Don’t just write. Give the world beauty, truth, substance—an appreciation for life in all its forms, hues, and guises. Scatter seeds of solidarity with humanity and a vision for glorious possibilities.
Aristotle said it first. Memorable content relies on three elements—ethical appeal, emotional appeal, and logical appeal. The truth still holds. Readers seek novels for an experience of human life that models integrity and inspires virtue and hope. Just look at the top twenty highest grossing films in US history, each of which lifts its themes from the American credo.
America is unique in her belief that freedom for human beings originates from birth, from a Creator. The beauty of freedom is that it unites the human race and affords us the ability to help those in need. Freedom is the basis for free will, which endows humankind with the faculty to know good and to choose it. Great stories springboard from this faculty by featuring a protagonist with a strong moral choice and the ability to do good when facing equal and opposing forces. While the main character battles escalating dilemmas, he or she expresses free will and moves forward, evolving from immaturity into maturity—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—despite his or her flaws.
We see in feature films the ultimate test between good and evil. In Titanic, Jack exercises his free will to save the lives of others, especially his beloved Rose. In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler, a corrupt war profiteer, is confronted with the reality that a little girl he recognizes as Redcoat has been sacrificed to the Nazi regime. Only then does he make the choice to risk his life to save one Jew at a time, such that by the end of his days, his lingering regret is that he would have rescued one more.
Moral Justice is a story’s compass, right and wrong according to universally recognized standards. In Titanic, it’s established through Jack, who risks his life to save the despondent Rose from throwing herself overboard to escape her upcoming marriage to a corrupt man. The moral compass is developed on many levels throughout the story, as in the defining moment when Jack risks his life to save third class steerage. In the end, Jack and Rose are destined to part and Jack is willing to sacrifice his life for his Rose. In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler lines his pockets with the misfortune of others—Jews about to face holocaust—until he can no longer tolerate his own self-loathing and corruption. Once he acknowledges this realization, he chooses to rescue every Jews he can.
Without moral justice there is no social justice. We test our heroes against the moral compass of universal values, as well as our understanding of social responsibility. In life, as in storytelling, we might tolerate or admire someone who would forgo generosity, but in storytelling we can’t engage a hero who robs us of our sense of well-being in the small stuff, let alone the greater good. Sometimes it’s as simple as establishing a main character who loves his family or friends. In the larger context, audiences crave characters that defend the defenseless.
In Titanic, Jack saves Rose, as well as many others. In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler stands up to one of the greatest evils in the history of mankind.
Poetic justice builds on a transcendent understanding of nature and delivers an outcome where good is rewarded and vice is punished. After Jack sacrifices his life for others in Titanic, he earns Rose’s love. And Oskar Schindler, making the decision to give up his vices and risk his life for others, finds self-respect and the respect of his estranged wife. A story’s poetic dimension lingers with an audience who is uplifted by the endorsement of life values.
It’s been said that the truth will set you free. But whose truth? Yours? Mine? Ours? Are there parallel or multiple truths? The beauty of truth is that it requires no explanation. It sets us free because it’s held true for all. By featuring free will as the capacity to choose good—the challenge for writers is to create the unity of moral, social and poetic justice. This celebrates the dignity and ideals of humanity, and opens the clarity that sets us free to discover truth.
As human beings, we’re engaged in conflict with our flaws, one another, as well as our ideals. If we’re willing to venture into our spiritual lives and define and question our core values, we can choose to personify our hopes, dreams, and ideals in our characters, who then illuminate man’s nature through free will. Via story, our readership enters a world where moral justice renders social justice, which renders poetic justice. It’s our opportunity to tell it like it is, but more importantly, to show it how we hope it can be.
List some of your favorite books or movies. Now consider its theme.
Can you articulate in a sentence what the author of each is trying to say with her work? What techniques does the writer use to convey this underlying meaning?