How to Outline a Novel: The Moral Premise

ArcherWhen planning or outlining a novel, it is essential that you determine the Moral Premise of your story early in the process. It’s how to focus a novel. A story must have focus. Otherwise, it will just meander all over the place and confuse the reader. You don’t want that. A confused reader isn’t a reader for very long.

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How to Outline a Novel: It’s all about the internal struggle.

A  story is the outward, physical manifestation of the lead character’s internal struggle with a moral dilemma, otherwise known as a conflict of values.

Yes, there might be sexual liaisons with transgender midgets, romance, mind boggling magic, sword fights, wizards, space wars, death stars, even nuclear Armageddon in your novel, but all of this is merely external evidence of the struggle raging within your main character.

You can’t know how to outline a novel until you know the internal struggle of the main character.

It’s not easy being human.

It’s not easy being human. Ultimately, for a novel to be satisfying it must give the reader guidance for how to do this thing called life, because deep within our soul, this is what we all seek.

Here’s what the author of The Writer’s Journey, has to say about it:

“I jump up and down in my classes and in Hollywood story meetings about the desperate desire of the audience for entertainment that embodies some moral principles, some guidelines for ethical living, some prescription for a healthier world and a saner life.” – Christopher Vogler.

Guidance about the human condition can be thought of as enduring psychological truth. There are many of these truths, jewels of wisdom that have evolved through countless generations and been passed down to us in the form of myth, fairy tales, philosophy, spiritual teaching and the deepest foundations of religion.

 

King Arthur

Lancelot brings Guenevere to Arthur

The Dramatic Heart of Your Story.

The Moral Premise is the dramatic heart of your novel. It is the spark that ignites the entire story.

The Moral Premise is a natural part of all successful narrative stories. The Moral Premise was written about by the ancients and it is still the foundation of all satisfying stories today, whether those stories are carried on by oral tradition, in print, on the stage, on television, through the Internet… or through whatever else comes along…

“[The Moral Premise has] been around for thousands of years, since stories were first told, and …it’s proven to be one of the most fundamental structural aspects of storytelling.”─ The Moral Premise

The reader may not consciously recognize the Moral Premise. However, when properly rendered, it will emotionally resonate with her and profoundly deepen her fulfillment for reading your novel.

The Golden CompassYour novel is an indirect, almost subliminal, argument that proves the Moral Premise of your story. Using the life and circumstances of your main character, and those around her, your job is to reveal, scene-by-scene, why your Moral Premise is true.

A Moral Premise also makes the job of writing much easier. It’s like a compass that directs the development of the main character, those closest to her and every scene.

In the early stages of imagining a novel, search for the Moral Premise. You cannot begin to focus your story or shape any of its elements until you know the Moral Premise.

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Your novel grows out of a conflict of values within the main character.

It is your main character’s inner motivation that reveals who he really is and governs his outward action as he strives to reach the story’s objective.

In the course of a story, the main character will meet all sorts of physical obstacles as he tries to reach some physical goal. However, these physical obstacles actually represent a single spiritual, emotional or psychological obstacle inside the main character’s psyche.

Before the main character can get past the physical obstacles, he must first come to terms with the internal psychological obstacle that is defeating him.

Here’s a very important point…the supporting characters who are closest to your main character are also struggling with the same Moral Premise.

In the supporting characters closest to the main character, we see wise or unwise attempts to solve the same issue the main character is dealing with.

 Story Theme and the Moral Premise.

The Moral Premise is first introduced to the reader when the theme is stated early in Act I. The theme is actually half of the Moral Premise Motivation Statement as defined by Dr. Stanley Williams in his book The Moral Premise

Here’s the generic Moral Premise Motivation Statement as presented in the book, The Moral Premise.

 

[psychological vice] leads to [physical detriment] but

[psychological virtue] leads to [physical betterment].

 

Here’s how the Moral Premise Motivation Statement for the movie ANY DAY might look.

 

Believing in only yourself leads to pride and ruin, but

believing in something bigger leads to hope and salvation.

 

In a moment, we’ll look more closely at the movie ANY DAY, but for the now let’s move on to a critical element of the Moral Premise, the Moment of Grace.

The Moment of Grace.

Halfway through the story, at the end of Act IIa, just before the main character passes into Act IIb, he is offered a solution to his dilemma. This moment is the Moment of Grace.

If the main character rejects or ignores the solution, he will remain unchanged at the end of the story and the story will end tragically.

However, if the main character accepts the solution, he will change over the course of the second half of the story and the story will end happily.

Moment of Grace occurs at end of Act IIa

In a hypothetical 300-page novel, the Moment of Grace will appear near page 150.

 

Moment of Grace

(For an explanation of the other story elements in this example, go here)

Moral Premise Examples

Movies can teach us a lot about story theory, but in some films it can be difficult to clearly see the story elements. Recently, I stumbled onto a movie that so overtly uses classic story elements it’s easy to see how they are employed.

The movie is ANY DAY, written and directed by Rustam Branaman and staring British actor Sean Bean. It’s streaming on Netflix.

Admittedly, the film is flawed and morally heavy-handed. It’s been rightfully panned by critics as being a morality play. No writer wants to be accused of writing a morality play.

Keep that in mind. The reader, or audience, should not be consciously aware of the Moral Premise. If they see it coming, the story will appear as if a pompous, greater-than-thou author is preaching to the unwashed. No one likes to be preached to.

ANY DAY: Theme, Moral Premise and Moment of Grace.

ANY DAY is the story of a violent man with an addiction to alcohol. In the opening scene, the main character Vian, kills a man with his fists. The Catalyst is his release from prison 12 years later.

At about 17 minutes into the movie we are shown the story’s theme written in a simple declarative sentence. Vian, his sister Bethley and her son Jimmy are walking out of a grocery store. Behind them, a Lotto sign says: “Believe in Something Bigger.” 

The Theme of ANY DAY revealed in a Lotto sign.

 

Theme Stated Any Day

 

The theme is only part of the Moral Premise. The full Moral Premise cannot be understood until the Moment of Grace at the middle of the movie.

At about 40 minutes into the movie, as we approach the mid-point, Jimmy offers Vian a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea. This is the Moment of Grace.

 

Offering of Grace Any Day

 

If you haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea, this gesture may seem obscure, so let me give you a quick review.

The story takes place in Cuba in the early 1950s. A poor and elderly fisherman has gone 84 days without catching a fish. Determined to break his spell of bad luck, he takes his small open boat far beyond the waters he and the other fishermen usually fish.

All alone on the ocean and out of sight of Cuba, the old man hooks a great fish on a hand line. Later we learn the fish is an 18-foot-long swordfish weighing about 1500 pounds. The old man struggles to land the fish for nearly three days.

Finally, he manages to land and kill the massive fish. It’s much larger than his boat and the old man must tie it to the side with the carcass mostly in the water.

The old man is so far from his village that sharks eat all the flesh off the bones of the great swordfish before he can get home. The old man is nearly dead himself when he arrives and with nothing to show for his struggle. He says to the bones, “Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.”

In that line of dialogue, we see pride has caused the old man to kill for nothing. The same is true of Vian in the movie ANY DAY.

The Moral Premise for ANY DAY could be stated like this: 

Believing in only yourself leads to pride and ruin, but

Believing in something bigger leads to hope and salvation.

Other characters in ANY DAY struggle with the same issue.

Bethley, Vian’s sister, finds comfort in the church. His boss, Roland, played by Tom Arnold, is a recovering addict who attends 12-Step meetings and believes in a higher power. Jimmy, Vian’s nephew, ultimately reveals there that there is indeed something bigger to believe in.

This is how other characters explore various sides of the same issue to prove the story’s Moral Premise.

 

More Movies to learn from: STAR WARS & MR. BROOKS

 STAR WARS

StarwarsAnother movie that may share the same Moral Premise as ANY DAY, but isn’t as obvious, is the original STAR WARS: EPISODE IV. In STAR WARS, The Force is the bigger thing to believe in.

MR. BROOKS

One of the tightest movies I’ve seen in years is MR. BROOKS, staring Kevin Costner, directed by Bruce A. Evans and written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon.

Here, the theme is addiction…addiction to killing people.

 

Costner states theme for MR. BROOKS.

“Hi. My name is Earl. I’m an addict.”


 In MR. BROOKS it’s more challenging to identity the theme, the Moral Premise and story beats because the script is so well written. This is the kind of subtlety you should shoot for in your own writing.

Notice in the opening scene how Costner blows his wife a sweet kiss, endearing him to us. Later we discover he is a monster of the highest magnitude, yet we remain bonded to him throughout the movie.

This is the power a simple act of kindness has to bond the reader or audience to the main character.

Also, notice how every scene relates to the Moral Premise. This is a very important detail. In your novel, every scene must relate to the Moral Premise of your story. Otherwise your novel will lose focus.

MR. BROOKS is a good example of what happens when the main character does not accept the offering of grace and does not change.

Also, Costner, his alter-ego Walter, his daughter and Mr. Smith all struggle with the same addiction. Through these characters, addiction is explored from multiple angles to prove the Moral Premise of the story, which appears to be:

Addiction leads to death, but sobriety leads to life.

 

Outlining a novel begins with the Moral Premise.

The Moral Premise definition is the psychological truth of a story. That truth is demonstrated by the actions of the main character and by the actions of a few supporting characters closest to the main character. And it is proven scene by scene.

Remember, the Moral Premise is the point of focus for your story. It’s how to plan a novel. It’s the first step, because the moral premise shapes the behavior of the primary characters and dictates how each scene is constructed.

When you begin outlining a novel, your head will probably be filled with all sorts of ideas and visions. It’s like you have a million puzzle pieces rattling around in your brain. Most of those pieces do not belong to your novel. The way to determine which pieces to keep and which to put away for another project is to measure them against the Moral Premise of your story. If they contribute to proving the eternal truth of the Moral Premise of your story, keep them. If they don’t, save them for another project.

How to earn a darn good living as a writer…Click Here

Related Posts:

How to Structure a Novel

Tips for Writing a Novel

How to Write a Good Novel

The Parts of a Novel

How to Begin Writing a Novel

 

Comments

  1. Wow this is a really unique website with a lot of good information. It’s also very professional looking.

    I wish I had this guide when i was still in school, it would have helped me so much. When i wrote a book report or anything like that I never really focused on moral premise or anything like that. I mainly just recited facts.

    This was an interesting read, thanks

    • Hi Dylan!

      Thanks for stopping by. When I first tried to write a novel, I thought typing hundreds of pages of made up stuff was what writing a novel was all about. It took me years to realize there was a lot more to it than that, like exactly how to outline a novel. I now see novels, at least novels worth reading, as a precisely structured mechanisms of emotion.

      There is definitely a method to the madness of fiction and it all begins with the Moral Premise.

      All the best…

      Gary

  2. This piece is extremely interesting, as The Moral Premise (psychological truth of the story) is often subdued until the reader has spent a significant amount of time exploring the story. Important however is each reader will view the Premise (or psychological truth) from a personal, emotional, and spiritual viewpoint which then leads to an emotional attachment to the character and the solutions or outcome he/she is seeking. I love this, as it gives a formula or foundation in which to create, and build upon the story and characters within the story. As a writer myself, this would have saved me a great deal of time in formulating a mind map when structuring my book. Brilliantly written and researched.

    • Hi Ellen!

      It took me years to stumble on the Moral Premise. When I did, it dramatically changed my approach to writing fiction. As a writer, you know awkward it can be to gather all the lose ends and to keep all the balls in the air, adding the Moral Premise complicated the entire process at first, but once I learned not to begin writing my first draft until I had a pretty idea what the Morale Premise of my story was things got a whole lot easier.

      Thanks for stopping by Ellen.
      All the best…
      Gary

  3. This piece is extremely interesting, as The Moral Premise (psychological truth of the story) is often subdued until the reader has spent a significant amount of time exploring the story. Important however is each reader will view the Premise (or psychological truth) from a personal, emotional, and spiritual viewpoint, which then leads to an emotional attachment to the character and the solutions or outcome, he/she is seeking. I love this, as it gives a formula or foundation in which to create, and build upon the story and characters within the story. As a writer myself, this would have saved me a great deal of time in formulating a mind map when structuring my book. Brilliantly written and researched

    • Hi Ellen!

      Thanks for stopping by and taking time to comment. It took me far too many years of writing far too many dull novels before I understand how the Moral Premise is the foundation of a story. Working from the Moral Premise, a story and its characters will naturally have greater dimension and, as you mentioned, being easier to bond with.

      You mentioned that you mind map as you plan a novel. I brainstorm using a storyboard. In fact, one wall of my study is a giant storyboard. It allows me to sit across the room with a cup of tea and see the entire story at once. It’s easier to spot the plot holes that way.

      Thanks again for commenting.

      All the best…

      Gary

  4. Riaz Shah says:

    Hey Gary,
    Wow I really love your writing style, it blows me away and I didn’t even realise that I was reading till the very last! Plus I’m a huge fan of the Arthurian legends and seeing that picture of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot really brings back some good memories.

    I’m more intrigued by the moral premise, I’ve never heard about that and I believe that can really bring out the emotion when I’m writing.

    I still don’t get the full picture though, Is it something like a soap opera whereby we create a situation of high drama to make the readers read more to find out hat happens next?

    • Hi Riaz!

      I appreciate your comment. The term Moral Premise can be misleading because it might cause some writers to think they must be didactic and that would make for a miserable story. When artfully employed, a story demonstrats ancient wisdom that either enriches our life or guides us to avoid costly mistakes.

      For example, there is a saying that goes something like this: “When you plot revenge dig two graves.” The implication is that revenge will destroy you too. There is a wonderful movie called “In the Bedroom,” starring Sissy Spacek, that illustrates this Moral Premise perfectly.

      You asked if the Moral Premise was like a soap opera with high drama. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be a soap opera with high drama. Any story, in any form, would be improved if it contained a Moral Premise. When employed by a skillful writer, the Moral Premise is very subtle and may go unnoticed except for the deep satisfaction the reader enjoys and the sense that the story rings true.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      All the best…

      Gary

  5. Anh Nguyen says:

    Oh wow, this post is so detailed, Gary.

    I learnt so much from it yet it was a breeze reading. I agree with you on a lot of points in this post, I used to write novels when I was younger and didn’t consider moral premises at all. I also want to add that aside from confusing the readers, you also confuse yourself when you just don’t know where you are going this the story.

    Very great post and awesome message on how not to just entertain but also give values through your writing.

    Keep up the awesome work!

    • Hi Anh Hguyen!

      I’m pleased you enjoyed my post about how critical the Moral Premise is to outlining and ultimately writing a novel. For too many years I wrote novels nobody wanted to read until I finally learned how to do it right. And, I’m still learning.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      All the best…

      Gary

  6. Hi Gary, great website mate, anyone starting out wanting to write novels is going to love this, great detail on how to start a book and explains how to get to know your character etc., I understand now how the moral premise is the foundation of a story, keep up the great work

    • Hi Ashvino!

      Thanks for stopping by. I hope to post more about how to write a novel. Plus, I’m writing a free email course about writing a novel that goes into more detail. You can enroll here: How to Write a Good Novel.

      The Moral Premise is key and most budding novelists miss that. Yet, if they can grasp how important it is, their writing will improve dramatically.

      All the best…

      Gary

  7. Robert Basaker says:

    Gary, I thought I would stop by and see how your website was progressing when I happened on this article, How to Outline a Novel, The breakdown was very educational. I have read many novels in my days but never looked at them from this angle or took the time to dissect how they were put together. After reading your article, I can’t wait to read my next novel. This gave me a whole new view of the inside workings behind the content and gave me a lot to think about.
    Keep up the great writing.
    Bob

    • Hi Bob!

      Thanks for stopping by. Now that you’ve had a glimpse behind the curtain and seen the mechanics of how a novel works, you may find yourself a little more picky about what you read. I find I can’t read a novel if the writer has been lazy or fails to take me beyond the obvious.

      I was inspired to post about novel writing because independent novelists often ask me to review their novels. Most are unreadable for the same reason the first novels I wrote were unreadable. Back then, I didn’t have a clue about how a novel goes together. I thought I just had to write made-up stuff for a couple of hundred pages. Fortunately, with a little study and the help of a world class editor, I’ve learned there was more to it than that.

      All the best…

      Gary

  8. Right on Gary! Don’t think I’ve ever heard such an acute tutorial about writing a novel! I loved your teaching that the basis of any novel is internal conflict within the main character, and that supporting characters share the same conflict. You bet! This is life. In our lives, Isn’t the same true. We all are heroes or villians that could inspire a good novel. To study reality is to recreate it.

    • Hi Sam!

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, we are indeed heroes or villains. Just catch me in the morning before I’ve had my first coffee and you’ll see. I appreciate your kind words about my article How to Outline a Novel.

      All the best…

      Gary

  9. Hey Gary,

    Thank you for a great website. I am not a writer at all and it is very difficult for me to put pen to paper. However your website has some interesting information that us non writers can use.

    Your layout of your website is professional and easy to read.
    Great work.
    Michelle

    • Hi Michelle!

      Thanks for taking time to comment. It’s good to know that non-writers can get something good from my site. I appreciate your encouraging and kind words too.

      All the best…

      Gary

  10. Heather Grace says:

    First off, I love, love the name of your site!! I always feel so empowered when I write. It’s the best feeling. As for your article on how to outline a novel – I love how you broke each section out into simple to follow steps. I think with this as a base, anyone could sit down and outline a story.

    Are there any common mistakes that beginners tend to make when outlining a novel? Thank you for the great article!

    • Hi Heather!

      It’s good to see you here again.

      I think the most common mistake beginners make is to cling to their first idea. The first idea for a story, scene, dialogue etc is usually superficial. I would encourage them to dig deeper. It’s important to remember the outline is not carved in stone. It is only an outline. The process of writing will naturally produce more ideas. Many of these ideas will be better than the original idea. It’s important to know when to modify the story to embrace the newer, better idea. In other words, it’s important to be flexible.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      All the best…

      Gary

  11. Awesome article! The examples outlined were easy to read and understand! I am one of those writers who write and hope for a good outcome rather than base my stories around a previously decided structure! I know that this is frowned upon in the novelist world and I could definitely benefit from see these concepts before I write them in my works. This is a site I will bookmark and use!

    • Hi Anthony!

      It’s good to see you here. Structure is essential to a good story. Structure is not the same as a formula. A formula is what makes a category romance a category romance and a western a western. But structure is much broader. Just as the term implies, structure is the skeleton of a story. This structure has been around since stories were first told around a campfire thousands of years ago.

      A story is not a story if it does not have a structure. In fact, story IS structure, a precisely made mechanism of emotion.

      For too many years I wrote novels no one wanted to read because I did not understand the importance of structure. Finally, when I was so frustrated with my failure as a novelist, I hired one of the best freelance editors in the world. She’s expensive and worth every penny. Through here, I came to understand story structure.

      Now, I teach these same principles of fiction in my free email course called “How to Write a Novel.” It uses movies to teach story structure and how to write a successful novel. You can enroll here. It’s completely free.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      All the best…

      Gary

  12. It is the dream of so many people to write their own novel. I believe that everyone has at least one story inside them. Having an idea is the easy part; trying to put it down with words is suddenly so difficult when I try to do it. Setting these characters out like this makes it much easier to plan my plotting. Thank you for helping me!

    • Hi Molly!

      I appreciate your kind words. Yes, I agree, everyone has a book in them, but as I’m sure you know, it can be a challenge to get it written. I’m pleased you found my article helpful.

      All the best…

      Gary

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