On their surface, stories are nothing more than entertainment. They’re fun little ditties about cool people doing interesting things. But that’s not all stories are. Even the simplest of stories are saying something–they’re positing a moral argument about the world we live in.
Cool, right? Even when we don’t intend to share a “message” with readers, we are. The outcome of the story–the choices the protagonist makes–the way he is rewarded for some choices and punished for others–all of these things are presenting a moral world view, however subtly, for the readers’ consideration.
But it gets even cooler. Because if you can take conscious control of these elements, you can raise even the most entertainment-driven story to far greater heights of purpose, resonance, and meaning.
How Not to Create a Complex Moral Argument
Be ye warned, however. This is not a road for the faint-hearted or the flippant. Execute your story’s moral argument with something less than finesse and you might end up distancing readers by making them feel preached at (and this is so whether they agree with your “message” or not).
So what’s the secret to finessing a complex moral argument?
The key is the word “complex.” If your thematic premise comes across as too simplistic or one-sided, readers will inevitably feel like you’ve rigged the jury. You’re not presenting them all the facts, which means you’re not trusting them to make up their own minds, which means you’re representing yourself as smarter than they are, which means they’re not going to like you (or your story) very much.
Avoid “On-the-Nose” Thematic Premises
In short, you have to create a moral argument that’s two-sided. Undoubtedly, one side is right (or “more” right) than the other in your eyes, but you don’t want to weight the scales too heavily. You want to raise questions about both sides of the thematic premise.
Remember: it’s not the author’s job to make up the readers’ mind. Rather, it’s your job to present all the facts, so they can make up their own minds.
If you’re going to do that, you first have to make sure you’ve created an antagonistic force to represent the “other” side of the argument in a way that actually leaves room for an argument. You’ll never gain a complex moral argument if the “bad” side is so bad, no one in his right mind would ever argue for it.
For example, the great script doctor John Truby (author of the must-read Anatomy of Story), keenly pointed out in his analysis of last year’s Oscar-nominated Trumbo (about a blacklisted screenwriter in the ’50s):
[It has an] on the nose script that preaches to the choir. It would seem impossible to come up with a complex moral argument in this story because it’s so hard to justify the other side.
Choose Your Thematic Arguments Carefully
As Truby indicates, some moral arguments are simply too black and white to allow for a complex exploration. If you feel this is the case with the argument at the heart of your story’s main conflict, then you have two options.
Option #1: Find a New Conflict
It’s possible the simplistic nature of your main conflict is due to overblown, two-dimensional characters–particularly your protagonist and antagonist, who will be representing the two sides of your moral argument.
If your good guy dresses in white, never does wrong, and never doubts his path–and if your bad guy dresses in black, tortures all his subordinates, and laughs maniacally amidst inopportune monologues–then I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess there is a lot more depth you could be exploring here. Deepen your characters and you’ll also deepen your conflict and your theme.
Option #2: Look to a Different Aspect of the Story for the Moral Argument
If the main conflict is just too straightforward to lend itself to a complex moral argument, then make sure you’re mining other aspects of your protagonist’s journey. If he has no reason to explore doubts inspired by the main conflict, then what can he be conflicted about?
- The methods with which he is trying to achieve the desired end?
- Demons of personal worth or capability?
- Interpersonal conflict pitting him against someone he loves or respects?
Once you’ve identified the moral argument at the heart of your character’s arc, do your best to explore it honestly. Challenge and refine your own beliefs–and you’ll create a complex thematic premise that will keep readers thinking about your story long after its entertainment value has faded.