How to Outline a Novel: The Moral Premise

When 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.

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.

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.

Your 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.

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. 

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


Another 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.


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 the 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.

Recent Content