When I was a performer with the improv comedy group The First Amendment, we used to do an improv form called “the One Word Story,” in which we told an improvised story one word at a time—that is, each cast member only got to say one word at a time.
The stories could (and did) go horribly wrong, and often were very silly—but we could always pull it out in the end by saying, “The moral of the story is... ” and then sum up the proceedings with some equally ridiculous moral. (Something like, “Always wear your galoshes during safe sex.”)
Some of the stories were short, and some were much longer than they should have been, but that moral was always something we could keep in sight, something to head for, like a lighthouse in a stormy sea. Because, you see, our audience knew as well as we did that every story has a moral—right?
Every Moral Has a Story
To some people who like to theorize about writing, moral is a dirty word. “You must never write with a moral in mind,” they declare; “you must let the writing flow out of you and speak for itself.”
Bull. Every child who begs for a bedtime story knows that the story will tell him something essential about life—not in a pat, preachy way, but in a much deeper, more important way: by example. Or, as Kenneth Burke said, “Stories are equipment for living.
In fact, as a writer, each time you sit down to create, you are constructing a unique moral universe—as it exists in the story you are about to tell. Don’t be overly awed by this responsibility—because it is a responsibility—but don’t pretend it doesn’t exist either.
When you tell a story, you are also saying to the reader, “Life is like this. People behave in this way, Nature is indifferent, (or, if you live in Los Angeles, cares deeply about your well being), God and the Devil exist (or not, if you live in New York), and if you want to be good/happy/successful, this is what I have to teach you.” You are sharing your vision of the world as it exists in your story, and the reader will come away knowing what that vision is—and what you value or don’t value.
The reader is free to ignore your vision, of course, but no writer should be free to ignore the fact that they are creating a moral universe with every word they write. That isn’t to say the issues should be black and white—they rarely are in life, after all. Ambiguity is not the opposite of consistency; but there is a difference between ambiguity and muddled thinking. Your moral vision is part of who you are—and when you are writing a story, it may emerge as you are writing, or it may be part of the impetus for writing in the first place—as it was with Charles Dickens, for example.
Each of us, since we were small children, grew up with the idea of right and wrong. Being on time, eating one’s spinach, and obeying Mommy and Daddy were “right”— hitting our brother, painting the walls with crayons, and trying to flush the cat down the toilet were “wrong.” All societies have rules of conduct, both spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten—and a sense of what is acceptable behavior within the laws of that society.
Acceptable behavior, or “good” behavior, can vary widely depending upon the society in question—in nineteenth century England, for example, a parents’ power over their children were similar to their right over a piece of furniture—in the eyes of the law, they “owned” their children, and could do with them as they pleased. In fact, the abuses that this situation spawned were the most prevalent ongoing theme of the writings of Charles Dickens. As a child, he had been subject to such cruelty that he never stopped chafing against a society that permits such things within the confines of its laws.
Many people thought it was wrong to mistreat children, but not many people prior to Dickens had written so movingly of the plight of children, and from their point of view. Social activists took up the cry, and eventually laws were enacted to protect Britain’s children from 12-hour work days in factories, physical abuse, and what amounted to slavery.
Wrong-doers and Right-seekers
Although you could make a case that mystery stories exist largely for entertainment value, I am of the opinion that the crime writer has at least as much obligation to address the issues of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Most stories involving crime involve a battle between wrong-doers and right-seekers—even if there isn’t always a clear-cut line between them. And without some concern about morality, mysteries can come off as something like snuff films, ugliness as entertainment. For example, Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs would be an appalling book were it not for a sense of morality holding the book together. Especially in a thriller, seriousness of moral purpose can be an artistic counterbalance to the frisson the reader often experiences from the depiction of violence.
When you are writing, ask yourself: what are the moral poles in my story? Who represents the moral center? Every time you write, you are telling people your opinion of things, giving them your moral vision—whether you want to or not.
As I write this, Ayn Rand has had a recent resurgence and is the darling of the far right, as well as some libertarians. In her major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she espouses an anti-socialist philosophy of intellectual and cultural elitism and individualism; she has created her own version of an Ubermensch, or Superman. She views the achievement of the gifted individual to be the highest pursuit of human culture; in her philosophy there is no room for the needy, the lowly, or those whom fortune has not smiled upon.
Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness,not pain or mindless self- indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.
This is her philosophy, but it is also her moral universe. Work hard, create, achieve, orbe left by the wayside—that is what matters, and that is good in the World According to Ayn Rand. Her characters are not so much people as they are political polemics. I don’t propose here to take on her ideas, preposterous as I find them; what I do propose is to suggest that Ayn Rand’s current popularity has everything to do with the values of her moral universe.
“The most depraved type of human being ... (is) the man without a purpose.”
“There’s nothing of any importance except how well you do your work.”
—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Granted, she is an extreme example. But take the moral universe of an Agatha Christie novel versus one by John le Carré. In a Christie mystery, murder may be most foul butit is rarely worth getting all that upset about; England will still be England, and the characters’ lives carry on much the same as before. The question of evil is not a deep one: people will murder each other, you know, but never mind, let’s have tea and crumpets in the garden.
In a le Carré novel, England hasn’t been England for quite some time, no one can be trusted, and nobody’s life is unchanged by the end of the story. It is so much a darker place, and evil is so ever-present, that it is hard to believe they both wrote about the same country in the same century. In the world of John le Carré, every choice a character makes involves an uncomfortable compromise of some sort.
But Bachman’s case was far from won. A covert survey of faces round the table confirmed what he had feared from the start: that the prospect of a loving friendship with a terrorist paymaster did not suit every palate.
“So we are giving our enemies citizenship today,” a known wag from the Foreign Ministry suggested acidly. “We are opening our arms, not only to Signpost, who is an identified international terrorist, but to our good friend Felix, as escaped Russian criminal jailbird with a string of convictions for Muslim-inspired acts of violence.”
—John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man
The question of how deeply you grapple with evil in the world of your story is in some part determined by the genre you are writing in—but not entirely. Ian Fleming also wrote spy stories, but the world of James Bond couldn’t be more different than that of George Smiley. Bond dives in and out of bed with the same unthinking, boyish gusto he pilots speed boats and slashes villains; poor old George Smiley has a wife who is not only unfaithful, but publicly so—and he thinks about everything, which only makes him more depressed and unhappy. His ability to see all sides of a question, to peer into people’s souls, as it were, brings him no end of misery, while James Bond’s ability to skate on a cold, hard skein of his own making brings him no end of pleasure.
Tiger bowed. Bond bowed and drank more sake, toasting Tiger. Released from
the tension, the geisha applauded and the Madame instructed Trembling Leaf to give Bond another kiss. She did so. How soft the skin of Japanese women were! And their touch was almost weightless! James Bond was plotting the rest of his night . . .
—Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice
So one might say that the moral of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is that no one can be trusted—not even your wife—but one must still try to do the right thing; whereas the moral of Live and Let Die is to go for the gusto, never mind the consequences.
To Catch a Theme
If you smelled a discussion about theme peering around the corner, you were right. The issue of a story’s themes is directly related to the question of the moral universe. One might say they are kissing cousins; the themes of any given story will emerge in any discussion of the moral, and vice versa.
The moral universe is the fictional world in which themes revolve like planets around the major events of the story. To some extent, the depth of purpose in any story is linked to the extent to which a writer investigates his themes.
For example, a major theme of every le Carré novel (and I would imagine most spy stories) is betrayal. How le Carré treats this theme is one of the factors that shapes his moral universe. The deeper the investigation of theme, the deeper the story. Agatha Christie is a charming and gifted storyteller, but she rarely investigates her themes deeply. Her stories are more like puzzles with murder as the thing that gets the ball rolling, whereas the world of le Carré is a dark and dirty place, where no one’s hands are clean. In Agatha Christie’s world, even funerals can be a source of ironic amusement.
The fourth person in the kitchen was Mrs. Jacks who “came in” to lend assistance where it was wanted and who had much enjoyed the funeral.
“Beautiful it was,” she said with a decorous sniff as she replenished her cup. “Nineteen cars and the church quite full and the Canon read the service beautiful, I thought. A nice fine day for it, too. Ah, poor dear Mr. Abernethie, there’s not many like him left in the world. Respected by all, he was.”
—Agatha Christie, After the Funeral
In Hollywood they like to talk about “the takeaway message” of a story. This is another way of describing the moral. So one “takeaway message” of an Agatha Christie novel might be, “Yes, dear, people will kill each other, but never mind; it’ll all be put to right in the end.” But it also something darker: even in a quaint, polite, pleasant place, dark things happen beneath the surface. And even the characters who aren’t murderers often have dark motives that make them suspects.
But in a le Carré novel, nothing will ever be put to right; even good men like George Smiley are doomed to suffer betrayal after betrayal, because that is the way of the world—his world.
The Germans have a word for one’s philosophy about life: Weltanschauung. (Okay, it just means “world view,” but it sounds so much cooler in German, don’t you think?) The point is that every writer has one—or better have one, if they hope to be taken seriously.
Of course, it’s not something you can go out and buy on the street (well, maybe in the East Village). Seriously, though, it’s a product of your life experience, your personal philosophy, and the themes and issues that interest you, as you grapple with them in your writing. It’s also a result of how deeply you grapple with the themes and issues, as well as what conclusions you draw in the end. And I don’t think you can predict those in advance; you have to come to them as you write. And what you find may very well surprise you—it may even shock you.
To some extent the genre you’re writing in may influence your themes—for example, in a spy novel it would be very hard to avoid dealing with the subject of betrayal, but it might not come up much at all in a murder mystery (though one could say that murder is the ultimate betrayal, I suppose).
So the moral universe the writer creates is both a product of his cultural upbringing and his own sensibility. As you can see from the previous examples, writers are artists often at odds with the society they live in—in fact, some people would say that it is the artist’s job to hold a mirror up to the society they live in and question its values. The role of artist as societal critic and subversive is well established; when Hitler banned certain paintings in Nazi Germany because they were “decadent,” he was following the lead of a long line of dictators. Plato believed artists should be banned from society, because they were dangerous, and stirred up people’s emotions—unruly, unpredictable forces indeed to a conservative in ancient Greece.
The Center Cannot Hold
In any story, there is a center of moral good. Robert McKee talks about this with great eloquence in his seminal book, Story. This center may or may not be found in the protagonist of your story. It may be found in a mentor character, or a sidekick—or perhaps not at all (more about that in a minute). In a crime novel, however, the protagonist will certainly be struggling with questions of good and evil—perhaps within his own soul. In the Miss Marple novels, she represents the moral center of the story. A good example of the center of good in a character who is not the protagonist is Elizabeth in le Carrés The Spy Who Came in from Cold.
I once saw a wonderful exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. A series of objects were suspended from the ceiling, and all were set in motion, rotating around their gravitational center. (All objects have a gravitational center.) Most of them revolved around a center that was clearly within the object itself—except for one! An L-shaped piece of metal, like the tool used by an architect, was revolving slowly around a center that existed in mid-air, outside of itself.
I found this utterly amazing—and later that night, it occurred to the that it was a perfect metaphor for the writer: Sometimes in a story, no character represents the moral center— it exists somewhere outside the action of the book, only in the writer’s imagination. For example, in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, none of the characters even come to close to representing the moral center. The story revolves around a completely invisible moral center, like the L-shaped form I saw in the Franklin Institute.
Shades of Gray
No matter what the society, or what the character’s plight, we are always dealing with shades of gray. Few choices in life are as simple as win or lose, good or evil, and the difficulty for the protagonist is to decide what is right—and then have the courage to follow that action. Moral choices are getting more complicated, not simpler—with issues such as genetic cloning, abortion, prayer in school, medical research occupying our headlines, there is an abundance of material for the writer to chew over. In fact, many colleges are now adding courses in ethics to help young people deal with our increasingly complicated world. Even homicide detectives may have less than admirable thoughts about their work.
Ferras rubbed his left shoulder as he spoke. This was also part of the routine. It was his unspoken way of reminding Bosch that he had taken a bullet a couple years before and had earned the early exit. …He wasn’t committed and Bosch was tired of waiting for him. He was also tired of waiting for a fresh kill. It had been four weeks since they’d drawn a case and they were well into the late summer heat. As certain as the Santa Ana winds blowing down out of the mountain passes, Bosch knew a fresh kill was coming.
—Michael Connelly, Nine Dragons
Very often the protagonist has to give up something in order to make the choice he believes in the end to be right—or, as McKee says, he must risk losing in order to gain.
One question that often helps focus your conflict is to ask: “Where is the love versus the duty?” A story such as Serpico deals with that very issue. The 1973 movie was based on the true story of Frank Serpico, an honest New York cop who blew the whistle on rampant corruption in the force, only to have his comrades turn against him. Frank Serpico loved his fellow police officers, but saw his primary duty was to justice—to see that the truth prevails. And so Serpico is a tragic hero, because he can’t accomplish his goal without causing pain to others—and to himself.
Do Unto Others
I am not suggesting pedantry—writing that has made up its mind to teach a lesson to the reader—real art is never so simple, because people are never so simple. Most people’s actions come from a complex swamp of motives, both good and bad, and impulses, both conscious and unconscious. But it is the writer’s job to know more about his characters’ inner life than they do themselves, and thus shed light upon the reasons behind their actions. The writer—even when writing a Who Done It—is always searching, always hunting for the great Why.
So Happy Hunting, everyone!
This article originally appeared in The Third Degree, the newsletter of the Mystery Writers of America