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Morality Genre: Altruism Stories of Redemption, Punishment, and Testing

What is the Morality Genre?

An internal story in the Morality genre focuses on the choice to act on behalf of ourselves or others and the consequences of that choice. It turns on the selfishness / altruism spectrum while providing feelings in the reader of satisfaction or contempt.

The underlying question in every Morality story is:

When given a chance to behave selfishly or altruistically, which will the protagonist choose? Will they apply their unique gifts of knowledge, ability, and strength of will in service of only ourselves or others?

Morality Genre: Altruism Stories of Redemption, Punishment, and Testing

What is the Controlling Idea of the Morality Genre?

The universal theme or CONTROLLING IDEA of a Morality story is either:

  • Prescriptive: We transcend our own selfishness when we share our gifts for the benefit of others.
  • Cautionary: We are damned when we selfishly withhold our gifts or use them solely for our own gain in the world.

The Four Core Framework of the Morality Genre

The FOUR CORE FRAMEWORK helps us meet reader expectations by bringing the core of our story into focus to create an irresistible, memorable, and shareable experience for the reader.

1. Core Need

Self-transcendence

The core need of self-transcendence in a Morality story arises after the INCITING INCIDENT presents a shock to the hibernating self of the protagonist who has discovered and expressed their gifts in order to survive and thrive in the world. This is the moment when an opportunity presents itself to the protagonist to contribute to the greater good and leave something of value in the world after their death.

2. Core Value

Selfishness to Altruism

Morality stories show readers that self-transcendence involves movement from selfishness or self-interest to sacrifice for the good of an individual, the family or tribe, or all of humanity.

3. Core Emotion

Satisfaction or Contempt

When the protagonist moves beyond selfish pursuits to express their gifts for the benefit of others, the Morality genre reader feels satisfaction. However, if the protagonist withholds their gifts and embraces selfishness, readers feel contempt.

4. Core Event

The Big Choice Scene

The CLIMAX of the Morality genre is the final big choice. This moment forces a choice between acting for themselves or the greater good while providing the reader with a feeling a satisfaction or contempt.

5 Conventions of the Morality Genre

Genre Conventions are specific requirements for the story’s ALTERNATE WORLD, AVATARS, or circumstances that create conflict and enable solutions. Conventions set up genre reader expectations. Without them, the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored and quit reading.

The Morality genre has five necessary conventions:

  • A despicable protagonist begins at their worst.
  • A spiritual mentor or sidekick illuminates aspects of the problem the protagonist cannot see yet.
  • A seemingly impossible external conflict forces the protagonist to choose to share or withhold their gifts.
  • Ghosts from protagonist’s past torment them.
  • Aid is given from unexpected sources.

5 Obligatory Moments in the Morality Genre

Obligatory Moments are the must-have events, revelations, or decisions and actions that pay off the raised expectations of the Conventions.

The Morality genre has eight obligatory moments:

  • A shock upsets the hibernating authentic self.
  • The protagonist expresses inner darkness with an overt refusal of the heroic journey call to change.
  • The protagonist faces an All Is Lost Moment and either recovers their inner moral code or chooses the immoral path.
  • The protagonist actively sacrifices the self in service of an individual, a group, or humanity (prescriptive) or consciously chooses to remain selfish (cautionary).
  • The protagonist faces literal or metaphorical death and either loses the battle but gains self-respect, meaning and peace; or wins the battle but loses what makes life meaningful.

Morality Genre Subgenres

The Morality genre can be broken down into three sub-genres:

  • Punitive – An essentially unsympathetic protagonist with repugnant goals, who is admired only for strength of will and sophistication (the “Machiavellian” hero-villain), suffers a well-deserved misfortune.
    Examples: Hedda Gabler, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Wall Street
  • Redemption – The protagonist begins by knowingly doing wrong and choosing to mask their weakness with respectability, but ends by making a better choice.
    Examples: The Scarlet Letter, The Pillars of Society, A Christmas Carol, Casablanca
  • Testing
    • Triumph – A strong protagonist, pressured to compromise their principles, wavers but ultimately remains steadfast.
      Example: For Whom The Bell Tolls, Cool Hand Luke
    • Surrender: A formerly strong protagonist suffers loss, can’t recover, and finally resigns the self to weakness.
      Examples: Tender Is The Night, The Hurt Locker 

“We all fall. We all have moments in our lives when we know in our heart of hearts that what we’re doing or have chosen to do is morally corrupt. Morality stories inspire us to change course and get back to our better natures.”

— Shawn Coyne

Additional Resources for the Morality Genre


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