Do you want to write a story that satisfies your audience by delivering a righteous outcome? Or what about a story that evokes pity from the audience for a flawed protagonist? Or maybe you want your audience to experience contempt for a corrupt character and feel satisfaction when they are punished?
If any of these ideas appeal to you as a writer, welcome to the Morality Genre, where selfishness is pitted against altruism and self-sacrifice competes with personal gain.
Examining the teachings of Shawn Coyne, Norman Friedman, Abraham Maslow, and Robert McKee has brought me fresh insights into the Morality Genre, and I’ll share them with you here. As a Story Grid Editor, I believe we write better stories when we understand and meet the expectations of genre.
Need to get familiar with the Story Grid’s genre categories first? You’ll find a refresher here.
What is a Morality Story?
The Morality story is an arch-plot (Hero’s Journey or Virgin’s Promise) internal genre with a single protagonist whose inner moral compass actively changes (or actively refuses to change) along a spectrum that runs from selfishness to altruism.
Why write a Morality Story?
According to Shawn Coyne, “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.”
Audiences are fascinated with the hero-villain. Maybe the hero-villain lets us experience our own politically incorrect fantasies with impunity, effectively liberating us by expressing the dark side we suppress. Maybe seeing wickedness played out triggers moral outrage in us.
Morality stories teach us how to make critical evaluations about the trustworthiness of others. They teach us how to improve ourselves, reach a higher level of evolvement, move closer to self-transcendence, be a “good” person, or at least be perceived as such.
Writing in the morality genre can be the catalyst to change and to preserving the ideas we hold in esteem. Writers are the most powerful people in the world. We shape how audiences think and what they say. We point audiences in specific directions and, through entertainment or presentation of facts, we occupy their time and thoughts. The world needs a unifying force and Morality stories remind of what we share in common, what we’re here to uphold: do good or suffer the consequences.
How do I write a Morality story?
We might brainstorm a entire first draft or outline and then revisit genre. Or we might construct the first draft by working directly toward meeting the audience’s expectations of genre and then find ways to innovate upon the tried and tested stories. You can engineer a story with the ideas put forth here or you can use these ideas to examine an improve an already existing story. Either way, if you are careful to integrate the concepts I’m presenting, you’ll have a story structure that works.
While it is not necessary to do so, writers often begin with a Controlling Idea.
A story’s Controlling Idea (sometimes called the theme) is the lesson you want your reader to come away with. It’s the meaning they will assign to your story.
Each of the main content genres has a generic pair of controlling ideas, one if the story is prescriptive–that is a positive story that shows the reader what to do–and one if it’s cautionary–that is a negative story that warns the reader about what not to do. (For everything about Controlling Ideas, see Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway)
What’s the Controlling Idea of a Morality Story?
If your story is prescriptive, your Controlling Idea is positive. It might look like this:
Good triumphs when the Protagonist sacrifices worldly, selfish values in favor of the needs of others.
If your story is cautionary, your Controlling Idea is negative. It might look like this:
Evil reigns when the Protagonist pursues selfish needs ahead of the needs of others.
The Morality Genre elicits Core Emotions.
Controlling Ideas help the writer elicit Core Emotions from the audience.
The Core Emotions of a Morality story are satisfaction, pity, and contempt.
Audiences choose Morality stories to experience righteous satisfaction at the proper outcome for the protagonist, whether negative or positive. They want to feel pity for the tested and contempt for the unrepentant but righteous satisfaction when the punishment comes. (See Subgenres)
As we see in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, a Morality story arises from the protagonist’s need for self-transcendence.
In the words of Abraham Maslow, “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.
The Morality protagonist’s primary goal isn’t safety, love, or esteem. Their want may be power, riches, control, etc. (status attained or maintained by acts of dominance) but their need is self-transcendence, a shift from corruption and selfishness to altruism and self-sacrifice for others.
Here is how Coyne describes the shift:
Selfishness Masked as Altruism to
Putting a Single Person’s Wants/Needs Ahead of the Self to
Putting a Group’s/Tribe’s Needs Ahead fo the Self to
Sacrificing the Self to Benefit All of Humanity
Notice that there’s something worse than selfishness in our value shift list. In a Morality story, the “negation of the negation” is Selfishness Masked as Altruism. Being selfish and calling it altruism in pursuit of one’s goal is worse than simply being selfish. It’s the Morality equivalent of damnation.
Genres have Obligatory Scenes.
Coyne describes obligatory scenes as “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.”
If you leave out an obligatory scene, you’ll have a story that probably doesn’t work.
What are the Obligatory Scenes
of the Morality Genre?
Each subgenre has its own Obligatory Scenes but here is what they all have in common:
- A shock (negative or positive) upsets the hibernating authentic self of the protagonist. Every story has an inciting incident that disrupts the protagonist’s ordinary life. What that incident disrupts depends on the genre. The inciting incident of a Morality story is a challenge to the morals of the protagonist. It must put them under pressure.
- In overtly refusing the Hero’s Journey call to change, the protagonist expresses an inner darkness.
- The protagonist’s refusal of the call complicates the story and the call comes a second time but in a different form.
- The protagonist faces an All Is Lost Moment and either discovers their inner moral code or chooses the immoral path. Whether or not the protagonist ultimately accepts the call depends upon the subgenre, the kind of story you want to tell.
- The big event (climax) of the story is when the protagonist actively sacrifices self in service of an individual, a group, or humanity (positive) or consciously chooses to remain selfish (negative). This Core Event is your main determinant of subgenre.
- 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 those things at great sacrifice. In all internal genres, there is a paradoxical ending.
Genres have Conventions.
Coyne explains Conventions as, “elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled or so bored out of their skull that no matter how beautiful the sentences, they’ll quit reading. Conventions are not obligatory scenes…they are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward (minor revelatory turning points that must be there but can be woven into the story at the writer’s discretion).”
What are the Conventions of the Morality Genre?
Each subgenre has their own Conventions but here is what they all have in common:
- The protagonist has a spiritual mentor or sidekick, for better or worse. This character may lead the protagonist astray or encourage moral behavior.
- There is a seemingly impossible external conflict. A strong Morality story can generate an external secondary genre naturally by simply meeting this convention.
- The protagonist is tormented by ghosts/memories/events of their past. Whether they are able to overcome these and make the right choices in the end depends upon your subgenre.
- There is a foil for your protagonist. This is the character who embodies the ideals and attributes opposite of your character. This character exists to show the reader the other path your protagonist could have taken.
- The protagonist receives assistance from unexpected sources. Some examples are the characters who tell the protagonist “the truth” such as the ghosts in A Christmas Carol and Hamlet, Eldridge calling out James in The Hurt Locker. They can also be the characters who enable the protagonist, like Harling (the protagonist’s drug dealer) in Flight. Note: If you are having trouble writing this one, again look to your secondary external genre and see if you can meet this one through needs of that story and integrate. It’s always a good idea when you can overlap your Obligatory Scenes and Conventions from your primary with your secondary.
What are the Subgenres of the Morality Genre?
The Redemption story is probably the story you think of when you think of the Morality Genre. When written well, audiences love it. This story stands the test of time.
The protagonist starts low and ends high. The protagonist begins by knowingly doing wrong and choosing to mask their weakness with respectability, but ends by making a better choice (becoming virtuous: generous, merciful, honest, faithful, etc.). The protagonist begins in “damnation.”
The story can culminate in an internal win, an external win, or both.
Other examples of this story are The Scarlet Letter, A Christmas Carol, Casablanca, Kramer vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment, Rocky, Good Will Hunting, Cars, True Grit, A Slant of Light, American History X, The Hustler, Drugstore Cowboy, and Schindler’s List.
I propose there is a second type of Redemption story, where the protagonist doesn’t slide from selfishness to altruism, but where they’re attempting to make amends for a single action for which they feel guilt, shame, and remorse. In this case, the protagonist starts “in the middle” and ends high.
An example of this story is the novel and movies The Four Feathers where we meet a British officer, Faversham, at the point where he quits the army instead of going into battle. Once willing to fight for his country, he is disgraced in the eyes of four characters close to him. In the end, he sacrifices himself to save them, proves his altruism, and restores his honor.
Other examples of this story are They Came to Cordura, Slingblade, and Seven Pounds.
The protagonist starts either high or low, ends low, and is punished for it.
The protagonist begins as the bad guy (cynical, deceptive,complicit, unethical) you’re likely rooting for. An excellent example is The Crying Game where Fergus, a lackluster terrorist with more heart than the other members of his gang, kidnaps a soldier but ends up sacrificing his freedom for the girlfriend of the hostage.
The protagonist is essentially an unsympathetic character with repugnant goals (like upholding effectual truth or world domination), admirable only for strength of will and sophistication (the “Machiavellian” hero-villain), and they suffer a well-deserved misfortune.
The protagonist might believe that, in a world filled with bad people, one must learn to be bad. They might believe that our commonly held virtues (secular and/or religious) are incompatible with the skills one must demonstrate to protect those virtues, like a “good soldier” who must kill to protect the freedoms back home. They believe one must be strong and clever in order to succeed. They might believe it is better to be feared than loved. They frame all their choices as the best bad choice rather than irreconcilable goods.
The audience follows these scoundrels with interest as they exploit unsuspecting fools, the naive, and overzealous moralists.
Most Punitive stories rely on our investment in the shared morals of our current social structure. The protagonist eventually gets what the audience thinks they deserve: being exposed, imprisoned, injured, banished, or killed. The final punishment of the protagonist then returns the audience to a morally acceptable position. Our belief that justice will be done is restored.
Examples of this story are Hedda Gabler, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Wall Street, Scarface, and Bonnie and Clyde. You’ll also hear this subgenre in many rap and hip-hop lyrics.
Need insight into your punitive character’s thinking? Read The Prince.
There are two types of Testing stories. I like to refer to them as the temptation stories. The plot provides many tests to the willpower and tenacity of the protagonist who has a number of progressively complicating opportunities to uphold their morals or give in to corruption. Here, a moral character is tested to the extreme.
The protagonist starts high and ends high.
A moral protagonist is pressured to compromise their principles. Whether by outright corruption or factors such as poverty, misogyny, racial inequality, etc., the protagonist wavers on the edge of a best bad choice decision but ultimately remains steadfast. They understand that compromising their ideals would be easy but it would the wrong choice. Consequently, the character loses significantly in some other way, such as financial, socially, or romantically.
Examples of this story are For Whom The Bell Tolls, Goodfellas, and Cool Hand Luke
Alternatively, the moral but flawed protagonist may choose the wrong path but learns their lesson before it is too late. Friedman calls this the Reform Plot.
Examples of this story are The Last Temptation of Christ, Fatal Attraction, and The Scarlet Letter.
The protagonist starts high and ends low. Also known as the Degeneration Plot or the Tragic Plot, this is the story where the good guy goes bad, where a strong protagonist suffers a loss, can’t recover, and finally resigns themself to weakness.
This is not a common story. We may think this is an old tale, maybe even a stale one better left to Biblical times, but there are fresh ways to innovate this subgenre.
For example, The Surrender story of The Crime of Father Amaro is one the top grossing films of all time in Mexico. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is considered one of the greatest American films of all time.
In more recent times, the act of surrendering is often to some form of addiction or crime ring.
Some other examples include The Hurt Locker, Tender Is The Night, Carlito’s Way, and The Godfather.
What about Characterization in a Morality Story?
This is a tough one for many writers. We ask, “How can I write a likeable character who has substandard morals?” and “Can a reader have empathy for the bad guy?”
Make your protagonist cunning, interesting, charming, intelligent, and/or funny and we’ll follow along.
One of my favorite examples of a writer investing us in a character is the film The Crime of Father Amaro. The opening scene is of a young man embarking on a long bus ride into the jungle when suddenly the passengers are robbed by bandits. After the criminals escape, the young man comforts an older man suffering greatly at his loss. The young man gives the sufferer all the money in his wallet, asking nothing in return. We like this guy. We think he’s overly naive and worry something bad is going to happen to him on this dangerous journey. As it turns out, he’s a new priest assigned to an area where his mentor is a jerk and corruption runs deep. Spoiler Alert! By the end of the film, our protagonist has impregnated a young woman, forced her into an illegal abortion that kills her, blamed the tragedy on her ex-boyfriend, shamed him in front of the church, and seized control of the church region from his debilitated mentor. We feel pity and outrage. (Testing/Surrender). Note: In this film, the bad guy gets away with it. Except for possible eternal damnation, he’s not punished. General American audiences hated the ending of this film. It broke from genre.
Another example is the Jack Nicholson character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He’s quick-witted, charming, and he does his best to encourage his fellow patients to be their best selves and look toward freedom. He’s also a pedophile.
What are some companion genres for the Morality Genre?
At the Story Grid, we suggest pairing the Morality Genre with an external genre.
The Morality Genre isn’t a common genre today and perhaps that’s because a majority of audiences tend to prefer more external stories (Love, Action, Crime, etc).
Used as a paired genre, you can counter and support an external genre and create some really dynamic plots with more depth, interest, and innovation than writing in only the internal or external genre. Here are some examples:
Performance: Rocky, Trading Places, and Whiplash
Action: Gran Torino, Cars, American History X
Thriller: The Verdict, Slingblade, Fatal Attraction
Crime: Gloria, The Godfather, Carlito’s Way, Wall Street, Goodfellas
War: The Hurt Locker, The Four Feathers
Western: True Grit, They Came to Cordura
Love: Seven Pounds, Kramer vs. Kramer, Terms of Endearment
Putting it all together:
Now you know the basics of the Morality Genre and are armed with the tools you need to write better Morality stories. You can meet the expectations of the genre and engineer (or reverse engineer for editing) your story.
You can write the narratives that better prepare your audience for the challenges of a well-lived life.
Don’t forget to test your protagonist for values of selfishness and altruism and to compare your story to the masterworks (other successful stories in the genre). Check your story against The Story Grid book and the Morality Genre secrets I’ve given here. Use what you learn to edit your work and finish that work-in-progress.
The world needs your story. We need hope.