Every film’s screenplay has a plot structure to it, which can usually be summed up in three acts. Sometimes four or five acts or eight to twelve sequences but anyone who has studied and written screenplays has come across this stuff. As a director, it’s important to understand screenplay structure, but something that gets left out is that every film also has a moral premise.
While the plot of the screenplay is the physical journey of what happens to a protagonist, the moral premise is about what happens on the character’s inner journey. Here’s a quick way of figuring out the moral premise of your story.
The 4 M’s of a Screenplay
It takes 4 “M’s” to work out the moral premise, they are Moral, Malign, Maturation and Misfortune. The first two are the choices the protagonist has to choose between. Moral being a good or just choice, while malign being the bad or injust choice. Usually, but not always, the protagonist chooses the good or moral choice.
A famous example of a character who chooses a malignant path is Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He is not the moral person as the door closes at the end of the film, as he was when we first meet him. The moral/malign choice leads to the second pair of “M’s”, Maturation and Misfortune, which tend to follow as effects of the choice.
Putting it Together
So now we have the choice the protagonist has made, if the protagonist chooses the moral path it will usually lead the character to maturation, they will grow and be a better person. If the the character follows the malign course, it will lead him to misfortune. Back to the Godfather, Michael chooses to follow the malignant path, and becomes the next Don by the end of the film. The very thing he did not want at the beginning of the film.
The reason I’ve been using the Godfather and its award winning screenplay as an example, is because I wanted to point out that a misfortunate ending doesn’t have to be an unsuccessful one. Michael is actually successful having eliminated all the other families, and taking the position of the most powerful criminal. The point is that the character eventually ended up becoming what he was running away from his entire life.
The moral premise is a great resource for writers but it works equally as well for directors interpreting a screenplay. Understanding where your character is going is very important to set the tone of a film and even work out possible symbolism. If you can’t find the moral premise for the protagonist, you may have larger issues with a story.
So, there you have it, your screenplay’s moral premise in an easy-to-put-together nutshell.