DL Fowler's Blog

What’s Your Story About?

We are going to be asked, “What is your story about?” There is a three-part answer to that anxiety-inducing question. The short answer is the story’s theme. Another reply is to outline the moral dilemma—a choice between opposing principles that lies at the heart of the Lead’s psychological journey. We can also describe the physical journey that our Lead character pursues. All three answers help focus our writing.

A story’s theme is a universal moral truth that the Lead aims toward. The theme should be intuitive to most readers, a vision that readers will readily embrace, and an ideal the Lead has yet to attain. Every page should contain a reminder of the moral truth, because that truth is the heart of the story and the source of conflict that propels readers forward. Those reminders can be transparent—as subtle as background music played to set a mood, or overt, depending on the tension demanded by the scene.

Every successful story centers on a moral dilemma. What will happen if the Lead abandons her pursuit of the universal moral truth she seeks to validate, or what will be the consequences if the moral truth is proven false? One of the key reasons—at least subconsciously—that people read our stories is to experience emotional and fundamental clarity about life and its meaning. If we fail to meet that psychological need, we risk leaving readers unsatisfied by the journey.

When I ask readers what a book is about, I often hear a description of the Lead’s physical journey. That doesn’t mean readers aren’t aware of themes or that they don’t care about resolving moral dilemmas. It reflects the reality that we are accustomed to thinking in a physical realm.

Our characters’ psychological and physical journeys are inseparable. That’s because their physical journeys are metaphors for our characters’ moral dilemmas. Until we know the inner motivations behind our characters’ physical journeys, we have no idea of how to tell our stories in a way that is consistently about a single, universal theme.

A Story’s Theme

Themes can usually be expressed in one word. The theme of Ripples is “home.” Home is the place Amy wants to be. Home is where Mercedes wants to be away from. Home is what Bryce feared losing as a child. A better home is what Tess believed she and her mother deserved. A good home is what Jacob never gave his family.

My friend, Richard A. Heller, wrote an engaging memoir titled Blueprints. He has lived a colorful life and his book shares many of his life’s emotion-packed highlights. Every page of his story is about one word: belonging. That is the theme of his life, and of his journey.

I find it easier to focus my writing and pitch my stories when I express the main idea of each novel in a single word. The theme becomes a standard for measuring the Lead’s progress as she internalizes the story’s moral dilemma. She is not only going somewhere, she is also becoming someone.

A Story’s Psychological Journey

Dr. Stanley D. Williams addresses what he calls the “moral premise” of a story. The momoral-premise-bookral premise highlights two opposing choices (the moral dilemma) our characters face. The premise lays out the consequences of each path.

His formula for defining the premise is:

[Vice] leads to [consequence] but [Virtue] leads to [success] [1].

In applying the formula, vices and virtues must be opposites. For instance, cruelty is the opposite of kindness. In addition, the consequences of a vice and the success to be gained by a virtue should seem logical to readers, based on normal human experience. For my novel, Ripples, the moral premise is:

Cruelty leads to alienation, kindness leads to relationship.

ripples-front-coverAs Ripples begins, Amy is vaguely aware of the moral premise. She acknowledges the concept, but does not grasp how its truth is vital to her existence. When a disturbing event occurs, her vague awareness meets her compulsive need and the moral premise becomes more significant. Later, an inciting event forces her out of her normal world, and subsequent events prepare her to internalize the moral premise. Cruelty, alienation, kindness, and relationship can all be found in myriad ways and places. Readers want to know the unique way my characters will attempt to resolve Ripples’ moral dilemma.

A Story’s Physical Journey

We often don’t draft a concise summary of the Lead’s physical journey until we write our back cover blurb for the finished book. We all know a compelling physical journey helps to sell books, but it can do much more. The physical journey is the vehicle that carries a character through a psychological journey.[2] Both journeys will work in concert to transform the Lead from who she is to who she is meant to become. The experience will enable her to resolve the moral dilemma that she faces throughout the story. The physical goal is symbolic of the psychological success.

There are other stories that involve home, dark moods, wilderness, sociopaths, and their victims. To standout, Ripples’ physical journey needed to promise fresh perspectives and a unique experience.  The following description helped me keep that.

Sixteen-year old Amy escapes her captors in the rugged Sierra foothills, only to discover freedom’s steep price. Billionaire Jacob Chandler turns fugitive in the same hostile chaparral, risking his life to keep from spiraling out of control. But the wilderness isn’t their only enemy. Amy’s kidnappers want her back and won’t let anyone stand in their way.

The cagey prisoner has a name and she’s sixteen years old. No one wants a sociopath to catch up with a teenage girl. But Amy is not the only one at risk. A billionaire named Jacob is trying to keep his life from spiraling out of control. His descent will become a firestorm if he crosses the sociopath who’s hunting for Amy. Last, but not least, the Big Boss Troublemaker has a face, making Ripples a conflict between people.

A Story’s Moment of Grace

Midway through Amy’s story, she awakens to two realities; she has made weak progress toward her physical goal, and she has not adopted kindness as a fundamental truth of her character. Dr. Williams calls her crisis The Moment of Grace.

Each well executed Moment of Grace contains three parts, which may extend over several scenes. In the beginning, the Lead acknowledges that the moral premise should become the cornerstone of her character. Next comes the negotiation or wrestling over the cost of internalizing the moral premise. Finally, the Lead either accepts or rejects the moral premise as a personal creed. Rejection will result in the Lead’s ultimate demise. Acceptance will accelerate her progress toward her physical goal.

my-sisters-grave

In his bestselling legal thriller, My Sister’s Grave[3], Robert Dugoni crafts a Moment of Grace sequence and he underscores it with weather and color. The moral premise of his story is: truth frees, and lies ensnarebut truth can be complicated.

The Lead, Detective Tracy Crosswhite, wants the truth regarding her sister’s twenty year-old murder and she pursues it with her whole being. In fact, she runs after it so hard she plows over memories and people she loves. Old friends and neighbors have hidden the truth from her for two decades.

The offer of grace:

The weather is turning stormy, but snow is not yet falling. Tracy approaches DeAngelo Finn, the old lawyer who defended her sister’s convicted killer. DeAngelo is in his garden preparing the soil for winter. Tracy wants him to testify at a hearing that might free his former client from prison. He avoids her question as he lays a black plastic sheet over the ground and explains the importance of getting on top of weeds before winter. Tracy recalls her father used to do the same. The black plastic and the reference to her deceased father foreshadow key discoveries she will make later while unraveling the truth.

The scene closes with Tracy telling DeAngelo, “There’s no one left to hurt.” He responds, “There is.” He steps back and shuts the door.

Negotiating the personal cost of internalizing the moral premise:

As Tracy wrestles with DeAngelo’s caution, the weather becomes increasingly frigid, and residents of the cozy town of her childhood freeze her out, even though days earlier they had consoled her over the recent discovery of her sister’s remains. They circle the wagons, intent on blocking her further pursuit of the truth.

Accepting the moral premise as a personal creed:

Tracy is reduced to a single ally who is targeted by a shotgun blast that shatters his living room window. The high price of truth becomes starkly personal for Tracy, and she accepts the reality that the truth she’s pursuing is far more complicated than she imagined. Two decades earlier, her father may have tampered with evidence to help railroad an innocent man’s conviction; but why? Despite how much the truth might hurt, it’s worth pursuing.

Dugoni uses weather and color background features to echo Tracy’s psychological struggle. These features serve a purpose similar to musical scores in movies. When truth is being revealed during early courtroom scenes, characters watch through windows as snow begins to cover the lawn outside. The white carpet symbolizes purity preparing the way for truth’s triumph. As additional revelations raise the price of truth, snow piles up and creates a sense of urgency. The judge wants to finish the hearing before everyone becomes snowbound.

When the hearing concludes, the judge’s decision launches Tracy toward a deadly confrontation with a psychopathic killer who holds the keys to truth. Having internalized the moral premise, she is now prepared for the climax of her journey. At this point, Dugoni shifts his use of weather from “background music” to a formidable obstacle that Tracy and her allies must conquer.

[1] Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. The Moral Premise (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006). Dr. Williams explains the concept of a story’s moral premise and its importance.

[2] Williams. The Moral Premise, 67. Dr. Williams explains the virtuous goal has two dimensions: psychological and physical. The Lead must pursue a growth in virtue (the story’s psychological journey) as she strives to reach a physical destination (the story’s physical journey). Her physical journey is a metaphor for the psychological journey.

[3] Robert Dugoni. My Sister’s Grave (Seattle: Thomas & Mercer, 2014).

file-dec-02-4-06-18-pmThis post is excerpted from my upcoming book on the craft of writing, Transform Your Fiction. Check at my website for updates on its release (currently scheduled for January 2017).

What is your experience with plotting your stories’ moral arcs? Please add your comments.

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