romeo and juliet

Why Did Shakespeare Make Me Cry?

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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:

Love hurts.

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

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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Themes in fiction (or Non) Writing

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All stories have themes – whether they’re intentionally explored or bubbling under the surface – and the exploration of different themes adds layers and depth to any story, especially if those themes are universal, tapping into what Carl Jung called, the collective unconscious.

The other day I mentioned to a class I was teaching, that discovering what your theme is not only helps you tell the story, it keeps you on track. For example in my novel, Return To Sender, I tried to keep only the letters my protagonist, Theo wrote from war (Korean) that had to do with saving someone. Why? Because he wants to be saved. Redemption is the theme.

I didn’t abandon the theme when I revealed his letters, but instead used them to support the theme. This excerpt from his letters  is an example;

It rained hard the night we evacuated the children from their orphanage, harder than I’d seen, even on the Oregon Coast. The smell of wet dirt, trees, and napalm, that’s the smell I remembered most, the chemical and petroleum of burning napalm. We scrambled with the kids up Korea’s dominating T’aebaek Mountain—the mountain was nearly the same height as Neahkahnie but had limestone caves tunneled deep within. Massive stalagmites hung heavy throughout the corridors. Ancient bamboo-roped bridges built across chasms linked the vast rooms of the caves to one another. It was otherworldly. But the surviving nun knew the place, the Karst Caves, and said we’d be safe. Water spouted from innumerable cracks and seeps – the sound of rain and falling water was everywhere.
We clawed our way up the hills and out of the valley of death. The CCF had entered the war that week and were as ubiquitous as the rain. The NK were ruthless and bloodthirsty and wanted those kids—and now us—dead. The kids and that dedicated nun were too vulnerable for us to abandon for slaughter, so we, my buddy Lieutenant Peters and me, abandoned our orders instead.

Sometimes we writers aren’t fully aware what our theme is until we write a good bit of the story, set it aside, let it ruminate in a drawer for a day, ten or 30, then read it. The theme(s) should emerge, jump off the page, even sometimes, surprise you. Then when you rewrite and edit you can shore them up and explore them in more satisfying (to both you and your readers) ways throughout the story.

An 1870 oil painting by Ford Madox Brown depicting the play’s famous balcony scene.

There are tons of themes, and in a story of any length, there’s generally more than one. Death, War, Prejudice, Freedom…and it shouldn’t be a shocker that the number one theme in literature is love. It’s one of the most prevalent topics in books, movies and music. Love is a universal, a multi-faceted theme that’s been examined in a number of ways throughout storytelling history.

Puppy love, unrequited love, first love, lost love, forbidden love, married love, the love between parents and children, siblings, friends, pets… the power of love to triumph over all…except when it doesn’t.

What are some different love theme examples in literature?

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a tragic tale of forbidden love with dreadful consequences.

Pride and Prejudice explores the type of love that develops slowly over time, from misunderstanding and disdain to friendship, respect and love.

Wuthering Heights explores love by emphasizing how its passion has the power to unsettle and even destroy every unfortunate life in its path.

To create more layered tales, explore themes in your writing.