What Will Smith’s Screenwriter Knows About Pulp Fiction

“The Slap Heard Round the World” is the only reason I even knew the Oscar took place. 

And while I got a chuckle out of it just as much as the next guy, it reminded me of the work of a storytelling master I have had the pleasure of meeting, Dr. Stan Williams. 

You see, Dr. Stan Williams isn’t the kind of academic who sits in his ivory tower, pontificating while never getting his hands dirty. 

No, Dr. Stan Williams is a get-up and go, grab the bull by the horns, slog it out in the trenches of his tradecraft kinda guy. 

The proof? During the 2000s, Dr. Stan Williams was Will Smith’s screenwriter who made movies like I Am Legend the box office hits people know and love. 

The guy knows how to tell a story. 

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

But before he could become the mastermind behind Will Smith’s early millennium hit parade, Dr. Stan Williams had to have a deep understanding of just exactly what makes a story tick. 

He spent the 1990s in his PhD research on this subject, and went public with his findings to help all writers everywhere in his book 2006 The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success.

Just what secrets did this book reveal? 

THE ONE BIG IDEA

The book hinges on one big idea, the big idea that is the namesake of Dr. Williams’ life work. 

That big idea is the Moral Premise. 

Dr. Williams explains just what the Moral Premise is below: 

“In brief, the Moral Premise describes how successful motion pictures are always structured around a psychological (or spiritual) premise based on true moral values, and how screenwriters can appropriate the structural elements of the moral premise to write successful movies.”[1]

Essentially, it is formulated as “[A Good Moral Value] leads to a [Good Moral Outcome], while [A Bad Moral Value] leads to a [Bad Moral Outcome].”

A Big Idea indeed…but just how does it apply to Pulp Fiction, you ask? 

THE TWO BIG CATEGORIES 

Understanding the Moral Premise is the rock solid foundation you’ve got to have to understand the towering castle that is Pulp Fiction.

Especially when it comes to Pulp Fiction’s Big 2 Categories!

You see, you can change the Pulp Hero’s deadly weapon, his menacing enemies, his exotic locales, or his princess prize. 

But at the heart of the tale, Pulp Fiction can only have 2 Categories, 2 Moral Premises. 

Those two Moral Premises are the Cult of the Gunfighter and the Cult of the Outlaw. 

GUNFIGHTER AND OUTLAW

In his book, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America, the masterful Postmodern scholar Richard Slotkin explains that the story of the Cult of the Gunfighter is the story of: 

 “…a ‘good man with a gun’ is in every sense the best of men–an armed redeemer who is the sole vindicator of the ‘liberties of the people,’ the ‘indispensable man’ in the quest for progress.”[2]

On the other hand, Slotkin explains that the story of the Cult of the Outlaw:

“…proposes nostalgia for an idealized pre-capitalist past as the basis for a critique of modern American society and culture. Yet each, in the end, sees the power of the modern capitalist state as historically irresistible, doomed to success”[3] 

The Gunfighter as “good man with a gun” goes out and defends the society and the culture from enemies without. The Gunfighter is not a part of society, but he believes its people and their dignity are sacred things worth defending.  

In doing so, the Gunfighter is accepted by the society, affirming the values of the Society’s Spiritual Caste, and protecting and empowering its Working Caste to become Warriors themselves, just as the Gunfighter is. 

Meanwhile, the Outlaw believes the entire society and culture to be corrupt, rotten to the core by a Predatory Ethos of vice masquerading as virtue. And so, he fights the system that makes it so, the shadowy and greedy enemy from within, the dreaded Spiritual Caste and Merchant Caste. 

TWO SIDES, ONE COIN 

However, the Gunfighter and the Outlaw are two sides of the same coin. Though their goals and foes are different, the core aspects of their being differ not. Richard Slotkin explains: 

“The outward form of the gunfighter style emphasizes artistic professionalism in the use of weapons, but what justifies and directs that professionalism is a particular state of mind, a ‘gunfighter’ understanding of ‘how the world works.’ 

“That understanding is essentially ‘hard-boiled’: the world is a hostile place, human motives are rarely good, and outcomes depend not on right but on the proper deployment of might.”[4] 

This understanding is shared both by the Gunfighter and the Outlaw, and that is why they are good at what they do, whether they do it for an embattled just community, or against a corrupt and deceitful one. 

But there is one key point that Richard Slotkin forgets. 

THE COMMON DENOMINATOR  

What Richard Slotkin neither explains nor understands consciously,[5] is that this “deployment of might” he speaks of is a Confrontational Might. 

This Confrontational Might is  based on the Moral Foundation of what Psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls “Fairness”, in its Conservative variety. 

This variety of Fairness is an Equality of Opportunity type of Fairness, imbued in an up-front, straight-shooting, mano-a-mano fight. 

Of course, it’s never never an Equality of Outcome–for there can only be one winner![6] 

Both the Gunfighter and the Outlaw are the Confrontational Western Warrior

THE PARTS MADE WHOLE

On the Gunfighter side we have John Wayne. We have John Carter. We have Richard Barrett.

On the Outlaw Side, we have Clint Eastwood. We have Conan the Barbarian. We have James Lafond.

They are two sides of the same Pulp Fiction coin, and they are both necessary to make the genre whole.

But just how would we formulate each story in the Moral Premise System, you ask? 

THE CULTS AS MORAL PREMISE  

For the Cult of the Gunfighter, we would formulate it as: 

The Confrontational Western Warrior Ethos leads to the safety of the Sacred Community, while Cowardice leads to the Sacred Community’s destruction.”  

For the Cult of the Outlaw, we would say: 

The Confrontational Western Warrior Ethos leads to Freedom from the Corrupt Community, while cowardice leads to enslavement by the Corrupt Community.”  

But one big question still remains…

THE FINAL BIG QUESTION 

Which style is yours? Which story captures your imagination? Which “Cult” speaks to your experiences in life and your beliefs about its nature? 

Which Moral Premise rings truer to you? 

Only you can answer these questions for yourself. 

Pulp Fiction Freedom to you, my friends! 

Richard Barrett

02-21-2022, adapted 06-04-2022

SOURCES CITED 

[1] Williams, Dr. Stan. “The Moral Premise Book Overview.” stanwilliams.com, 2010. https://stanwilliams.com/MORALPREMISE/

[2] Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Pg. 396. 

[3] Ibid. Pg. 639. 

[4] Ibid. Pg. 402.

[5] Richard Slotkin does understand the truth of Confrontational Might subconsciously, because as he explains it, the infamous Showdown is the crux of the Cult of the Gunfighter: “The story [in the Cult of the Gunfighter] will have to reach its climax in a fast-draw shoot-out, in which their [the Gunfighter’s] calling will reach the pinnacle of achievement…” Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Pg. 401. Compare this to my equation of the Showdown tradition as the embodiment of the Confrontational Western Warrior Ethos.


[6] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013. Pgs. 158-161, 205-211, 330-335.

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