DL Fowler's Blog

A Story’s Psychological Journey

Posted in justice, Psychology, Stanley Williams, The Moral Premise, Writing by DLFowler on September 21, 2017

Great stories are driven by moral dilemmas that focus on a central theme. In Cinderella, the moral dilemma (cruelty versus kindness) is fueled by two words the Fairy Godmother spoke.


courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Those words are “or else” (be back by midnight or else you’ll turn into a pumpkin). Forgive me. I know “or else” isn’t an exact quote, but you get the point.

What will happen if your Lead character abandons pursuit of the universal moral truth in your story? What will be the consequences if the moral truth is proven false? The “or else” of a story is often called the stakes — what the Lead stands to win or lose. Great stories include an added dimension; what does the reader stand to win or lose?

Why is the added layer essential to masterful storytelling? People read stories to experience emotional and fundamental clarity about life and its meaning. If a story fails to meet that psychological need, we risk leaving readers dissatisfied.

Dr. Stanley D. Williams encourages writers to refine the moral dilemma into what he calls a story’s moral premise. The moral premise highlights the opposing choices of a moral dilemma and lays out the consequences of each alternative. His formula is:

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

Vices and virtues must be opposites. For instance, cruelty is the opposite of kindness. 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 suspense novel Ripples, the moral dilemma is choosing the right kind of place to call home. The premise is:

Cruelty leads to alienation, but kindness leads to relationship.

As Ripples begins, Amy doesn’t yet understand the truth behind the moral premise. When a disturbing event occurs, her compulsive need for home forces her to think more deeply about cruelty and kindness. Later, an inciting incident forces her out of her normal world in pursuit of freedom. In the alien world, subsequent events prepare her to choose between her cruel but predictable captor and the uncertainty of new relationships.

Cruelty, alienation, kindness, and relationship can all be found in myriad ways and places. Readers want to know the unique way in which my characters will resolve Ripples’ moral dilemma.

What are some stories that grabbed you? What was at stake for the Lead character? What was at stake for you? I love hearing from you. Please leave a comment.

[1] Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. The Moral Premise (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006). Dr. Williams discusses a moral premise and its importance.

4 Responses

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  1. […] are vehicles that transport characters through their psychological journeys.[1] Physical and psychological journeys work in concert to transform Leads from who they are to who they are meant to become. Struggling to […]


  2. […] success of a story than the Moment of Grace. During the Moment of Grace, the Lead’s physical and psychological journeys merge, lifting the sagging […]


  3. […] Near the end of Act 1, the inciting incident not only propels the Lead into the story’s second act, it also prompts her into the second movement — engagement. She engages perils for which she is ill prepared and experiments with alliances that may or may not be helpful. These experiences offer opportunities for the Lead to grow in wisdom and open the doorway into the third movement — enlightenment. Her enlightenment raises her esteem, both in her own mind and in the opinions of allies. Along with her heightened esteem, the stakes in the story increase as she confronts the personal cost of resolving the moral premise. […]


  4. The Whole Story | DL Fowler's Blog said, on October 26, 2017 at 3:22 PM

    […] A Story’s Psychological Journey […]


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