BOOK REVIEW: THE MORAL PREMISE
Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success
Author: Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D.
Book Review by Matthew Terry
Published by: Michael Wiese Productions
I remember this like it was yesterday: I read a letter to the editors in regards to the film "The Deer Hunter." The person wrote: "I can't understand how a film that glorifies violence and beer drinking and hunting can win Best Picture." This person was, obviously, looking at the over all story -- not at what the movie was REALLY about which is a film about love and sacrifice and, literally, laying one's life down for a friend. Far more depth than "beer drinking and hunting."
What are we talking about? The "subtext" of a film. What the film is REALLY about. "The Incredibles?" What's the movie about? "It's about a family of superheroes that does battle against an evil villain and saves the world!" What's it REALLY about: It's about love, the power of family, finding your identity, making sacrifices and doing what is right against all obstacles."
In the book: "The Moral Premise" author Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. takes the concept of subtext and creates a layer of subtext under it. It almost asks: "What's the SUBTEXT really about?" And if you come up with the answer, then you have the Moral Premise.
The Moral Premise can be described easily as saying: "Evil actions equal failure, Good actions equal success" (depending on the script you are writing). That's a poor example of what the author creates. For example, Dr. Williams's Moral Premise for "Bruce Almighty" is:
Expecting a Miracle Leads to Frustration; but
Being a Miracle Leads to Peace
By digesting a number of films, including "The Incredibles," "Bruce Almighty," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and, to a greater extent, "Braveheart" -- he breaks down the Moral Premise and then shows how those films adhered to the premise as stated. It is within the process of dealing with that Moral Premise and the fact that the characters first reject, return to, and live out, that Moral Premise that not only gives the film depth but also, in turn, creates Box Office Success (see full title of the book above).
Dr. Williams goes into extreme detail when it comes to figuring out that Moral Premise and then applying it to your story taking you first through chapters describing the Moral Premise and then taking you through steps giving you a step-by-step of applying the Moral Premise to your script.
The initial chapters, with titles like: "The Moral Premise in Modern Writing Guides" and "Structure of the Moral Premise" give you a fully detailed analysis of the subject (including footnotes) and then the chapters end with exercises to give you a better understanding of what was discussed.
The step-by-step chapters encourage you to apply what you've learned with your own script. Where the previous chapters felt, in some ways, like a class room -- the steps feel more like you have been let loose on the world to use the knowledge that you have learned.
I will warn you: This is a weighty book -- not in terms of size -- but in concept. I found myself re-reading sentences to get a better grasp on what he was saying (often times thinking in my head how to apply what I was reading to my current story -- and not paying attention to what I was reading). I am still not sure that I fully have the concept -- but I do see how I can use some of the tools he has given me to add more depth to my current script -- to give my characters more of a purpose, more of a reality, more of a "Moral Premise."
Where I felt the book could have improved was by providing BAD examples. We know there are a lot of terrible films out there that had no box office success -- how did their lack of Moral Premise add to that failure? And how could have ADDING a Moral Premise possibly pull the film out of studio killing tailspin. Is there a Moral Premise in "Catwoman?" What about "Basic Instinct II?" But then there's the rub, I bet with both "Catwoman" and "Basic Instinct II" if you looked for a Moral Premise you could probably find one -- so the movies sucked by either NOT focusing on the Moral Premise or they just sucked on a whole.
Another suggestion that Dr. Williams makes is by going through your characters, figuring out the arcs and the plot points and the dramatic (or comedic) beats BEFORE you put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboards). He suggests getting out 3x5 cards (or using a computer program) to plot these out and arrange them in a way that reinforces the Moral Premise. As helpful as this sounds -- and I'm sure it is VERY helpful -- most of my students want to jump right in and start writing their script and not think about these nuances and details (as important as they are). So if you want to dive right into your screenplay -- go ahead -- but you might need to do some backtracking.
Stan Williams does an outstanding job of cutting through what you think your screenplay is about and getting to the heart of what your screenplay is REALLY about. A must read for any screenwriter.