How a moral guideline can make a good novel into a great novel

Note – this article is based on what Lajos Egri calls ‘the premise’ in his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing. If you want to read about it in more depth, buy his book.

The first thing to be clear about is that having a moral guideline or assertion does not necessarily have to be about being ‘good’. After all one, person’s good is another person’s evil, and even bad guys think they’re the good guys. The fact that we all have different views about what is good and right how the world should be run is what makes life interesting (that and Netflix).

What’s important is that it’s a moral assertion that you, as the writer, feel strongly about, even if not everyone agrees with you.

So, what makes a good moral assertion? It should be short, and it should be active.

Here is a few good ones:

  • Pride leads to loneliness
  • Generosity leads to poverty
  • Logic conquers mysticism

As you can see they are short, in that they contain only one brief, straightforward assertion and they contain an active verb.

Here some example of not so useful moral assertions:

  •  Life is wonderful
  •  Slavery is wrong

These are short, yes, but they are not active, they are only static statements, rather than having a sense of forward movement. 

  • Frugality can lead to wealth but only in monetary terms, while generosity leads to a loving family, which is the greater reward

The above guideline is way too complicated. That’s not to say that you can’t cover all that stuff in your novel, but the moral assertion should be a hook that can snag you in an instant. Not something that needs you to hold several ideas in your head at the same time.

You need never state your moral guideline of course, and readers may never consciously know it’s there, but having it in your mind will give your novel a sense of consistency and wholeness that it may lack if you just meander around ideas and plots.

Here’s an interesting task for you to never get round to:

Have a look at some of your favourite novels and see if you can work out what the moral assertion is.


  1. Your post is so useful!
    Ii si sometimes so difficult to choose right moral assertion to interest a great amount of readers. Morality is quite subjective issue and every writer should consider it . I always try to ve very carful while writing moral assertions taking into account that what is good for ones can be evil for others and vice versa.

  2. Thanks for your comment! Agreed, morality is extremely subjective and exploring that is what makes for interesting writing!