Fiction Writing Made Easy

#103: Morality Genre Conventions

August 08, 2023 Savannah Gilbo Episode 103
#103: Morality Genre Conventions
Fiction Writing Made Easy
More Info
Fiction Writing Made Easy
#103: Morality Genre Conventions
Aug 08, 2023 Episode 103
Savannah Gilbo

In today’s episode, I’m covering the conventions of the morality genre using the movie A Man Called Otto as an example. Here’s a preview of what’s included: 

[05:09] The protagonist starts the story at their worst (with a "wrong" moral compass)

[06:40] The antagonist pressures the protagonist to face their bad behavior/wrongdoing

[07:54] The protagonist is haunted by their past mistakes or selfish behavior

[09:09] A character who represents the consequences of the protagonist’s wrongdoing

[10:20] At least one mentor figure who helps the protagonist see right from wrong

[11:13] External conflict that pits the protagonist's goals against the needs of others

[12:53] A foil character who positively or negatively demonstrates different behavior

[14:24] The protagonist gets help from unexpected sources

[15:23] The setting must offer the protagonist opportunities to be selfish or altruistic

[16:49] The end of the story is often bittersweet

[18:04] Final thoughts and episode recap.

Rate + Review + Follow on Apple Podcasts

"I love the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast!" ← If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing this show! Your rating and review will help other writers find this podcast, and they're also super fun for me to go in and read. Just click here, scroll all the way to the bottom, tap five stars to rate the show, and then select "Write a Review." Be sure to let me know what your favorite part of the episode was, too!

Also, if you haven't done so already, make sure you're following the podcast! I'll be adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed, and if you're not following the show, there's a good chance you'll miss them. Click here to follow now!

Links mentioned in this episode:

FREE RESOURCE: Need help getting started with your story? This workbook will help you flesh out the foundational elements of your story so you can start writing with confidence and ease. Get your free copy here →

Interested in becoming a book coach? Author Accelerator has a free quiz you can take that tells you if you're a good fit for a career in book coaching. Click here to take the quiz and to learn more about Author Accelerator's Book Coach Certification program! 

Support the Show.

Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

Fiction Writing Made Easy +
Become a supporter of the show!
Starting at $3/month
Support
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In today’s episode, I’m covering the conventions of the morality genre using the movie A Man Called Otto as an example. Here’s a preview of what’s included: 

[05:09] The protagonist starts the story at their worst (with a "wrong" moral compass)

[06:40] The antagonist pressures the protagonist to face their bad behavior/wrongdoing

[07:54] The protagonist is haunted by their past mistakes or selfish behavior

[09:09] A character who represents the consequences of the protagonist’s wrongdoing

[10:20] At least one mentor figure who helps the protagonist see right from wrong

[11:13] External conflict that pits the protagonist's goals against the needs of others

[12:53] A foil character who positively or negatively demonstrates different behavior

[14:24] The protagonist gets help from unexpected sources

[15:23] The setting must offer the protagonist opportunities to be selfish or altruistic

[16:49] The end of the story is often bittersweet

[18:04] Final thoughts and episode recap.

Rate + Review + Follow on Apple Podcasts

"I love the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast!" ← If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing this show! Your rating and review will help other writers find this podcast, and they're also super fun for me to go in and read. Just click here, scroll all the way to the bottom, tap five stars to rate the show, and then select "Write a Review." Be sure to let me know what your favorite part of the episode was, too!

Also, if you haven't done so already, make sure you're following the podcast! I'll be adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed, and if you're not following the show, there's a good chance you'll miss them. Click here to follow now!

Links mentioned in this episode:

FREE RESOURCE: Need help getting started with your story? This workbook will help you flesh out the foundational elements of your story so you can start writing with confidence and ease. Get your free copy here →

Interested in becoming a book coach? Author Accelerator has a free quiz you can take that tells you if you're a good fit for a career in book coaching. Click here to take the quiz and to learn more about Author Accelerator's Book Coach Certification program! 

Support the Show.

Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

Speaker 1:

So the external conflict here could really be anything, but the point of it is that it highlights the need for change in the protagonist, so it puts pressure on the protagonist until they either change or cling even harder to their immoral or selfish behavior. Welcome to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming, so each week I'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started.

Speaker 1:

In today's episode, we're going to talk through the conventions of the morality genre. If you're writing a story with an internal morality arc, then you'll want to make sure you nail these conventions in your novel. So we're going to talk through the conventions and then I'm going to show you how they show up in the movie A man Called Otto. And if you're wondering why I'm using a movie and not a book as an example, the simple answer is that movies just require less of a time investment than books, and I'm hoping that if you haven't seen this movie, then you will watch it after listening to this episode to help cement these genre conventions in your mind. But before we get into what those conventions are, let's just go over some basics to make sure we're on the same page.

Speaker 1:

So when I talk about morality stories, these are the type of stories that center around a protagonist with a moral compass that's about to change for better or for worse. In most cases, the protagonist of a morality story is either seeking redemption from past mistakes or they're trying to silence that inner conscience that tells them right from wrong, so that they can keep behaving in a more or less selfish way. Throughout the story, these protagonists are usually haunted by ghosts, memories or events from the past that challenge their moral compass one way or the other, and then by the end of the story, we'll see whether they've changed for good or for bad. So will they become a more altruistic human being or will they continue to be selfish? Now? Beyond that, morality stories can have any tone or style. They can be set in any place or time and have various levels of romance, action, adventure or magic. They can also include different subplots, as long as the protagonist's moral compass remains the story's primary focus.

Speaker 1:

Now, that being said, this is an internal genre, so you will want to choose an external genre to provide the scaffolding for your morality story to unfold within. So just something to keep in mind. Now, the other thing I want to mention is that people choose to read these types of stories because they want to see how another person will act, given the choice to be selfish or altruistic. So readers want to see if the protagonist of these types of stories will make the same choices that they themselves would. So will they take more selfish actions and make decisions for themselves, or will they act altruistically in the service of others? Ultimately, readers want to feel inspired and they want to feel certain that they're worthy and capable of redemption, just like the protagonist.

Speaker 1:

And like all genre fiction, you have to deliver this kind of emotional experience that readers are looking for if you want your story to work, and one of the ways you go about doing that is by including the key scenes and conventions that are required in a story in your particular genre. So, like I mentioned, we're going to go over the conventions today, but if you want to hear the key scenes that a morality story needs, go back and check out episode number 72, which I will also link in the show notes for easy access. That's where I went over the six key scenes of the morality genre. So you'll definitely want to pair this episode with episode number 72 if this is the kind of story you're writing, and speaking of key scenes and conventions if you're not familiar with these terms. Basically, key scenes are the events, decisions and discoveries that move the protagonist along their journey from A to Z, so it's what provides the framework for the story. And then conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of character, roles, settings, micro-events and values that are specific to a genre. So they're all things that readers would intuitively expect to be present in a story of a specific genre, whether they consciously realize it or not. Long story short if you don't deliver the key scenes and conventions of your chosen genre, your story just won't work. Now, as a freebie for this episode, I have a cheat sheet that lists out each of these genre conventions and if you want to get your hands on that, you can go to savannahgilbocom forward slash morality. So one more time, if you want to get your hands on the cheat sheet that goes along with today's episode. Go to savannahgilbocom forward slash morality.

Speaker 1:

Now, with all that being said, let's dive into the morality genre conventions, and we're going to look at how they show up in the movie A man Called Otto. Okay, so the first convention of a morality story is that the protagonist is starting the story at their worst, and this is really subjective, because one person's worst might be very different than another person's worst, right. But basically, the protagonist is a sophisticated person who might have done something wrong while fully knowing the difference between wrong and right, or they might just be somebody who the world has beaten down. So they either want redemption from a past mistake or they want to kind of silence their inner conscience so they can just keep doing things the way they've been doing them, usually in a selfish way. Throughout the story, the protagonist will struggle between acts of selfishness and selflessness, and the situation itself should offer the protagonist a possibility of redemption, but it doesn't have to guarantee that.

Speaker 1:

So, as an example, in the movie A man Called Otto, the protagonist, otto, is a very strongwilled individual whose moral compass seems to flex based on his mood and or his personal goals at any given moment. We know right away that he has a very strict definition of how the world should be and he doesn't understand why nobody else seems to see all the obvious stuff that's wrong with the world or people's behavior. Like he can we learn that he's recently lost his wife and people now perceive him as hostile and just basically unfriendly. He's a grumpy guy and his goal is more or less to join his wife and death. So he's just tired of living without her and he just wants to move on. So that's convention number one. The protagonist starts their story at their worst and, remember, this is subjective.

Speaker 1:

Convention number two is that there's an antagonist that opposes the protagonist and actively seeks to prevent them from either gaining redemption, or that pressures the protagonist to face their wrongdoing or their selfish behavior. So the antagonist in a morality story is anyone who sees the protagonist for who they really are and who either prevents them from gaining redemption or who puts pressure on them to face their wrongdoing or to face their bad behavior and to start acting in an altruistic way. And in these types of stories the antagonist is often very proactive. So, looking at our case study, a man called Otto. Otto gets two new neighbors, marisol and Tommy, and they don't really let Otto get away with being grumpy. Especially Marisol, she's nothing but friendly to him and basically gives him no choice but to let her into his life. As the story goes on, she does start to confront him about his bad behavior. So she'll ask him things like are you always this grumpy, you know? And she'll call him out on his unfriendly behavior. So in this case study, she is the antagonist, and she's a super great antagonist for Otto because she's literally his opposite. So that's convention number two.

Speaker 1:

There's an antagonist who opposes the protagonist and either seeks to prevent them from gaining redemption or pressures them to change their behavior. Convention number three is that the protagonist is haunted by ghosts, memories or events of the past that remind them of their past mistakes or wrongdoings, and it's these hauntings that help put pressure on the protagonist to eventually change their moral compass. So in a man called Otto, we learn that Otto lost his wife and unborn child in a bus crash and he feels partially responsible, very guilty and just very unhappy now that he's lost his wife. And it was something like when she was alive his life was made up of color, and now that she's gone his life is very black and white. So throughout the movie he's constantly haunted by this bad memory of the bus crash, when they lost their child and eventually when she died. He's also haunted by the fond memories of his wife and how she was such a bright spot in his life and now she's no longer here. So all of this helps to put pressure on Otto to eventually change his moral compass. And there's a really nice moment in the movie where he remembers something optimistic that his wife used to say and it changes his behavior for that day, which then kind of triggers him to behave in different ways in the next couple of scenes. So he definitely fits this convention, and that's convention number three.

Speaker 1:

The protagonist is haunted by ghosts, memories or events of the past that remind them of their past mistakes or wrongdoings. Convention number four is that there is at least one character who represents the consequences of the protagonist's selfish behavior or wrongdoing, and this could be someone they've harmed in the past or someone who has suffered from similar actions taken by somebody else. So in a man called Otto we learn that Otto has lost his friendship with his neighbor Rubin, who used to be his best friend, and their lack of friendship in the present day is a direct result of both men kind of acting in a selfish manner and both being very rigid. So that's one example. The other example is a kid in the neighborhood named Malcolm who is very mistreated by his own father because he's transgender. So once Malcolm comes into the picture and comes into Otto's life, otto can see an example of what someone else's selfish behavior looks like from the other end. So Otto has no problem with Malcolm whatsoever, but Otto is able to see how Malcolm's father's selfish behavior impacts Malcolm, and this is part of what makes Otto reconsider what he's got going on in his own life. So that's convention number four at least one character who represents the consequences of the protagonist's selfish behavior or wrongdoing, or it could be someone who has suffered from similar actions taken by somebody else.

Speaker 1:

Convention number five is there's a mentor figure who helps the protagonist see right from wrong and depending on the type of story you're telling, this person could lead the protagonist astray and encourage immoral behavior as well. You could even have a mixture of both. So maybe you have a more positive mentor and a more negative mentor, literally like the saying of the angel on the devil on your shoulder right. So in our case study, a man called Otto. I would say the biggest mentor in Otto's life is his new neighbor, marisol, and she's just a positive ray of sunshine that also doesn't take his nonsense. So she's influential by example, but she also calls him out on his grumpiness and his selfish behavior. You could also say that Otto's late wife is a mentor figure as well, because he's constantly haunted by both the negative and positive memories of her. So definitely no shortage of mentors in that story. And that's convention number five a mentor figure who helps the protagonist see right from wrong.

Speaker 1:

Convention number six is the protagonist faces a seemingly impossible external conflict that pits their goals against the needs of others. So the external conflict here could really be anything, but the point of it is that it highlights the need for change in the protagonist. So it puts pressure on the protagonist until they either change or cling even harder to their immoral or selfish behavior. So in our case study, a man called Otto. We know that Marisol is an uber-friendly neighbor and she's just not going to take no for an answer. She brings him dinner, she asks him to give her driving lessons and she just kind of butts her way into his life in a really positive way. Other than that, there is a development company that's trying to buy all of the homes in the neighborhood that Otto lives in and they want to rebuild and just do construction there. So, knowing that Otto doesn't want to change and he doesn't want to let go of anything of his late wife's, this provides a lot of external conflict for Otto to face. The other thing to consider is that when we meet Otto in the very first scene, he is looking to rejoin his wife in death, so he does not want to go on living without his wife. So, if we think about the forces of conflict within the scope of that goal, someone like Marisol and Tommy and their two girls, and even the rest of the neighbors they're so nice to Otto and they want to include him in things which pull him away from accomplishing his goal of joining his wife in the afterlife. So there's plenty of conflict here. That gives Otto the opportunity to continue to be selfish or to change his behavior and to start helping others and sharing his gifts with others instead. So that's convention number six. The protagonist faces a seemingly impossible external conflict that pits their goals against the needs of others. Convention number seven is that there's a foil character who demonstrates a different path the protagonist could take, for the positive or the negative. So there's usually a character who has either clung to their own selfish behavior and who is miserable, or there's a genuine well-doer who is content, being altruistic, unlike the protagonist, and this is a character who embodies the ideals and attributes opposite of your character, and they exist to show the protagonist another way that they could go in life.

Speaker 1:

So in A man Called Otto, I think the two characters that fit this best are Mary Saul and Malcolm. Mary Saul is that general do-gooder that just represents the best of humanity. She's selfless, she's willing to help people that she doesn't know, and she's just a wonderful person. Malcolm is similar to Otto in the way that he's had a lot of negative things thrown at him in his life. Remember, he's the character who is transgender and his dad does not accept him for the way that he is. So he's faced a lot of conflict for that in his own life, but he hasn't let it beat him down. So someone like Otto has faced a lot of conflict in his life and had negative things happen, and he has let it beat him down where someone like Malcolm has not. So Malcolm is still a very positive individual who is very altruistic and just a very nice human, regardless of all the bad stuff that he's had to deal with in his own life. So two great examples plus. There's a whole neighborhood full of nice people that are great examples for Otto to learn from. So that's convention number seven a foil character who demonstrates a different path the protagonist could take, whether that's positive or negative.

Speaker 1:

Convention number eight is that the protagonist gets help from unexpected sources. So these unexpected sources could be anything. It could be a ghost, a journal, letters, enemies, people they've harmed, children, adults, animals, whatever. The point of these unexpected sources is to shine a light on what it means to be altruistic, and if the protagonist is paying attention, they will likely learn a lesson of the story from these people. So in our case study, a man called Otto. Like I said, there's a neighborhood full of wonderful people for Otto to learn from. There is also a social media journalist in the story who does a report on Otto when he saves a man from getting hit by a train and she ends up coming back around in the story and, you know, despite the way that he's judged her in her career, she ends up helping him in the end. So there's a lot of people that help Otto. Despite his grumpy behavior and despite the way that he treats them, they still show up to help him and show him what it's like to be neighborly and to be a good person. So that's convention number eight. The protagonist gets help from unexpected sources.

Speaker 1:

Convention number nine is that the setting of the story must offer the protagonist opportunities to do good and to do bad, or to be selfish or altruistic. So think of the setting as a way to set up or test your character as they navigate the story. If they consistently make good or selfless decisions, they're more likely to adjust their moral compass by the end. But if they mostly do bad things or selfish things, they're probably going to dig themselves a hole so deep it's impossible to get out of.

Speaker 1:

Now, in our case, study a man called Otto. This is literally what the whole plot is about. So in almost every scene, otto can either be selfish or he can be altruistic. He has a lot of knowledge and experience that can help his neighbors and the youth around him. And sometimes he does help his neighbors, but it's usually only to serve his own agenda. And then as the story progresses you'll see that he starts doing things without being asked or without anything in it for him. So in the beginning he acts very selfishly. Over time we see him slowly change his behavior. So in the beginning he might be purely selfish. In the beginning of the middle he might do things when he's asked to do them, but only if they serve him. In the back half of the middle maybe he's starting to do things without being asked and then by the end he's in a state of behaving very altruistically. So it's a great example of how a character's behavior can change over time and show that character arc. So that's convention number nine the setting has to offer the protagonist opportunities to do good and to do bad. Convention number 10 is that the ending of a morality story is often bittersweet and there's usually an element of sacrifice. So the protagonist usually either sacrifices for others and kind of gains that self respect that they didn't have before, or they cling to their selfish behavior to keep whatever they're worried about losing or just to stay stuck in their stubborn ways. So in our case study a man called Otto. One of the big things that Otto does at the end is that he helps his friend Rubin, so the next door neighbor that he had a falling out with. He helps Rubin and his wife Anita stay in their home. So he goes up against the housing development company and kind of calls them out for their selfish behaviors. So he stands up for what's right, even though it requires him to make effort and work with other people. He does it for his friends and there's a whole bunch of other stuff in the end that Otto does as well to show us that he's changed. We also see that Otto does pass away and he leaves everything in his name to Marisol. So he has definitely found the family in that sense of belonging that he did not have in the beginning. And the ending is just very bittersweet. It's bitter because Otto is no longer here, but it's sweet because we see the impact that Marisol and her family and the neighborhood had on Otto and vice versa. So that's convention number 10, the ending is often bittersweet.

Speaker 1:

Now I'm going to quickly recap these before we wrap up here. So convention number one is there's a protagonist that starts the story at their worst and remember, this is very subjective. One person's worst is going to look different than another person's worst. Convention number two is there's an antagonist that opposes the protagonist and actively seeks to either prevent them from gaining redemption or that pressures them to face their wrongdoing or their bad behavior. Convention number three is that the protagonist is haunted by ghosts, memories or events of the past that remind them of their mistakes or their wrongdoings. Convention number four is there's at least one character who represents the consequences of the protagonist's selfish behavior or wrongdoing. Convention number five is there's a mentor who helps the protagonist see right from wrong. Convention number six is that the protagonist faces external conflict that pits their goals against the needs of others. Convention number seven is there's a foil character who demonstrates a different path the protagonist could take, whether that's positive or negative. Convention number eight is that the protagonist gets help from unexpected sources. So that could be ghosts, journals, letters, friends, enemies, people they harmed really anybody could be an unexpected source. Convention number nine is the setting must offer the protagonist chances to do good and bad, or to be selfish or altruistic. And finally, convention number ten is that the ending is often bittersweet.

Speaker 1:

Now you might be 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 conventions and remember, these are the conventions so the character, roles, settings and micro events that readers choose these types of stories for. If you know what type of stories I'm talking about, then you know that as readers or movie watchers, we're just dying to see the protagonist choose in that big climactic moment between being selfish or selfless. It's super rewarding and enjoyable. So we want to make sure all these conventions are here to build up to that kind of moment. So, to make a long story short, don't leave these conventions out. Instead, find a way to give the reader these conventions in new and unexpected ways, and that's how your story is really going to resonate with readers and that's how you'll gain fans for life too, which is what we all want, right? We want people to read our stories, we want to have impact and we want to gain readers for life. So keep these conventions in mind if you're writing a morality story, and don't forget to go download the cheat sheet that recaps these genre conventions. You can grab that at savannahgilbocom forward slash morality and I will put that link in the show notes for you for easy access as well.

Speaker 1:

So that's it for today's episode. As always, thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes listed in the description of each episode inside your podcast player or at savannahgilbocom forward slash podcast. If you're an Apple user, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to and in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. And while you're there, go ahead and hit that follow button, because there's going to be another brand new episode next week, full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So I'll see you next week and until then, happy writing.

Exploring Morality Genre Conventions
Conventions of a Morality Story