A year ago my agent suggested I read The Moral Premise by Dr. Stanley Williams. This book has had a profound effect on the way I approach my writing. Missy Tippens is with us today to tell us what she's learned from reading the book and how it has influenced her writing.
Missy Tippens, 2006 Golden Heart finalist, made her first sale to Love Inspired in 2007. Her books have since been finalists in the Booksellers Best, ACFW Book of the Year and the Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence. Her most recent from Love Inspired, A Family for Faith, is an April release. Visit Missy at www.missytippens.com.
Welcome, Missy, and thank you for stopping by today to discuss a book that I believe every aspiring author should read. In The Moral Premise, Dr. Stanley Williams states that the moral premise statement is what makes audiences connect with the story on a more profound level. Can you explain to our readers what this involves?
Dr. Williams talks about creating resonance, about touching on universal emotions. He says you need to have a moral premise that’s general enough that any reader can be changed, can learn a poignant truth about the human experience. Williams says that knowing and seeing the darkness from which a protagonist rises give the character transcendence. And gives us inspiration to live our lives better.
Is it difficult for authors to apply Dr. Williams’s concepts to novel writing even though his book was originally written for screenwriters?
I think it translates perfectly! I recently spoke at a local ACFW chapter meeting and used the word movie and book interchangeably. Since we need to write so the story unfolds like a movie in the reader’s mind, we can easily use the moral premise in our stories.
Can you give us an example of the form a moral premise statement takes?
[Vice] leads to [defeat], but [Virtue] leads to [success].
You fill in the blanks. An example:
Covetous hatred leads to death and destruction, but sacrificial love leads to life and celebration. (This is an example Williams uses for the movie Die Hard.) I’ll share an example from my book below.
How difficult is it to sum up the story’s conflict in a short phrase?
Williams give you an 8-step process in his book. You start out determining the controlling virtue, something you feel very strongly about. Something you’re passionate about. And then pair it with its opposite (the vice). In my stories, I seem to have two or three recurring themes. Look at your stories and see what it is that keeps popping up. That may be a controlling virtue/vice you’re passionate about. That’ll make the whole process easier, and your passion will show in your writing.
Once you have the basic premise of the story, what comes next? Do you have to apply this premise to every character in the book?
Yes! Williams says that moral premise should be reflected in each character’s journey. If your main character struggles with insecurity, then the others should struggle with it as well, in one form or another. Also, every scene should involve the moral premise. For any of you who’ve had a problem with episodic writing, this can help! While writing the last couple of books, I kept a copy of my moral premise in front of me and tried to think about it as I planned every scene. It helps keep you focused and can prevent you from getting too far off track.
Dr. Williams also talks about the Moment of Grace. What is that?
Somewhere around the midpoint is where the character becomes aware of the truth of the moral premise. And they work through the rest of the story to learn to practice the virtue. If they make the right choices, they have a happy ending. If the choose to keep practicing the vice, they don’t. Williams says that by the end, the protagonist realizes that it was this truth of the moral premise that was his real goal.
It seems then, that a writer needs to know the ending before beginning to write if he/she is going to craft a novel that resonates with readers in a meaningful way. Is this difficult for some writers? How can they overcome this problem?
People who aren’t plotters are intimidated by this. But I highly recommend knowing where you’re going in the story even if you’re not sure how you’re going to get there. I recommend to those who don’t plot (pantsers, who fly by the seat of their pants) that they try to do the first 3 steps of Williams’ 8 steps so that they at least know their moral premise. And then they can use this method to go back and check their story after they’re finished writing. To see if they carried the premise throughout.
As a multi-published author, have you used this concept in crafting your stories?
I’ve worked with a moral premise ever since my agent, Natasha Kern, recommended Williams’ book. It’s the first how-to book I’ve ever read all the way through! The concept really resonates with me. I’ve used it for the last two stories I’ve written, and I feel they’re better than my previous books.
Tell us how you used it in your next release.
For my book that officially releases April 1 (and is out now!), A Family for Faith, the moral premise is:
Self-protection (selfishness) leads to unhappiness, but being generous with love (even if it’s risky) leads to true happiness.
In A Family for Faith, my hero’s beloved first wife died, so he’s scared to risk loving again. The heroine, who’s been rejected by her father and a husband (and in a way her son), feels inadequate as a wife and mother. She’s scared to love again, but even more, she needs someone who’ll be totally committed to her, someone she can finally depend on. And of course, the fearful hero isn’t able to do that for most of the book. Her fear makes her hold back, protecting herself. His fear leads him to withhold the love and commitment she needs. It’s a big hurdle to overcome!
What advice would you have for writers who want to use the moral premise to make their stories have a deeper impact on their readers?
I highly recommend you read Stanley Williams’ book, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success. Evaluate the story ideas you’ve worked with so far. Figure out what virtues mean a lot to you—your personal common themes. And go from there! Write a story you’re passionate about, one that has resonance and will leave readers sighing when they finish reading.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
If the method feels uncomfortable to you, keep trying. For pantsers, it can take some getting used to. But as I said, you can use the method to check your work after the fact.
Thank you, Missy, for a great interview. I can see you share my belief in Dr. Williams' concept. I know it has been enlightening for our readers.
For those who want to pursue this idea further, ACFW will host Dr. Williams at the Early Bird Session of the 2011 Conference in St. Louis. I can hardly wait to sign up for the class.
What about you? Do you already incorporate this concept in your writing, or do you just hope that the finished product will resonate with readers? We'd be interested in knowing how you feel about "The Moral Premise."