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The Moral of Your Story
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
September 17, 2015
From Wikipedia: A moral (from Latin moralis) is a message conveyed or a lesson to be learned from a story or event. The moral may be left to the hearer, reader or viewer to determine for themselves, or may be explicitly encapsulated in a maxim.
As you can see, the definition is very broad. A lesson to be learned implies that the information is either useful or true or both, but a conveyed message can be any opinion that the author wishes to portray. The author may state it directly or leave it to readers to glean for themselves. If you do the latter, however, there is a huge chance that at least a few readers will interpret the story in a completely different manner than you intended.
Here are some well-known examples of stories with explicit morals:
Aesop's fables are some of the earliest of the genre, credited to Aesop, a slave and storyteller who lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE. In a version of "The Tortoise and the Hare" referenced below, the Hare, after losing a race with the Tortoise by taking a nap in the middle of it, always reminded himself, "Don't brag about your lightning pace, for Slow and Steady won the race!"
Parables in the New Testament are another instance of stories with fairly explicit lessons. The Parable of the Lost Sheep and how a good shepherd keeps looking until the stray is found is often interpreted as God not letting anyone go astray.
In the movie (not the book) version of The Wizard of Oz, we keep hearing how there is "no place like home." At the end, good witch Glinda asks Dorothy if she has learned anything, and Dorothy answers: "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with."
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the bestselling novel of the 19th century, hammers home the message, over and over, that slavery is absolutely terrible for the slaves and often pretty bad for the slave owners as well. Stowe shows this with examples and illustrations, but also comes out and states it plainly, too, as when one character, St. Clare, exclaims: "Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse!"
Even though the morals seem awfully clear in these cases, people frequently still find much to analyze in these stories. Perhaps the morals give the audience more to ponder and to discuss.
(Slightly) Less Obvious Examples
Some stories contain lessons and messages in them without devoting the entire text to these messages.
In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which many view as the blueprint for romances based on misunderstandings, both Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy learn and grow as characters. Elizabeth learns not to judge people too quickly, and Mr. Darcy learns that marriage proposals should not include insulting language. Both lessons could be taken to heart by readers.
In Nicholas Nickleby, which could be viewed as a coming-of-age story about a young man making his way in the world, Charles Dickens brought to life the horrors of the boarding schools of his time. By the way, they were horrible. Jane Austen nearly died after becoming sick at hers, and two of Charlotte Bronte's sisters – Maria and Elizabeth, the ones you don't hear about -- died after attending Cowan Bridge School, which was a hotbed of typhoid and tuberculosis. Bronte's Jane Eyre also contains several chapters describing Jane's dreadful experiences at Lowell School.
The Harry Potter series could be viewed as adventure stories about schools and wizardry, but J. K. Rowling perpetually peppers her tomes with observations about bravery and loyalty. Dumbledore, in particular, makes many pithy remarks, such as when he claims, at the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, that, "It is our choices... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
Again, many gallons of ink have been spilled analyzing the morals in these books. A story that makes people think, a story that stays with readers, is not such a bad thing to aim for.
Considerations for Morals in StoriesI will not attempt to describe what the morals of your story should be. However, if you decide to include lessons and messages into your story, you need to figure out how you want to do this. Here are some aspects you will need to consider:
How Obvious Should You Be?
A very short story may be too short for anything but the obvious. One form of literature that exemplifies this is known as the cautionary tale. A cautionary tale has three tiny acts: (1) warning given to protagonist; (2) protagonist ignores warning; (3) protagonist suffers horribly. An example of this could be as straightforward as a rabbit being told not to cross a highway; the rabbit deciding to do it anyway, because of greener grass in the median; the rabbit becoming roadkill.
One of the worst episodes -- in my opinion -- of Star Trek, TNG, was "The Outcast." It made the case, albeit with the roles reversed, for LGBT rights. I'm all for the rights, but I did not like the episode, and one of the reasons was the in-your-face message of the show.
On the other hand, I loved Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, despite the persistent preachiness and the fact that it was written for an audience of 1852, when taste in literature was different.
Perhaps whether a moral is obvious or subtle is not what makes a story good or lousy -- I mean, from its entertainment value, not from the point of view of morality -- but everything else that contributes to making a story entertaining and memorable.
Should You Present Opposing Views?
If you hold a strong opinion, perhaps you don't believe that there should be an opposing view. You may be right. If you are a rabbit, crossing a busy highway is always a risky move not open to debate.
On the other hand, if you want to create a story with more depth, then you may risk presenting the other side of the issue. Most of us agree that stealing is wrong. But what if you are stealing in order to feed your children? What if you are stealing from someone who has no right to it in the first place, such as the occupiers in a war? What if you are stealing from the dead, such as all those who looted the pyramids thousands of years ago? Did those Pharaohs really have the right to take everything with them?
Whether or not you agree with the points of view of the thieves is one thing, but they certainly did have points of view and rationales for their actions. Showing the other side of the argument can enrich the conflict in your story.
However, if you show the other side of an argument, your own life may be affected. Once a play of mine was being read aloud at a workshop, and someone in the audience objected to an argument that one of the characters made, and was rather unpleasant to me about it. Since I had presented both sides of the debate in the dialogue, I was surprised that she ascribed one point of view to me instead of the other.
Showing both sides of the argument allowed another play, Jean Anouilh's Antigone, to get past the Nazi censors in Vichy Paris, and may have even saved the playwright's life. Although Anouilh spent time as a prisoner of war under German forces, they did not kill him. And although some on the Allied side accused him of sympathizing with the Nazis, they also let him live -- which was not the case with all intellectuals considered Nazi sympathizers. The writer Robert Brasillach was executed by firing squad on February 6, 1945, for crimes of collaboration, even though his activities had been only intellectual in nature. For the rest of Anouilh's life, people were never sure about his wartime sympathies, but the ambiguity enabled his survival.
Presenting both sides may not win you friends, and die-hard reviewers devoted to one side of the argument may subtract one or more stars from their ratings of your works because they are mad at you. On the other hand, your works -- though controversial -- may be more popular as they provoke discussion and debate.
How Much of an Arc Should You Give Your Moral?
If your characters, and possibly your readers, learn something, you may want to develop this realization over the course of the story. The rabbit tale is an example of an arc with three tiny points, but you may have more or fewer. Perhaps you are writing a coming-of-age story and so there is a natural progression of points as the hero moves from child to adult. Perhaps you are writing something very short and there is only time for the punchline.
How Much Emphasis Do You Give Your Moral?
Another consideration is how much time and space to give your moral within your story. You may be writing a romance or a detective story, and the moral may be part of a subplot. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte takes a few chapters to slam schools, but the bulk of the novel is devoted to the romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester.
Can You Have More Than One Moral?
Of course; many authors do. If your opus is especially long, e.g., you are writing seven tomes in a series, then you may even feel the need to convey more than one message, or else your work may seem monotonous. You may not want to include too many or your story may seem unfocused. The balance is up to you and what you feel works for your story and your message(s).
The discerning reader of this article will notice that I have raised questions but not given answers or even definitive opinions. That is because there is no one-size-fits-all best answer -- or if there is, I have not figured out what it is! I nevertheless believe that asking these questions will help you as you decide if and how to include morals in your stories.
P.S. Despite the themes above, no bunnies were harmed in the crafting of this column.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.