In storytelling, the term, universal truth can often stop a writer in their tracks. Simply put, that truth creates a common frame of reference for the story. Like classic myths, this “truth” also rises above culture and language. We recognize it instantly—it resonates deeply.
Shakespeare was a master at theme and universal truth. And he’s the best example of a writer who mastered those aspects of the writing craft and remains relevant to this day. Among his MANY stories, Romeo and Juliet is still popular because of its universal and relatable themes. I remember balling my eyes out in the 7th grade when my sister and I went to the Rose Theater 4 weekends in a row to watch Romeo and Juliet.
Tattooed on my sappy teen-age soul is the last scene; both Romeo and Juliet die because they both believe the other is dead. SOB, SOB, SOB, went the pre-teen girls. They died for love, unable to bear living in a world without each other. We cried through our popcorn, we cried through our Dilly Bars, and we cried so loud that on weekend 5, the theater owner finally tossed us to the curb. Then in the 1980s when we had VCRs, (link added in case you’re too young to know what that is.) Anyway, we got the video. Then we locked everyone out of the house, curled up with popcorn on the couch on a Saturday morning and again, we cried.
WHY does a story capture our hearts in such a way? Generally, it’s the universal theme and truth; love, longing, desire, loss….
The Universal Truth can be anything that grounds the story along familiar lines; lost love, a dying parent, a betraying spouse, man’s (or woman’s) best friend (Dogs), a funeral, a wedding, or a family holiday dinner, to name just a few.
In literary writing a universal truth is an emotion or experience that the reader can relate to, no matter their language, upbringing, race, or life experiences. For example, when Tolstoy wrote, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Most readers with a family immediately understood and agreed, making it a universal truth that transcends culture, privilege, time and space.
Additionally, a key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is a “universal truth,” also called “a life lesson.”
Life Lesson Examples:
Be true to yourself.
What goes around comes around.
You can’t always get what you want. (but you might get what you need)
Face your fears. (overcoming)
What goes around comes around (Karma).
You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it). To survive is to live
A universal message is a message that resounds beyond the story—a message that has meaning even when you strip away the book’s details.
For example, the main theme in Gone with the Wind is survival during a time when traditions, ways of life and thinking, love and understanding are gone with the wind, like in the South during the Civil War, or any story during or post war. To submit that tradition, way of life, love and understanding can all be GONE WITH THE WIND, is a universal statement that was based on, or an extension of the universal theme of survival.
Why has Gone with the Wind been popular for so long? There are a lot of reasons (good and bad), but the strongest of which is the universal themes of the story. Survival and courage in a time of crisis, never giving up in the face of impossible odds, and of course the refrain “Tomorrow is another day” make the story timeless. Anyone, regardless of age, gender, orientation, religion, time or space, can hang on to. Readers and movie goers relate to the characters on some level or another. Because of this, it’s tough to pigeonhole Gone with the Wind as era-specific; it could be any era, any place, any time. Having said that, it certainly is a creation of its time, but the larger more universal themes and truths make it a timeless story.
Right now, sitting here at my computer, everyone under quarantine, my dog is bored, my husband is watching the tv on LOUD, and I’ve gained four pounds that I will call the quarantine four (like the college fifteen) anyway, I’m kinda liking that mantra, Tomorrow is another day.
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A hero (protagonist) is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake. Once this happens, there’s no returning to normal, no lounging in her ordinary world, because the CTA (call to adventure/action) has upset that applecart…she must act. Remember, a story is about a character doing something.
A CTA can be as subtle as a letter arriving, or the death or illness of a family member that forces the protag to return home. How many stories have we read/seen about a reluctant protag turning home? Why, because they tap into universal themes that resonate with audiences of all genres and all demographics.
Examples of over the top, life altering death defying CTA’s are;
In the Hunger Games when Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the 74th Hunger Games in place of her 12-year-old sister. It’s the call to action that sets the story in motion. Primary Theme; Survival.
In Breaking Bad it’s when Walter White gets the news that he’s dying. He doesn’t tell his family, but instead goes on a unique journey to ensure his family’s financial security. Themes; Begins on Survival, and the importance of family themes, then graduates to sin, regret and envy, and the corrupting influence of greed and power.
Count of Monte Cristo, when Edmond Dante is unjustly imprisoned and his desire for revenge drives him to escape and retaliate. Themes are a delicate balance between, vengeance and forgiveness, power and powerlessness. These universal themes are why that story has been told and retold since Alexandre Dumas wrote it in 1844.
So, in your story, can you identify your call to action? Does a letter arrive? Does your protagonist have to return home? Does your protagonist have to volunteer for something in order to save someone else? Was your protagonist just given a death sentence? How can you use that CTA to develop character and set your plot in motion?….Without a call to action, what’s the point?
REMEMBER, there are twelve stages to the Hero’s Journey, The Call to Adventure is only one.
- Ordinary World: This step refers to the hero’s normal life at the start of the story, before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with something that makes him begin his adventure. This might be a problem or a challenge he needs to overcome.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero attempts to refuse the adventure because he is afraid.
- Meeting with the Mentor: The hero encounters someone who can give him advice and ready him for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the First Threshold: The hero leaves his ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies: The hero learns the rules of his new world. During this time, he endures tests of strength of will, meets friends, and comes face to face with foes.
- Approach: Setbacks occur, sometimes causing the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- Ordeal: The hero experiences a major hurdle or obstacle, such as a life or death crisis.
- Reward: After surviving death, the hero earns his reward or accomplishes his goal.
- The Road Back: The hero begins his journey back to his ordinary life.
- Resurrection Hero – The hero faces a final test where everything is at stake and he must use everything he has learned.
- Return with Elixir: The hero brings his knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world, where he applies it to help all who remain there.
Consider writing a 500 word narrative of the scene where your character receives their call to action/adventure.
Regardless whether you’re a Plantser (an Outliner) or a Pantser (one who writes by the seat of their pants)—I’m a combo, a PLAN-ANTSER…HA! Did I just coin a term?—Anyway, no matter how you approach your short (or long) story, I recommend a basic story structure, like the classic, 3-Act. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy, (a type of plot) should be divided into parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. He also believed that the events of the 3-part-plot must somehow relate to one another as being either necessary or credible. And so, we have the 3-Act-Structure.
The 3-Act Story Structure (Thank you Aristotle)
TIP: Before you design your structure consider first, what is the profound change you want your character to experience by the end? Why? Because the answer to that question should fuel your story through all 3-acts, delivering theme, character arc, and a satisfying resolution.
Act 1: BEGINNING – Set up. Introduce your characters; establish the story world, theme and tone. Here, your protagonist should be called to action, due to some sort of crisis point (inciting incident) that shakes up their ordinary world and launches them into a new one.
Act 2: MIDDLE – Conflict. Avoid saggy middles by plunging the protagonist and allies deeper into even more difficulties and obstacles. Often things get worse and they need to re-group and get back on their feet, before things can get better.
Act 3: END – Resolution. This is where your main character(s) figures things out, and actually develops the courage, or a plan to face their demons, slay their dragons, and solve their problems. As a writer, you should always write towards a satisfying ending. That’s why I started with the TIP of knowing what you want your character to experience, their ARC, by the story’s end.
This is a typical story structure is a good starting point if you want to write short stories. I also do this for novel length stories as well. Smart guy, that Aristotle, he sure knew what he was talking about.
And here’s a little you tube (6 minutes) with additional ideas on structuring short stories, starting with Anne Lamont’s acronym ABDCE
We must get all the cantankerous, crabby, complaining stuff out in order to clear the path for what’s to come.
As a fiction writer, I find this to be an invaluable tool. Often it’s tough to get my brain to stop obsessing about the day; my grocery list, meetings, phone calls, arguments, what time does my husband get home, and for goodness sakes I need to call my mom, and etc.…the day at hand. I need to get through those twenty-foot reeds to get to the creative side of my brain, and sometimes I just can’t get through them on my own. That’s where the morning pages come in. Writing LONGHAND, which means no typing, gives you access to your subconscious mind in a way that does not happen when using a computer. In addition, it’s good for your brain, science says so. Don’t believe me, read this Forbes article.
I like to think of my shadow self as the seven dwarfs; Grumpy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Sleepy.
The seven dwarfs symbolize different aspects of our self (dark and light sides).
Happy embraces the universe from a delighted state of mind and emotions.
Sneezy repels or banishes anything unwholesome that comes from the world.
Bashful helps us return to our secluded cosmos, giving us respite from the world.
Grumpy is the part of us that struggles against light.
Doc leads the parade in whining and complaining. Doc is the intellectual side that keeps us in touch with spiteful reality.
Sleepy is the turn-the-power-off apparatus within us, enabling us to take a break from chaos, to shut down when we need time alone.
Then there’s Dopey who embodies our naïve, innocent nature wonderfully unaware of the perils whirling around us.
Once I’ve written my way through those disruptive dwarfs, and they are all down for their nap, I start my writing journey and when I’m lucky I often arrive on Snow White’s doorstep—my inner writer.
Snow White symbolizes the purity and innocence that exists within us all. She beautifies the scenery of our mind, our thoughts, and feelings. She echoes our innermost radiance and reveals our most imaginative intelligence.
From this safe creative space—dwarves hushed—I can create.
And once I’ve started creating, I delve deeper into the stories I’m trying to tell. It’s only then, when the dwarfs are quiet, and Snow White is safe, that I can access my even darker self and craft an antagonist, aspiring to one like Snow White’s Queen.
The Queen—Snow White’s antagonist—represents our inner demons, the untamed ego, greed and the desire of self-gratifying pursuits. The Queen is the false (image) of self—the truest representation of a shadow-self.
Anyway, for me to arrive at a place where I can write a protagonist and an antagonist worth exploring, I need to silence the voices inside my head—That’s tongue-in-cheek, people. I do not really hear voices in my head. Just workin’ an analogy here—That means those annoying dwarves must take a nap. They have to behave, be quiet, and let me write.
Therefore, I allow them to have their say first, like toddlers; once I’ve listened to their wants, needs and complaints, they can go down for nap. QUIET TIME!
Moreover, for me, one way to achieve that goal is through morning pages, afternoon pages, writing in my car, or maybe sitting in a cafe in Florence writing my morning pages while my husband climbs the Duomo.
Keep writing everyone. Silence those dwarves, but let them play on occasion.