Most romance writers have discovered we can
learn a lot from screenwriters. We learn things like: Every scene
should advance the plot. Pare dialogue and eliminate chit chat.
And I, for one, have always found Christopher
Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey my go-to book when starting a
new novel. Vogler was in the movie industry, but his advice applies
to story structure of novels.
I have just latched on to a new go-to book by
another screenwriter, Stanley D. Williams. I highly encourage
novelists to check out this 2006 book, The Moral Premise:
Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success.
This book is not just for inspirational
writers. He shows how popular movies, such as Braveheart, A
Beautiful Mind, and Die Hard, use a Moral Premise.
According to Williams, all movies have a Moral Premise.
The first half of his book defines the Moral
Premise. “The Moral Premise must be stated in general enough terms
that it applies to millions of people in any place and at any time
in history,” Williams says.
In many cases, the Moral Premise is longer than
the log lines we learn to hone from writing gurus like Debra Dixon.
Each Moral Premise has two parts, and almost all have verbs,
“leading” being Williams’ verb of choice in most examples of his
Moral Premise. In 13 of the 18 movie Moral Premises in the text,
Williams uses the words “leading to” or “leads to.”
Each Moral Premise consists of two phrases that
are exact opposites of each other. In addition, it consists of four
parts: a virtue, a vice, desirable consequences, and undesirable
For example, here is the Moral Premise for
An Officer and a Gentleman:
Deceiving ourselves and others leads to
despair and death; but truthfulness to ourselves and others leads to
hope and life.
(Note Williams’ use of “leads to.”)
As you can tell from that example, the story
arc and Moral Premise are not restricted to just the hero. The Moral
Premise will also encompass the antagonists’ journey.
In fact, Williams tells us, “All main
characters in your story should have at least one physical goal that
relates to the Moral Premise.”
Moment of Grace
Williams asserts that in every movie — or book
— there’s a point when the hero becomes aware of the Moral Premise
and confronts it. This usually occurs at the midpoint. It is this
point which Williams calls the Moment of Grace.
The Moment of Grace marks a huge plot turning
point because the hero’s actions will change. For example, in my
novel A Fallen Woman (Kensington, 2002) the Moment of Grace
occurs when the widowed heroine finds her son crying in the nursery.
Just getting acquainted with him after virtually abandoning him as
an infant, she realizes in this scene that she needs to start
looking toward others’ needs over her own. From that point on, the
“fallen” heroine does put others’ needs in front of her own.
Once the heroine or hero confronts the Moral
Premise in the Moment of Grace, the plot trajectory changes to
reflect the hero’s acceptance (or rejection, in a tragedy) of the
The 3-Act Structure
Williams is big on the 3-Act Structure in
movies, as are a lot of authors in their books. As the description
implies, the movie, or book, is divided into three acts. I will
explain next how Williams says the plot progresses in his 3-Act
Act 1. This is, roughly, the first fourth of
the book and is divided into Act 1a and Act 1b. In Act 1a, we see
the heroine in her ordinary world (a Vogler term). An inciting
incident (also a Vogler term) occurs midway through the act for the
first plot point. In Act 1b, the heroine may be rejecting the Moral
Premise. Act 1b ends with a climax related to the heroine’s Moral
Premise, propelling the book into Act 2.
Act 2. Approximately half of the book, or
movie, takes place in Act 2. Vogler says this is when the hero is
confronted with tests, allies and enemies. It, too, is divided into
Act 2a and Act 2b. In 2a, the heroine tries to progress toward the
new goal using her old method or vice of the Moral Premise
statement, but things do not progress well. The Moment of Grace
occurs at the end of 2a and serves as a turning point to 2b and as a
turning point for the whole book. This occurs when the heroine
realizes she must change and use the new method to progress toward
Act 3. This is the last quarter of the book and
is also divided into Act 3a and 3b. In 3a, the heroine’s setbacks
are more threatening. This half an act ends with a final scene in
which there is a final incident that serves as a bookend to the
inciting incident in Act 1. In Act 3b the heroine pulls out all the
physical and psychological stops to achieve her goal. The book’s
climax occurs here and is followed by a brief denoument where
all the loose ends are tied, and the Moral Premise can be stated.
The second half of the book deals with
application of all that Williams has imparted in the first half and
also demonstrates every step of the plot of Braveheart using
the Moral Premise and 3-Act Structure.
He gives suggestions for determining your
book’s controlling virtue of friendship, loyalty, fidelity, honor,
courage, sacrifice, love, perservance, humility, generosity,
justice, or freedom, etc. and similarly contrasts it with opposing
vices. For example, friendship can be contrasted with betrayal.
He also shows how to deal with the goals of the
book’s other main characters.
If the writer follows Williams’ suggestions for
determining the cells that will construct the book, it will make the
actual writing a piece of cake. At least, that’s what he tells us.