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The Moral Premise

By Cheryl Bolen

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.

The Moral Premise

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 consequences.

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 Moral Premise.

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 Structure.

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 her goal.

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.

This article was first published in In Print in January 2010.

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