The 6 Scenes Every Morality Story Needs
In today's post, I'm covering the obligatory scenes of the morality genre. If you want to write a morality story that works—and that satisfies fans of the genre—then you need to nail these six key scenes in your novel.
I’m also going to show you how these key scenes manifest in the movie Flight. Why movies? Why not books? The simple answer is that movies require less time investment than books. I’m hoping that if you haven’t seen this movie, you’ll watch it after reading this post to help cement these key scenes in your mind.
But, before we get into what those six key scenes are, let’s go over some basics.
What Makes a Morality Story?
Morality stories center around a protagonist with a moral compass that’s about to change, for better or for worse. The protagonist is either seeking redemption from past mistakes or they want to silence their inner conscience so they can keep doing selfish things. Throughout the story, they are haunted by ghosts, memories, or events from the past that challenge their moral compass. By the end of the story, they will either sacrifice for others (and gain self-respect in the process), or they will fail to change, and cling to their selfish behavior even tighter, to keep whatever they’ve been worried about losing.
Beyond that, morality stories can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of romance, action, adventure, or magic. They can include different subplots, too, as long as the protagonist’s moral compass remains the story’s focus. That being said, because this is an internal genre, you will want to choose an external genre to provide the scaffolding for your morality story to unfold within.
Why Do People Read Morality Stories?
Readers choose these types of stories because they want to see what another person will do when given the choice to act selfishly or altruistically. They want to see if the protagonist will make the same choices that they (the readers) themselves would–will they take actions and make decisions for themselves? Or for others? Readers want to feel inspired, and they want to feel certain that they are worthy and capable of redemption, just like the protagonist.
And like all genre fiction, you have to deliver the emotional experience readers are looking for in order for your story to work. So, how do you go about doing that? Well, the first thing you can do is figure out what obligatory scenes and conventions are required in a morality story for it to work.
What Are Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They're the things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.
Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. They’re what help us write a story that works and when coupled with your genre’s conventions, help us evoke emotional reactions in our readers.
Long story short, if you don’t deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, your story just won’t work.
So, what are the obligatory scenes of the morality genre? Let’s dive into the key scenes every morality story needs, and see how each of these scenes shows up in the movie Flight.
The Key Scenes of the Morality Genre are:
#1. The protagonist faces an opportunity or challenge to be selfless.
The first key scene in a morality story is a scene in which the protagonist faces an opportunity or challenge to be selfless. So, something happens and the protagonist has to make an active choice to be selfish or altruistic.
In Flight, Whip learns that six people, including Katerina, died in the crash. This news is a shock (and a wake-up call) for Whip, and he tells Harlan that he’s done drinking.
#2. The protagonist commits to doing nothing about the greater need (and may even move in the opposite direction).
The protagonist takes some kind of action that shows they’re committed to doing nothing about the greater need. They may even cling more tightly to the thing they’re refusing to share or let go of. In most cases, the protagonist has (what they think) is a valid reason for clinging to their broken moral compass (or for hoarding their knowledge or resources).
In Flight, Whip realizes that authorities know he was both drunk and high on cocaine when he was flying. He knows that he faces prison time, a minimum of 12 years for drunk driving, or life imprisonment for manslaughter. While there may also have been a mechanical malfunction, even with a toxicology report, Whip refuses to admit that he has a problem that may have contributed to the deaths of six people. In the very next scene, he’s in a bar, ordering a double Stoli, neat.
#3. The protagonist learns what the antagonist wants and why, and the greater external need is starting to become uncomfortable.
In this scene, the protagonist learns what the antagonist wants, and what they’re willing to do to get it. The protagonist also starts feeling uncomfortable--both because of the external pressure and because they’re starting to see the truth--but not enough that they’ll actually make a change. Sometimes they even double down on their selfish behavior here.
In Flight, Whip learns that there’s going to be a criminal investigation into his behavior and what caused the crash. He can either admit the truth about his addiction (and get the help he so desperately needs) or he can continue to lie to protect himself from getting into trouble. He continues to lie.
#4. The protagonist reaches an all-is-lost moment where it seems like their selfish ways will no longer work.
The protagonist reaches an all-is-lost moment where it seems like their selfish ways will no longer work or get them what they want. They either have to change their strategy to move forward, or they can cling to their selfish ways, consequences be dammed.
In Flight, Whip discovers a mini-bar in the adjacent hotel room and goes on a bender. There’s no way he will sober up before the hearing the next day. Whip decides to use cocaine to help him level out before the hearing.
#5. The protagonist either sacrifices something in service of an individual, or they decide once and for all to maintain their selfish way of being.
In the climactic scene, the protagonist either sacrifices something in service of an individual, or they decide once and for all to maintain their selfish way of being. This is the big moment readers have been waiting for. We want to see whether the protagonist will learn the lesson of the story or not.
In Flight, Ellen Block asks Whip whether he thinks Katerina was the one who drank the vodka. He knows that if he lies, he will go free. He will also blacken the name of his colleague; a woman he knew intimately and who gave her life to save a child. If he tells the truth, then he’ll lose everything he has been working so hard to keep (his job, his freedom, his drinking and cocaine abuse, his false sense of pride). Whip finally tells the truth, discovers his inner moral code, and redeems himself.
#6. The protagonist is either rewarded with forgiveness, or they’re punished for sticking to their selfish ways.
By the end of a morality story, readers should understand what happened to the protagonist after they acted on their selfish ways or chose the more altruistic route. So, the protagonist is either rewarded with forgiveness (and contributes to making the world a better place) or they are punished for sticking to their selfish ways (providing a cautionary lesson for readers). Sometimes the ending is bittersweet, giving readers a healthy mix of both.
In Flight, Whip says goodbye to his old life of lies and loses his wings. He goes to jail, but we learn he’s been sober for a year and is working on repairing the relationship with his son. Sobriety seems to bring him a sense of peace.
You're probably thinking, "This is so obvious! Tell me something I don't know!" But you'd be surprised how many first drafts I see that are missing these key moments.
These are the scenes that readers come to morality stories for. Everyone wants to see the moment where the protagonist has to choose between being selfish or selfless. It’s so rewarding and enjoyable!
So, to make a long story short, you don't leave these key scenes out.
Find a way to give the reader what they want, in new and unexpected ways, and you'll gain fans for life. Many great morality stories stick with us because they include these key scenes in an innovative way. You can do this, too!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Are you writing a morality story? How do you come up with innovative ways to deliver the obligatory scenes of the genre?