Monday, November 17, 2014


I have my expectations of ANNIE. I hope they're not ironic.
Stories are all about Ironic Expectations and Reality. 

This essay is NOT about the upcoming movie ANNIE, but I'm including this image taken of me recently standing next to a lobby display to make a point. The stories of our natural lives can be filled with expectations which may not be the reality...and that can be entertaining or not, depending on how the surprises conform to natural law.

I get to work on some interesting films. Sometimes it's only to read a single, early draft of a movie and comment on it as I did with ANNIE. I saw an early script, sent in my comments, and as is typical I've heard nothing since.... except what we all read in the trades and see in trailers. I'm cautiously excited about the release of ANNIE next month and you can be sure Pam and I will be buying tickets to see it opening weekend. I have expectations.

The traditional story of Annie is filled with expectations that are turned on their nose, but yet, in the hands of crafted storytellers, the seemingly impossible juxtapositions come off as natural, and we the audience buy into the character's lives and situations. To the extent that stories expertly juxtapose impossible situations with natural law reality- - dramatic irony is created that magically engages the audience, even when the audience knows the story beforehand.

So, with that set-up, let me tell you about...

Yesterday, Sunday, November 17, 2014.

It was generally normal...except that I was more observant than normal.

So, I woke up this morning, the Monday after, thinking about the juxtapositions of several things that, seemed normal, and they were, very normal, except they were great examples of dramatic irony that pervades our lives and how observation can lead to an emphasis of time and place in storytelling that will always create interest and engage audiences.

For this exercise, let's use these definitions:

The reality IS NOT the expectation...when you don't think about it. (Gut sense.)

The reality IS the expectation...when you think about it. (Logical sense.)

The cool thing about great stories is that both IRONY and NATURAL LAW must work together. It's not an EITHER/OR situation, because good storytelling makes AND/BOTH true.

Here are examples from my day, just yesterday. How many can you find in your day's activities?

Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 1 - Regular vs Mob Mass
I attended a MASS MOB here in Detroit. This is where on a particular Sunday people from all over the metroplex descent on an old but beautiful parish buildings for mass... which originally were occupied by capacity crowds, but since populations have moved to the suburbs, the inner-city church are only sparsely attended.
Typical Sunday Attendance - Expected
Mob Mass Sunday Attendance - 2X S.R.O. Reality 

Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 2 - Exterior vs. Interior
The Mob Mass was held yesterday at Our Lady Queen of Apostles parish in Hamtramck, MI...a multi-ethnic city totally surrounded by Detroit. It's estimated that 19 different languages are spoken within it's 2.1 square miles of land. Historically it was settled by Poles, and this parish still is Polish. As is true of many Catholic Churches the outside is fairly boring and plain. the inside however is transformative. This is the irony and metaphor, too, of Christ and Christianity. On the outside things may look like everything else, but inside, there is something glorious, incarnational, and divine that is not what was expected. Even in movies that are not overtly religious, this illustrates the character transformation that audiences look for in good stories, and that character transformation is often told with sets that transformative like these two pictures. That domed image is a celebrated mosaic, and astounding to see up close.
OLQ of Apostles - INTERIOR
OLQ of Apostles - EXTERIOR

Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 3 - Mountain Top vs. Village at the Bottom
Also yesterday I took in the St. Cecilia Sing at the Detroit Cathedral. Sponsored by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, the afternoon event featured some of the best choral and instrumental groups from around the Detroit Archdiocese. My wife plays flute and sings in one, directed by Glenn Porzadek. The groups were diverse but extremely talented, and the afternoon was punctuated by the organ mastery of the virtuosity of Cathedral organist Joe Balistreri on a 32-rank Austin organ. The glory, warmth, and beauty of the inside concert was in contrast to what was outside when we left. Cold, snow flurries, and a lady who's jeep was blocking traffic because she ran out of gas. I got her some gas and helped her on her way. But, later we saw a car nearly lost in a ditch and repair truck preparing to get it out.  There was the mountain top experience and the natural law reality of the village outside.
The Mountain Top Experience
The Village at the Bottom of the Mountain

Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 4 - Transfigurations and Demons Transformed
My reference above to the Mountain Top Experience is to a couple stories that are juxtaposed for Ironic and Natural lLaw effect in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 17. First we read about the Transfiguration of Christ on a high mountain. There, the Apostles, Peter, James and John see Jesus in a aura of light talking with Moses and Elijah. So starling is the experience that Peter, James and John want to build a swank spiritual retreat enter on the mountain top to they and others can experience this spiritual high, and no doubt charge admission. (Much like the St. Cecilia Sing, except admission to the concert was free.) But instead, Christ leads them off the mountain top to the reality of the village below where they are confronted by a man with his demon possessed son, begging Jesus for help because Jesus' disciples could not cast out the demon. Jesus says, "O unbelieving and perverse long do I have to put up with you?" Then Jesus calls the boy over and heals him. The Irony is that without thinking much about the situation the Apostles want to stay up on the Mountain Top, but the Natural Law reality (if they would think about it) is that there's much to do in the village below. There are demons to get rid of and cars to pull out of ditches.
Heavenly Irony - Spiritual Retreats
Village Reality - Demons

Irony/Natural Law Juxtaposition No. 5 - Muzak vs. Life Talent
At the end of the day Pam and I went to The Masters Restaurant in Madison Hts, MI with her choir for dinner. Throughout our dinner in a private dinning room this gentle jazzy trumpet music was coming over what we thought was their muzak system, although it sounded a bit too good for traditional elevator music coming out of cheap ceiling speakers—the expectation. As we were leaving, Glenn walks us to the door and then pulls me into the bar to show me where the music is really coming from. Meet PLEZE RAYBON, playing his muted trumpet and singing with his iPad playback. Pleze is what we call in the industry "talent"...hidden in Madison Hts.  I was mesmerized, came home, purchased and downloaded his two CDs from CDBABY.COM. Listening to them now.
What we expected.... but the irony awaited us.
The reality, the talented Pleze Raybon.

These are the kind of wonderful surprises that stories can provide our audiences and readers if we will only observe the space and time around us, and learn how to use IRONY and NATURAL LAW. Let's review these two organic definitions again...

IRONY - The reality IS NOT the expectation...when you don't think about it. (Gut sense.)
The seemingly impossible plot point.

NATURAL LAW - The reality IS the expectation...when you think about it. (Logical sense.)
The skill of the writer makes the impossible seem not just reasonable, but normal.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Moral Premise MEET-UP

At the request of a number of workshop attendees and book fans, to have some sort of additional access to a Moral Premise event, I am launched a monthly MEET-UP event here in Northville, MI. 

Information about the 2-hour informal gathering at a Northville's STARBUCK'S LOFT (302 E Main St, Northville) PDF MAP, to discuss screenwriting tips, techniques and to get peer-to-peer feedback, can be found here; Novi-Screenwriting-Moral Premise Meetup

Next Meeting Wednesday, December 17, 2014 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM.

I encourage others around the country to begin something like this, and using my materials. I will give support as possible, but of course attending may be difficult

Stan Williams

Cell: 310-962-8696

Saturday, November 8, 2014

ST. VINCENT - My Picture of the Year

This picture is too good to be true. I may never analyze it just out of respect to the talent displayed. It is a classic example of structure while turning the tables on the traditional concept of Protagonist and Antagonist. I nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Writer & Director.

Friday, November 7, 2014


MICHAEL JANN - Emmy Nominated TONIGHT SHOW writer
Making the invisible visible.

That's the job of the filmmaker, and even the novelist, although, I think, the novelist has the more difficult time of it.

Show, don't tell.

That's the mantra of all storytelling, although, again I think, the novelist has it more difficult.

Make it visceral, not abstract.

That's the job of all communication. Although our essences are spiritual, we identify ourselves primarily in physical terms.

Psychological Values leads to Physical Actions.

That's the concept that The Moral Premise concept builds upon. But, what matters to film audiences and novel readers is what transpires in the physical realm. Our psychological world may house and care for our moral motivations, but something does not become part of our neighbor's universe (and the larger realm of humankind) until we push it into physical space.

These are the storytelling dilemmas all of us storytellers are faced with. And, perhaps I've made this a bit more difficult to resolve by sticking to my strictly speaking "inner to outer" litany. I mean by that, this: Most of the time when I speak or write bout The Moral Premise it is in this form:

Inner Value leads to Outer Action.

But to the screenwriter and the even the novelist, that inner value has no practical identity until it is made visible through some action. I know this, but I don't always practice it. In helping writers with log lines and moral premise statements I may get there, but my mind isn't purposely doing so, i.e. making physically explicit the inner motivations. 

This was brought to my attention recently in dialogue with MICHAEL JANN, Emmy nominated writer who wrote for THE TONIGHT SHOW with both Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon. He's been working on a few screenplays in his post TONIGHT SHOW reality when he wrote me this about current screenplay (this used with his permission):
I’m so happy right now!  After reading your chapter 10 again (more carefully, this time), I got less rigid with my prose, and more “writer-y”, and fine-tuned my Moral Premise to: 
“Hiding behind masks and shields leads to isolation, loneliness and misery. But, giving yourself to others in an authentic way leads to community, intimacy and love”. 
It was so cool to express my virtue and vice in external terms (moral, i.e., affecting others). rather than internal terms (abstract, i.e., affecting only the hero).
Now the woman he falls in love with must confront this same moral premise.  She might boast that she doesn’t hide behind a “mask", but she bludgeons people with her “honesty”, which is still hiding  (albeit in a different way -- behind a shield, rather than a mask.)  Now they both have to confront the moral premise:  "Hiding is bad, authenticity is good."
To some, this may be subtle. But the distinction is worth emphasizing because it empowers the writer (and the director and actors) to communicate effectively with audiences. I wrote Michael back:

You make a good point that I’m not sure I’ve ever emphasized, although I’ve come up with MPS like this. But I need to make this more explicit. The human process is still internal value drives external behavior, but for screenwriters I won't argue with your insight.  While the novelist would speak in more internal terms, the screenwriter can’t … except perhaps on a 3x5 card taped to the frame of his computer. “Hiding behind” is more physical than “lack of self confidence” or “selfishness.” And, “giving yourself” is more physical than “self confidence” or “generosity”.  “Hiding…” and “Giving…” are “action” terms, which is a key concept for actors.
At this point I referenced ACTIONS: The Actors' Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone & Maggie Lloyd-Williams, (also available as a SmartPhone APP, it appears.) In my own directing efforts I've found this book invaluable when working with actors at table reads, centering their performance on actionable interpretation of lines and scenes. ACTIONS also contains an excellent introduction explaining Stanislavski's acting method and the necessity of "finding an action for a particular moment or line of text." I think I should write about this book and how it can help screenwriters connect better with actors and audiences.

In a followup email to the above, Michael pointed out the practical benefit of thinking more visible, physical, and actionable:

That finesse point was the biggest thing I learned from both you and then from John Truby.  He talks about how the hero's flaw must be a moral, i.e. negatively affecting other people. The example he gives is if a guy is alone in his bedroom doing heroin, we don't really care and it's not much of a story. But if his kid is waiting at the school bus stop while he's in his room doing heroin -- now you've got a story. I recall him initially apologizing for the word "moral", in anticipation of the "I don't want to moralize" backlash. But that's why I thought I would share this development today with you, as you have always been a fearless proponent of that idea. Seeing it come to life for me made me today made me really happy and I immediately thought of you -- the Moral Premise-Meister! 
Thanks, Michael, for the kind words, but even more so for the great insights.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Valuable Thesaurus Tools for Use with The Moral Premise

Here are three books (hardcopy or Kindle) that perfectly dovetail with The Moral Premise. I have just listed them on my Recommended Book List under the WRITING section with links to all three to Amazon, and my Amazon reviews (which are also below).

THE POSITIVE TRAIT THESAURUS: A Writer's Guide to Character Attributes
THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS: A Writer's Guide to Character Flaws
both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

The dynamics of the Moral Premise mechanism require polar opposite values. Positive and Negative Traits are close cousins to values. In fact, Angela and Becca explain that the traits they index and detail in their thesaurus can be used four ways: (a) interactive, or action, (b) identity, essence, (c) achievement-based, or goal, and (d) moral attribute, or motivation. It is this last use that perfectly dovetails with The Moral Premise statement. Use their Positive Trait Thesaurus with their Negative Trait Thesaurus to write your Moral Premise statement. The Kindle version's index e-links to exhaustive describe page for each trait. These are great resources for writing, too, after the MP is figured out, because of the myriad examples the authors provide for the trait's cause, how they suggest character behavior, character thoughts, and at the end of each descriptive page a list of opposing traits that cause conflict...potential polar opposite values. These two books are the perfect working companion to The Moral Premise astute writer.

THE EMOTION THESAURUS: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression 
by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

This guidebook may appear to be designed principally for novelists, but it is a great resource for screenwriter's as well. All stories are about emotions, which can be described as the moral motivation behind action. Without emotion no action takes place. Think of that. Even a cold-blooded killer is driven by emotion. Emotions are the direct consequence of a character's positive and negative traits and motivational values. As the authors state: "Without emotion, a character's personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist, the plot...dry..." and the journey for the reader or viewer meaningless." I've written about how log lines and many stories fail because there are no stakes involved. Values and emotions are prerequisites for successful storytelling. Angela and Becca also have designed this book for the critical purpose of SHOWING, not TELLING emotions. Novelists and Screenwriters alike have this goal. It's the SHOWING that connects the audience or reader, and sutures them into the story by identifying with the characters. It's the key ingredient of well-told stories, and the ingredient missing in the didactic flops that preach. This is the "hot blood" the "right-brain" the "grease" that makes the Positive and Negative Trait books productive.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Helping New Writers

The Moral Premise can help new script-writers or novelists understand what their story is about in a way that will focus their effort and make their writing more efficient. I share this new comment with my blog readers, not to add one more kudos to the list, but to encourage new writers that there is a way to understand the mystery of stories and how good ones work.

This, then, from Lisa McCorkle, Brooklyn NY:
Dear Stan, 
I am a novice at book writing.  Before reading The Moral Premise I knew what message I wanted the audience to receive. However, I didn't know how to articulate it. Fortunately, I was still able to write 197 pages .  After reading your book I was able to articulate the premise of my story and from that I'm now sketching a synopsis. Your book has introduced me to the language of novelists. And even though I'm still in the process of learning I'm way much better off after reading your book.  It's given me so much direction and when it's time for me to edit, which is now, I will have a clear path. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. 
The story is about characters living without a purpose, a lack of understanding and communication and the negative impact it has on their finances and family. After much intervention, self reflection, receiving and embracing vital information and finding their purpose... they start making changes that reverse their negative behavior. It takes a horrific incident to bring all the characters together. Friendships are formed and with support they each work on their purpose and goals together. I'm still working on how to summarize the story in a clear and concise manner.  But, I'm getting there. 
An early log line is: Families adrift in their urban community find purpose through self reflection, efforts and a shocking horrific incident that leaves a college bound student fighting for his life. 
I'm so excited to be doing something I enjoy and... finding treasures along the way. Your book was one of them. What a great find.
Lisa's moral premise could be stated like this:

Living aimlessly, without noble purpose, 
leads to dysfunction and sadness; but
Discovering and following one's call in life 
leads to relationships and happiness.

Good luck and God speed in our writing Journey, Lisa. It can be a long road, But,, perseverance leads to satisfaction. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Beauty So Rare

Just finished best selling author Tamera Alexander's latest release, A BEAUTY SO RARE, her second Belmont Estate novel (476 pages). What a wonderful read—historically accurate, romantically inclined, international intrigue, scientific discoveries ... and the struggle of post-bellum Nashville.

The book lives up to its name.

I had the opportunity to work with Tamera a number of times early in the story's development -- character arcs, metaphors, and plot. So, I knew the story pretty well, at least in broad strokes. But reading her masterful writing is a joy unto itself. And knowing what's going to happen is like reading the story a second time because I could concentrate more on how she pulls off the suspense, the secrets, the beats, the bumps, and the resolution.

One of the great things about historical fiction are the real-to-life characters authors like Tamera weave into the fictional tapestry. In A BEAUTY SO RARE she involves the following real life people, and maintains their identities: Adelicia Cheatham and her Belmont Estate  (perhaps the richest woman in America at the time), The European House of Habsburg, Luther Burbank (botanist who invented the Russet potato), Gregor Mendel (father of genetics), Dorothea Dix (American activist for the indigent insane), the work of Joseph Mozier, and others. There are some great YouTube videos about the mansion and Tamera's inspiration for the story via her website link above.

A funny "secret" about the books creation and publication is how Tamera wanted to write about a woman who was smart, generous, took initiative, had nerves of steel, but wasn't so pretty...she was plain to put it mildly. Her beauty was hidden beneath the surface. The story is how that blossoms into real beauty of character such that a handsome Archduke of European royalty who has moved to Nashville to escape the arrangement of his life, falls in love with her.  Tamera uses multiple and rich metaphors including the Selenicereus grandiflorus (The Queen of the Night that blossoms only once a year at midnight - see video below).

So when the publisher showed Tamera the cover (above), Tamera had a fit. She didn't picture the protagonist, Eleanor Braddock as anything like the beautiful model and never wearing anything so pretty as a huge, beautiful PINK dress. But the publisher was insistent on using the cover, which is a doctored photo of a shoot of a real model and a real greenhouse. What to do? So I suggested Tamera put Eleanor in a situation where she was given a dress that she had to wear and it was big and pink ...and she hated it, just like the author. And that's just what Tamera did with excellence, both at the beginning and (LOL!) at the end of the story. It was a wonderful surprise for me and perfectly demonstrated Eleanor's arc. In fact, on the back of the book...sort of a way around the beautiful cover, Tamera wrote this, and the publisher's used it:

"PINK is not what Eleanor Braddock ordered, but maybe it would soften the tempered steel of a woman who came through a war—and still had one to fight. Plain, practical Eleanor Braddock knows she will never marry, but..."

Great job, Tamera. I loved it all.


Monday, September 22, 2014

The Scientific Method Story Structure

Successful Story Structure has a few rules. One is that the major beats and turning points  align themselves with some Natural Law order of the human condition or experience.

In other posts and in The Moral Premise book I discuss a number of these structures, including:

  • Traditional 3 Acts (Field)
  • Traditional 13-18 Beats (Hauge, Snyder, Williams)
  • 12 Steps of the Hero's Journey (Campbell, Vogler)
  • The 12 Steps of A.A.
  • The 5 or 7 Stages of Grief
  • Four Acts - Four Archetypes (Schechter)
  • Alison Fisher's 5-Act Purchase Funnel
And there's another, which I've known about for years but only one time discussed in the footnote to a blog on Stories and Premises in Medieval Art. And, that is The Scientific Method. 

Although you can find the Scientific Method explained in various number of steps (from 4 to 7, and I use 4 in the link above) I like the version illustrated on the right. 

Think of the process steps as Six Acts and the "moments" or "beats" between the acts as turning points. The acts may be sequences of different lengths, and the beats between the acts (the white triangle arrows) are turing points. This would produce an 11 beat structure, here alongside the traditional 3/4 Act structure with the vertical spacing indicating duration. The Moment of Grace is the scene/beat/triangle connecting 2A and 2B (Sequences 3 and 4).

Notice that this VERY similar to the Traditional 13 beats, where the only beats not represented are the Final Climax and the Denouement.

I cannot provide an example of a film that reflects this structure, but since it reflects how humanity discovers and validates natural laws, I suspect it would work for a particular type of story and thus connect at a subliminal level. If any of you have examples you'd like to suggest, please use the com box.

Thanks and good writing.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Didactic Message Films Always Fail

I have spent a good deal of time trying to persuade storytellers that message films, with a didactic base will always failed at the box office. The subject matter doesn't matter. Failure is inevitable unless you've managed to target your project (and budget it) to the niche audience that agrees with the film

There are examples every year.

Today I read this story about the Broadway Musical "The Great Immensity," which was clearly a government indoctrination effort produced by climate change supporters.

What must be considered if you're going to connect with a wide audience is to use a conflict of values that is UNIVERSALLY accepted by the wide audience. This is so simple to understand. Follow natural law, not man-made ideology. The audience isn't dumb. And in the case of "global warming" relabeled "climate change" (when it was discovered that the globe is not warming...)  somewhere around 30% of the public believe it's at some level true, and far less than that think it's a priority. That's not a universal value.  [I next expect a musical promoting Kale Cakes in school cafeteria's programs instead of Brownies, to fight obesity.]

The law within the moral premise framework is to match motivational values with NATURAL LAW consequences of actioning out those values. You cannot manipulate Natural Law and win. I don't care if you're a fundamentalist Christian who wants to wave the Bible in your audience's face, or a liberal environmentalist. There may be truth in both messages, but unless the audience agrees with you,  you're going to lose big, folks.

Anyhow, to prove my point, once again, here are some selected quotes form the reviews:

The curtain has come down on Climate Change 
The Musical and reviews of the taxpayer-funded play about global warming are downright icy.
By Perry Chiaramonte - 9/20/14 - Fox News 
The play, which is actually entitled "The Great Immensity," and was produced by Brooklyn-based theater company The Civilians, Inc. with a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, ended its run early amid a storm of criticism from reviewers and lawmakers alike. It opened a year late, reached just five percent of its anticipated audience and likely fell short of its ambitious goal of informing a new generation about the perceived dangers of man-caused climate change. 
Plus, it apparently wasn't very good. 
“Despite fine performances, the musical mystery tour is an uneasy mix of fact and credulity-stretching fiction. It’s neither flora nor fauna,” New York Daily News reviewer Joe Dziemianowicz wrote in a review at the time. “[The] songs — whether about a doomed passenger pigeon or storm-wrecked towns — feel shoehorned in and not, pardon the pun, organic.” 
The play, which featured songs and video exploring Americans’ relationships to the environment, opened in New York in April with a three-week run before going on a national tour that was supposed to attract 75,000 patrons. But it stalled after a single production in Kansas City, falling short of the lofty goals outlined in a grant proposal. 
It was envisioned as a chance to create "an experience that would be part investigative journalism and part inventive theater,” help the public "better appreciate how science studies the Earth’s biosphere” and increase “public awareness, knowledge and engagement with science-related societal issues.” 
According to a plot description on the theater company’s website, "The Great Immensity" focuses on a woman named Phyllis as she tries to track down a friend who disappeared while filming an assignment for a nature show on a tropical island. During her search, she also uncovers a devious plot surrounding an international climate summit in Auckland, New Zealand. 
The description touts the play as “a thrilling and timely production” with “a highly theatrical look into one of the most vital questions of our time: How can we change ourselves and our society in time to solve the enormous environmental challenges that confront us?” 
"Even the best adventurers can wander off course, and the Civilians do so on a global scale in The Great Immensity,” read a review from Time Out New York. “The inventive troupe’s latest effort is all over the map… It’s not easy preaching green.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Screenwriting: “124 Pages Of Begging For Money & Attention”

James Schamus
“While we ask for respect as artists,” Schamus (IMBD) said, “we really don’t know what we mean by art.” 

Screenwriters who have finished a screenplay have not written a work of art, but rather have finished...
 “124 pages of begging for money and attention.”

Interesting article on Dateline. 


Monday, September 8, 2014

Beauty Will Save the World

One of the discoveries that came to light during my research for The Moral Premise, and which to this day continues to be true, is that a true and consistently applied moral premise is at the heart of all successful stories. (Where "truth" is coincidence with Natural Law, and "success" relates to audience acceptance on a broad scale, e.g. box office). 

If a movie has a slew of A-list actors attached, with a big budget and strong marketing but the moral premise is false, the movie will bomb, or come in less than expected. At the same time, having a true and consistently applied moral premise does not guarantee success, because there is the Natural Law of craft and marketing. But success cannot come without that central idea that binds the talent to the heart and makes it all work as one.

A properly applied moral premise elevates the otherwise diverse collection of talent and money to secure a story as a work of art that reminds us and encourages us to embrace all that is good, true, and beautiful in life. 

 I thought of all that again when today as I read an essay by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn titled "Beauty Will Save the World" which is his reflection of Dostoyevsky's enigmatic phrase. The entire essay is here but here is the part that reflects what I've been trying to say about the moral premise's importance.
Dostoyevsky once let drop the enigmatic phrase: “Beauty will save the world.” What does this mean? For a long time it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment certainly, given uplift—but whom had it ever saved? 
However, there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart. One can construct a political speech, an assertive journalistic polemic, a program for organizing society, a philosophical system, so that in appearance it is smooth, well structured, and yet it is built upon a mistake, a lie; and the hidden element, the distortion, will not immediately become visible. And a speech, or a journalistic essay, or a program in rebuttal, or a different philosophical structure can be counterposed to the first—and it will seem just as well constructed and as smooth, and everything will seem to fit. And therefore one has faith in them—yet one has no faith. 
It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm.
Exploring this a bit further I came upon this explanation of Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot at A Heedful Idiot blog by French priest Fidor, who quotes Pope Benedict XVI Address to Artists, about the importance of beauty, which I think describes profoundly why stories, as art, told truthfully, will save the world:
If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day.”
That's what successful movies are to me, they give their audiences the joy of seeing what is good, true and beautiful about humanity and creation once again. We leave the theater of a great film story with a firmer grasp on the profound meaning of our existence and mystery of which we are apart. And that understanding draws us closer to fullness, happiness and the passion to engage life joyously everyday.

Meanwhile allow me to recommend my friend Gregory Wolfe's book Beauty Will Save the World on the intersection of this concept and the demise of the modern culture.

Monday, August 25, 2014

D. M. Cumbo's Dreamside Book Series Uses The Moral Premise

David Cumbo is a veteran concept artist who has been at Ratchet & Clank and Resistance developers Insomniac Games for the past 7 years. He is one of those extreme talents and is not applying his trade to story books, and motion pictures. 

Some time ago he enlisted my help with a story concept for a series of animated e-books he's calling DREAMSIDE, the first of which is coming due soon.  It's the uplifting story of a child's search for meaning amidst a deadly disease. 

The story and his art are truly amazing so I'm glad he's given me permission to share his project with you. 

Media coverage so far:

David's site is where you can watch him (in time lapse) draw Dreamchild. Here's the trailer for the series:

Congratulations, David, it looks truly beautiful. 


Monday, July 28, 2014

A Great Summary of The Moral Premise

Karen Schravemade
@TaraGoedjen included @MoalPemise in a tweet with a link. I followed the link and came across two comprehensive blog posts by Aussie Author-Blogger-Mother Karen Schravemade about The Moral Premise book.

Karen has done an excellent job of summarizing Part 1 and Part 2 of the book.  I suggest that she may understand the book better than the author, ber posts reminded me of a few things that I didn't even think were in the book, but had always wished were. Duh! Maybe I ought to reread what I wrote. Thanks, Karen for doing that for me. Here are links to her helpful summaries.

The Moral Premise - Part 1

Applying the Moral Premise to your Story (Part 2)

She also did a great job of analyzing FINDING NEMO and articulating a moral premise statement which I will post on the Moral Premise Statements Page of my main site. I may have to use her explanation of the Moment of Grace in NEMO in my workshop. Gotta watch the  movie again, just for the "You just have to let go!" line.

Karen is one of the contributors to the writer's blog, The Writers Alley: Inspirational Tips Write Up Your Alley.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wobbly Moral Premise Statements

I received this comment and question from a reader in Hong Kong. He apologized for his English, but it was actually pretty good. Nonetheless I've edited it in the post below for clarity. In honor of this question, I must post a picture of the Chinese edition of The Moral Premise. (I had nothing to do with the cover design...neither did my publisher, or so I'm told.)

      Dear Dr. Williams, 
I am a screenplay writer from Hong Kong. Yes! You have a loyal fan all the way from China. : )  
I really love your book and your blog. You have such a kind heart to share your ideas.
Here's my question: I always find the moral of my story wobbling. Maybe I want to say too much within one story. Or, maybe, I don't know how to shorten the moral to a one-line moral premise statement.  
Regarding a recent project here's my dilemma. 
Is self-preservation, survival or stability of life enough of a motivation to carry an entire story?  Is survival and stability more important than the basic human need to love, to be loved, and to make real friends? Should one take risks for love and justice? 
Self-protection leads to safe, stable life and money, but also loneliness and isolation. By protecting oneself, one must lie, and to reject chances to help others.
Meantime the hero might be haunted by his own action, because he does not confront the righteousness in the bottom of his heart. 
In the beginning of my story, the hero always ignores justice by remaining neutral; at least that's how he comforts himself. He is says to himself, "I am only being neutral, I don't take sides." Later on, he finds the youngster he 'trained' has become evil. The youngster has become so self-protective that he wants to destroy justice. That's one of the moments that awakens him that he's going at it all wrong.  
I find myself stuck in condensing al this in a one-sentence moral premise statement. It seems that the story is about self-protection, but it's also about "what one does returns to him."  Does "self-protection" articulate what I want to say? Is it that I am looking at my story from too many perspectives or trying to include too many moral concepts, thus diluting a central theme? 
Is it okay to dig deeper into such philosophical questions? Or, will that only make my story more wobbly (or ambiguous)?  

Dear G:

It may seem that you are taking on too many moral concepts and thus you're not sure what the story is about at its moral core...thus it seems wobbly and not about one thing.

It is true that a single moral premise can affect other thematic issues other than the one explicitly stated in the main moral premise statement.  But you need to be able to understand how all the "sub" themes reinforce the "main" theme.

A good example of this is explained in my blog analysis of the moral premise themes in the movie KITE RUNNER.

In KIT RUNNER the central virtuous theme is COURAGE. But the movie embraces other themes that are logically related to courage by helping us understanding that the total lack of courage can lead to paranoia, and that an excess of courage can lead to arrogance. Further that the courage is needed to be able to forgive and seek justice. The blog diagram of the inner journeys shows the relationship of nine themes: paranoia, courage, arrogance, bitterness, forgiveness, tolerance of evil, lazier-faire, justice, and totalitarianism. That sounds like a mouthful, but each of those concepts are logically courage.

The same may be true for your story.

If the central virtue is "self-preservation" then the absence of that virtue could lead to "self-destruction" or "suicide." Similarly the excess of that virtue would be "arrogance," "tyranny," or as you say, "the destruction of justice."

In a similar way an excess concept of justice (tyranny) can lead to isolation as people stay away from individual that like bullies.

And as you suggest when your protagonist acts a certain way, that may cause others to treat him the same way. So if he bullies others they may bully him back. Of if he bullies a bigger bully, he's sure to be in for a surprise.

So, your moral premise statement may not be wobbly at all, but just needs to be focused.

Just be sure that the various theme (or values you're writing about) ARE logically realated to the core moral premise and it's SINGLE conflict of values.

It could be: "Self-destruction" or "Arrogance" leads to isolation and death; but a "healthy self-preservation" and "generosity to others-for-the-sake-of-your-own-safety" can lead to friendship and life."

Again, see what I do with these movies and their moral premise arcs:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Are Super & Myth Movies Only about FIGHT v. FLIGHT?

A Screenwriter Asked:
Hey, Stan, 
I find myself thinKing about your stuff; the thing I like best about “Moral Premise” is it’s the book to turn to when you’re suddenly asking, “Why am I writing this again?”   
It seems to me that all the “myth” movies, from Superman to Spiderman to Batman to Iron Man to Gladiator to Matrix all are about the responsibility of saving everyone when you have the power.   
I just read an outline for Gladiator, and I could see that Maximus (Russel Crowe) wants “nothing to do with politics” but gets pulled into a battle with evil.  It’s like the Edmund Burke quote: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  Is this the point of all these movies?   
Is my moral premise: 
 “Running away from evil leads to disaster and isolation; but  
Facing and fighting evil leads to victory and freedom and togetherness”? 
I guess my question is, do I have no wiggle room here?  Should I embrace that moral premise, and stop wondering why I’m writing this??? 
Thanks,  Mike

Dear Mike:

I think most of the “super” stories can be defined by a moral premise that you articulated. But in such clear cut hero/villain stories I think there are dual moral premises that are related to a foundational one, like what you suggest. We might call these “secondary” moral premise statements, which are organically related to the foundational one. But it’s the secondary premise that is more likely to connect to non-super human audiences.

But in both cases the values in conflict must be universal … if you want to avoid niche audiences.

What you wrote:
Running away from evil (isolationism) as a value to find happiness vs. Fighting evil (engagement) as a value that leads to happiness... the proverbial FLIGHT v FIGHT dilemma. It is definitely a universal concept that appears at all levels of the humanity condition.  It's evident in (a) a confrontation I witness on a street corner between a pimp and a whore, or (b) the Bush Foreign Policy Doctrine vs. the Obama Foreign Policy Doctrine. Fight or flight is everywhere and the answers are not easily answered.

You are perfectly safe keeping this simple and direct moral premise as the heart of your story, if that is what you focus on.

But you can give your story more personal and human death by looking deeper into the “human” story that exists in the “super human” diegesis.

For instance:

THE INCREDIBLES is also about:
Battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat; 
but Battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory. 

BLIND SIDE (yes it’s about fight vs. flight) is also about:
Courage to do what is difficult but foolish leads to dishonor;  but
but Courage to do what is difficult and wise leads to honor.

SUPERMAN II (1980) is also about:
Pretending to be someone we’re not leads to fragility; but
Being whom we were made to be leads to superlatives.

DARK KNIGHT (2008) is also about:
Revengeful, self-service leads to nihilistic  desperation; but
Sacrificial public service leads to purposeful hope.

And there are manny other examples.

So, I think your fight or flight is a good place to start, but I think you can also go deeper, to another layer, that will give the basic “super” movie an even more “human” connection that everyone in the audience will get. Not everyone will get “saving the world” because they can’t. But the secondary moral premise (exampled above) are value dilemmas we all deal with.

This moral identification is one of the  20+ techniques filmmakers and authors use to get audiences/readers to identify with their characters on a physical, emotional, and moral level.

Since you have been writing "short" stories for years, and your material is well accepted by the mainstream public, (if I were you at this point), I’d just write it and see if a moral premise (at the secondary level) doesn’t pop out later on. Don’t feel you have to figure it out beforehand. That can be a hinderance. Trust your instinct.