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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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
Good critique – the opinion of readers and other writers whom you trust – is vital to writers who want to improve their craft. Critique helps a writer make that piece of writing they just birthed, even better, and therefore increasing the odds of publication.
However, critiquing another writer’s work is a delicate, potentially hazardous proposition (to friendships and or family relationships) if you forget a few golden rules. I’ve seen writers receiving critique, drop into despair, eyes water, some even storm out of critique groups and never come back. That serves no one. Keep in mind that often writers tie their entire sense of self worth to their writing. A critique can seem like criticism if not handled carefully. In my beginning years critiques were hard for my thin skin to take. These days a critique is just part of the work, a necessary part, and I’m happy to edit, cut and rewrite to make my work what I want it to be. In other words, I now have thick scaly alligator skin.
Conversely, I’ve seen writers who want ONLY praise, who will not and do not read the craft books, understand the art of writing, and have no intention of doing so. To protect yourself, your time and energy keep this golden rule; DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME AND ENERGY on any writer who is not working on their writing as hard as you do, or more so.
No one learns anything if you are too kind, not brave enough, and your feedback is done hastily and is not helpful.
In critiquing, remember these golden rules;
- Critique the writing, not the writer.
- ONLY work with writers who want honest feedback that will genuinely help them improve their work.
- Take time and make an effort so you can offer a critique that is thoughtful and helpful; otherwise, just respectfully decline to do a critique for them.
- Put yourself in the critique receiver’s shoes. EMPATHY is key here.
- Always be brave enough to tell them the truth, in the kindest way possible.
- Take time to consider your feedback and how it may be received, then hopefully both parties come out unscathed, wiser and with mutual respect.
And for those receiving critique;
Not letting writing critiques wound you is easy to say. It necessitates a change of perception and a ton of practice to earn my kind of alligator skin. Constantly remember; your writing is not a reflection of your value as a human being. Keep reminding yourself that a critique is an opportunity for evolution. Keep reiterating to yourself; to become a better, stronger writer will take growing pains, as does all transformation. I remind myself of what Hemingway said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” Then I take every opportunity, including receiving critiques, to become better at my craft.
Bottom line, it’s your work, your words, your story. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.
Writing first pages is hard work. PERIOD.
The expectations of you as a writer are huge, and the expectations of readers is even HUGER (is that a word? Maybe not, okay…) BIG, big reader expectations start on the first page.
Anyway, it takes a lot of work to get it right. One thing to remember, amongst the gazillion other things you need to remember about first pages, is to ground your reader in some details. Which details depend on your story, theme, and your super-powers as a creative genius?
Your first page should, in some way, set up the general question your novel is asking and answering. And hopefully by the last page you will convey an answer to that question.
Meanwhile, the reader should have some idea about the setting right away. For example, what season is it? Where are the characters? What is the time period/special world/era? What is the mood? The elements you convey quickly in the beginning set the stage for the story to follow. And that my writerly friend, is a lofty quest.
Last week in a writing class, I shared the opening to one of Lauren Groff’s stories, Delicate Edible Birds as an example of a great first page/paragraph. This is not only beautiful writing, but also tells us a great deal about; location (Paris) mood (dark), era and conflict (WWII) and weather (rain) all in an imagery filled (wings of dark water…street corners as elbows, etc.) poetic style that seduced me as a reader, to continue on. (Read the pretty words in the image to the right.)
A reader should not have to wonder about fundamental questions while trying to slide effortlessly into your story world. This means you’ll have to provide some answers pretty quickly, like on page one.
If you can capture your reader’s curiosity, tickle their emotions, and deliver a character that does the same, then you’ve created a winning first page — one that will engage and mesmerize your audience.
The perfect first page draws readers in from the beginning and tempts them to keep reading. This is your first impression, your chance to hook readers and get them enthusiastic about the story to come. So take the time, use all your creative senses and get it right on page one. It’s not impossible, I promise, and it’s a challenge that’s SO worth it.
Writer Unboxed has a section called “Flog a Pro” where they ask people to read first pages of works by famous authors and then comment on whether or not they were moved to continue. Many say they were not. Reasons include too much detail about the setting or not interested in the characters, but usually the reason was simple—no tension. Reading sites like this is a great way to get some ideas for your own work.
No matter how long you’ve been a writer, how many craft books you’ve read, studied and made part of your writerly DNA, a refresher never hurts. I firmly believe that if you choose to be a writer you’ve chosen a life-long apprenticeship. And if you stop learning, changing and growing, your writing will likely go stale, fall flat on the page and die there unnoticed.
So, I get excited when I learn something new – which in my life is pretty much every day.
Yesterday, at the EPIC Writer’s Group that I often lead, we had a guest speaker, Elena Hartwell author of the Eddie Shoes Mystery Series. Elena spoke to our group about story structure. In her talk she used a term I had heard but didn’t really appreciate. The word was Denouement.
A quick Google search gives us a definition; ‘Denouement is a literary device that can be defined as the resolution of the issue of a complicated plot in fiction. The majority of examples of denouement show the resolution in the final part or chapter, often in an epilogue. Denouement is usually driven by the climax.’
The difference between Resolution and Denouement is that Resolution is when the main problem or conflict is resolved. The Denouement is the very ending.
In class we used the example of one of my favorite ‘I’m home sick today’ movies, Notting Hill. You know, boy (Hugh Grant) gets girl (Julia Roberts), loses girl, girl wants boy back. Boy is an idiot and loses girl again. Then finally BOY GETS GIRL. Anyway, if you know the movie you remember the scene at the very end where Hugh Grant sits on a bench in the park and Julia Roberts lovingly reclines her pregnant self at his side. This revealing of the happy couple in their happy world is the characters in their new world order. This is the Denouement, this is him (our hero) after his hero’s journey, returned to his normal world, but forever changed.
I love learning new writing terms, how to apply them, and where they belong in the story structure.
I’m looking forward to Elena Hartwell’s 4 hour workshop in May. Class description; How to Build Tension with Objectives, Obstacles and Stakes
Stories require tension. From memoir to mystery, sci-fi to romance, comedy or tragedy, tension keeps readers turning pages with a need to know what happens next. So what can writers do to increase tension? One way is to focus on characters’ wants and needs. Investing each character with something they want, putting something in the way, and having high stakes for the outcome, makes stories compelling. Clear objectives, obstacles, and stakes make your stories the kind readers can’t put down. This workshop will help writers of all levels put these concepts into practice.
May 18th 2019
EPIC Writer’s Workshop 9am – 1 pm $70.00 for EPIC members $85.00 for non-members – Frances Anderson Center 700 Main St. Edmonds, WA.
Join Elena Hartwell for a 4 hour writing workshop, How to Build Tension with Objectives, Obstacles and Stakes.
Space is limited, so sign up TODAY at www.EpicGroupWriters.com
About Elena; In addition to her work as a novelist, Elena teaches writing workshops. She also does developmental editing, working one-on-one with authors on novels, short stories, and plays. If you’re interested in working with Elena on a project, please contact her.
When she’s not writing or coaching, her favorite place to be is at the farm with her horses, Jasper and Radar, or at her home, on the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River in North Bend, Washington, with her husband, their dog, Polar, and their cats, Coal Train and Luna, aka, “the other cat upstairs.” Elena holds a B.A. from the University of San Diego, a M.Ed. from the University of Washington, Tacoma, and a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia.
(Photo credit: Mark Perlstein)