is not controlling, or is not selfish?
  • What horrible price will he have to pay if he doesn’t act immorally?
  • What is Frank terrified of exposing about himself, and so covers it up with his jerky behavior?

These are the kinds of questions (there are others) that must follow, once you the writer decides on the general conduct that will define your protagonist in their story world.

You just can’t say “he’s using others” and leave it at that. You have to ask, “why is he using others?”

This is the only way to find out his real motivation for acting the way he does.

Additionally, without knowing this motivation, you cannot have a convincing change for the protagonist at the end of the story. That final change/lesson-learned will end up as generic and lackluster as the original flaw, i.e., “he has to learn to be nice to people.”

In this personal scenario, Frank is acting badly in the world by using other people; they are targets, not people.

  • Why does he do this? Because, people have no value or worth beyond what he can squeeze out of them.
  • What would someone have to believe about themselves to justify such a belief about other humans? They would have to believe that they have no value or worth as well, because they are human too, and all humans are worthless.

And so, this is Frank’s personal moral flaw, or blind spot. He doesn’t know he feels that way about himself, but that’s what’s motivating his behavior toward others.

The whole story of The Verdict is about him fighting for the worth and value of a person that society has deemed worthless—a woman in a coma in a hospital bed. Frank learns, not that he has to be a champion and act justly, what he really learns is that:

  • even a coma victim matters,
  • and if someone like that matters, then he matters and has value,
  • and he and she are both worth fighting for.

The Benefits of a Personal Moral Flaw:

  • Do you see how this is more personal and not high-level or generic?
  • Do you see how this has more heart and emotion, and how asking deeper character questions about real motivation gets you to the foundation of why a character really acts the way they do?
  • Do you see how this makes for a better protagonist and story?

Frank’s Moral Component vs. a Generic Moral Flaw:

So, to clarify:

  • Frank’s moral blind spot is that he has no value and thus doesn’t matter.
  • This leads him to devaluing everyone and preying on them out of resentment and bitterness (immoral effect).
  • He is given opportunity after opportunity to act morally, but he stays stuck in his own blind spot—until he sees the moral light and his reason for action changes, and he learns his lesson (dynamic moral tension).

Sadly, in the movie this happens before page 30 of the script, so the drama is robbed of a great middle, but even so, it is a textbook story with a model moral setup that powerfully transcends the generic-flaw problem.

Contrast all of this to the generic approach earlier. The generic approach is shallow, limiting, and so broad as to be dramatically bland.

4 Steps to Avoid Generic Moral Flaws

There are many strategies “out there” for writing a morally challenged protagonist, but I believe the vast majority of those strategies miss this critical piece we are discussing here, i.e., how to make the moral flaw personal and the foundation of motivation.

Almost everyone skims along the moral surface and avoids going deeper into the real character development that must be done. So, many writers start off in the right direction, but cut themselves off at the knees by not following through with the tough character questions that deepen their protagonist.

In order to transcend the generic moral-flaw problem, make sure to do the following:

  1. Make sure the moral issue of your protagonist is really a moral issue and not superficial. This means understanding the meaning of “moral” in a storytelling context.
  1. Ask the key personal questions that will uncover the real motivation for why your protagonist is acting the way he-she is acting. Always start with, “What would someone have to believe (incorrectly) about themselves to justify their bad behavior?”
  1. Break down that motivation/belief into the three building blocks of the moral component: moral blind spot, immoral effect, and dynamic moral tension.
  1. Make sure that whatever lesson is learned in the end, or whatever change your protagonist goes through, that it resolves the original blind spot, or that it makes it worse (assuming the character doesn’t change for the better, ala Michael Corleone in The Godfather).

If you implement these basic steps with each new story and protagonist, your chances of having a deeper, more satisfying drama or comedy will be greatly increased, and readers or movie audiences will be more deeply engaged and committed to the protagonist’s journey from start to finish. And, you will have avoided the biggest mistake most writers make when constructing a moral premise.

*****

Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons is a published author and screenwriter with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He teaches craft-of-story-development classes through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and guest lectures through UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter as leading entertainment and publishing industry conferences in the U.S. and the U.K.

He has written for leading industry trade magazines such as Script Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is published through Focal Press.

Visit him at:
www.jefflyonsbooks.comTwitter @storygeeks

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*****

Thank you, Jeff! I love the comparison you made to show the difference between a generic flaw and a personal, motivation-driving moral flaw. So insightful!

Personally, if I don’t have a good handle on these components for my protagonists, I often struggle with drafting their story. As a pantser, I can make up whatever plot aspects will reveal their behaviors on the fly, but it usually helps me to have vague ideas for:

  • a character’s backstory wound (the root cause of why),
  • their false belief about themselves deriving from that wound, and
  • how it’s affecting their behaviors (and holding them back)

Without that information, my subconscious has a hard time knowing what revelations to aim me toward during drafting. I don’t need a whole character journal or anything to answer that question, but at least a sentence helps give my subconscious ideas for their eventual arc. (I’m sure plotters need more detail. *grin*)

In many ways, this moral premise of our story is the point of the story. It’s the “so what?” factor that makes our story worth writing—and reading.

With Jeff’s insights of the three components and the steps to go through to ensure our story has a moral premise, hopefully we’ll all be more successful at making our stories matter. And with luck, they’ll matter to our readers as well. *smile*

Have you ever noticed when a character arc felt shallow? Do you think this generic vs. personal issue might have contributed to that feeling? Do you include character arcs in your stories? Will these insights help you create deeper and more meaningful character arcs? Do you have any questions for Jeff?

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15 Comments on "Creating a Strong Moral Premise for Our Story — Guest: Jeff Lyons"

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Sharla Rae

Wonderful blog. This made me stop and think about my current WIP. and how to deepen the conflict.

Jeff Lyons

You’re very welcome 🙂
J

Lisa Nicholas, Ph. D.

Thanks for this. This is a problem I’ve been wrestling with in a novel I’ve been working on for nearly five years — I’ve written several drafts, but I’ve been having trouble getting to the moral heart of the matter. I think this article will help me finally put my finger on what makes my protagonist tick.

Jeff Lyons

This is so painful to hear 🙂 But I know this is exactly what happens to so many writers. When you can figure this out your stories will have an engine that won’t quit. But it’s a story skill, not a writing skill, and sadly most writers are not good with story (storytelling and writing are two different things and have NOTHING to do with one another 🙂 ). This is my mission: to help people shore-up their storytelling skills so they don’t have to spend years lost in the story woods. So, very happy this helps. I feel your pain.
J

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Greetings Jeff,
Well, this surprisingly turned my thinking about “any good story has a moral heart”. I still think I am attracted more to situations rather than stories, but I can see where “moral component” is attractive. It never occurred to me that having a moral component would affect the passive-active loop I think you called it.
Does your book, “Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success” go into details on the moral story premise?
Stay Well,
Donovan

Jeff Lyons

Hi

Yes… my book does … an entire chapter. You can actually get that excerpt for free as an ebook off my site jefflyonsbooks.com. 🙂 When I teach my workshops we spend a full week just on this concept and your story idea (see above for details).

J

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks.
I’m not sure that every protag needs to be deeply morally flawed and requiring redemption during the tale. I’d find it too hard to identify with him/her and might stop reading. More likely they would bring about redemption in another character.

Jeff Lyons
Clare Interesting. I don’t know how deep the flaw has to be, and certainly they don’t have to be redeemed (ie. Michael Corleone), but if it’s a story and not a situation the protagonist has to have some personal flaw to heal, otherwise there is no change. To which you might reply, “Okay Jeff, but maybe they change someone else, they don’t have to change (ie. be redeemed).” We’ll whoever changes the most in your story is the protagonist, sooo … Remember the 3 ways you can quickly figure out who the protagonist is in any story: who is in the most emotional pain, who has the most to lose, and who changes the most at the end. That’s the protagonist. But, you may say back to me, “Well, Jeff, what about the steadfast character? Good at the opening and good at the end. They don’t change, but they have an exciting adventure or change others along the way.” I would suggest that’s fine, but that’s not your protagonist, and probably not a story … it’s a situation. Not bad or wrong, but not a story. See my earlier post here on Stories vs. Situations. And I’m not sure why you or any reader would be put off by someone who is flawed, deeply or otherwise. Why would you not relate to that? Why would that stop you from reading… I’m just curious. Bottom line is you can write your hero/heroine any darn way you want to. Flawed, not flawed,… Read more »
Sieran
Sieran

I like the personal vs generic distinction as well.

Lol, Jami, I think I must be a 100% pantser, because I just *can’t* start with even a short backstory wound. Absolutely everything, including character backstories, will only come out while I’m writing. (My inspiration/ muse only comes when I’m in the physical process of writing my story.) That’s why I think I don’t create stuff. I discover stuff. ^^

Btw I realized recently that if two characters’ relationship with each other changes, but the characters themselves don’t change, it still feels meaningful and deep to me, because I find interpersonal relationships intrinsically meaningful. Actually, even if the relationship doesn’t change, I may still find it deep and meaningful if I think the author showed us the depths and/or complexities of their relationship.

Some may argue that you can’t change your relationship with someone without changing yourself, but…From my real life experience, I have definitely had changed relationships with some people in my life without myself changing, haha.

(I wasn’t implying that you don’t find relationships intrinsically meaningful, though, Jami. Just saying that relationships are so inherently meaningful to me that I already feel satisfied as a reader if I think the two characters’ interpersonal relationship (their bond, emotions related to each other, their interactions, their history, etc.) is adequately shown and explored! ^^

Jeff Lyons

Sieran

Well, I’m one of those people who would argue exactly that 🙂

Can you give me an example of a relationship that changes and neither of the people change? You say you’ve had this experience in life… can you describe this? I’m very curious what your thought process is about this.

J

Sieran
Sieran
Thanks for replying! I thought you might not reply since I commented so late (been swamped with papers D:)! Hmm, this might sound really bad, but the one I can think of off the top of my head, is one where a friendship just ended (we drifted apart) because we both lost interest in each other…To my knowledge, I don’t think I changed at all. I didn’t feel particularly sad, because I believe that it’s natural that people drift apart when they mutually lose interest, and that this has happened many times before in my life. So yeah, my personality, beliefs, and life didn’t seem to change even after we stopped being friends. ^^ (I hope I didn’t sound mean, but I really do think this is a natural life occurrence, so…) As a reader, even though Sieran and zis former friend have stopped being friends without Sieran changing zis personality or worldviews at all (ze, zim, zis, zizelf are my pronouns as a nonbinary trans person), I would still be interested in reading this story, because I find friendships super fascinating to read about. I would like to observe their interactions, their history, maybe their conflicts, happy times, sad times, frustrating times, etc., what made their friendship end, how on earth had they become friends in the first place, other complications and nuances of this relationship, and so on. Gosh, yeah, I find this kind of stuff really interesting to read about. ^^ Relationships feel inherently profound to me–but… Read more »
Jeff Lyons
Hey Ok… I understand. 🙂 I would suggest that from a story structure perspective (and in life I think) changes in relationships must always reflect the changes that take place in the people in relation to one another. A relationship is a synergistic thing, meaning there is one person, then another person, and then something else emerges from their interaction: a relationship. The relationship is more than the sum of the two parts. Human behavior is what gives rise to all relationships. The changes in life might be subtle, but I’ll guarantee there was a change in somebody’s behavior for you to lose interest in that relationship. In a story that change needs to be more pronounced so you can have some dramatic gradient to show the change on the page. So, in stories the changes in any relationship would need to be more observable so you as the writer can write about it. I know your experience appears to be the opposite of this, and you feel there can be change without individuals changing, but logically (in terms of human behavior) I don’t see how this can work. Even if the change is just “losing interest”… that’s a change in behavior. Someone has decided, “you know, they don’t seem so interesting anymore…so I’m moving on.” That choice is a change! You just have to look under the hood deeper into the “why” of the choice. They were getting something out of this relationship before that they are no longer… Read more »
Sieran
Sieran

It is indeed a fascinating discussion. 🙂

Hmm, but if it’s impossible for a relationship to change without changing the people, then is it possible for heroes in a story to get into a romantic relationship with each other without changing as people themselves? An implied question would be: Is it possible to write a romance (the from not-lovers to lovers story) without having the lover characters change? Or is the appearance of “characters getting into a relationship who don’t change at all” just an illusion? Maybe they did change, but the readers just didn’t see it or the writer just didn’t make the changes visible/ observable to the reader?

Thank you for having this discussion with me, Jeff. All this is very intriguing to think about. 🙂

Jeff Lyons
Hey There are lots of “stories” where people don’t change. But, they aren’t stories 🙂 See my other post here on stories vs. situations. Situations are narratives where people are grappling with puzzles, problems, mysteries, etc and the whole point of the “story” is to just solve the problem, and they dont’ change in any way (think Jessica Fletcher and Murder She Wrote). I suppose two people could fall in love and just be in love and not really do anything other than be in love… but what’s the point? As a reader I’m going to wonder “where is this going?” Where’s the conflict? if you are of the school that says “who needs conflict, can’t characters just ‘be'”? Then I would say again… what’s the point? 🙂 Stories (vs. situations) are about us. Stories are how we teach one another about what it means to be human. Stories are about a human being on a journey of emotional change. This change is the lesson, the point… the reason for telling the story. Yes, it still has to be entertaining, and engaging and all that… but what is the point of people being in relationship if there is no change in the people? What are you saying about the human condition? What is the story? Nothing wrong with two people falling in love and just being in love… but in the real world I don’t know of any relationships that don’t change over time, because the people change within the… Read more »
Sieran
Sieran

Yeah, I think it’s a matter of just not showing the transformations that the characters have gone through. Since we’ve established that you can’t change a relationship with someone without changing ourselves, then characters cannot fall in love with someone without going through some change themselves! I know that when a writer doesn’t clearly show something, readers may assume that it doesn’t exist. So it looks like it’s all about being clear to the readers. 🙂

But wait—I’m getting the feeling that we’re not quite talking about the same thing here, haha. To me, changing a relationship with someone from “friend to lover,” or from “acquaintance to friend”, for instance, counts as a “relationship change” too. I guess at the very least, you might get influenced by your new lover (or friend)’s worldviews and attitudes, or expand your knowledge of the world because you got exposed to someone more deeply. Or another way of describing it, would be enlarging your world when you get to gaze more deeply into someone’s soul.

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