Whether we are writing fiction, nonfiction, a screenplay or even a poem, the only way to reach people, to create art that matters, is through universality.
Many have claimed that there are only so many stories humanity has to tell, and we just keep telling them over and over again. In his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, Georges Polti breaks the entire world of storytelling down to just 36 stories, ranging from “Adultery” (Fatal Attraction) to “Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal” (Ghandi).
We write about a real life experience to get a message across. So first we have to get that message, or theme clear in our minds. Once we’ve done that, how do we create a universal plot and archetypal characters that address that theme?
It’s what civilization has been doing for years. The theme naturally personifies and manifests itself, if we just use our imagination. Our brain naturally makes a story out of a lesson. If we write our story into a three act shape, beginning middle and end, then ask what the moral is, then keep honing and visualizing the story’s shape and sketching out the characters, we can tap into this deep, archetypal, mythic and universal meaning-making capacity. It’s there, in our subconscious, and as long as we can get out of the way, and just allow inspiration and logic to take turns, we can come up with a solid, well written story.
At the same time, we need to immerse ourselves in the genre we are writing, reading and seeing as much as we can of stories that are like ours in some way, so that the patterns become ingrained and our synapses make all the right connections when we put it together on the page.
Joseph Campbell gives us Mythic Structure in The Hero’s Journey, and Robert McKee in Story says “the archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression.”
The idea is that we have this ancient meaning-making muscle inside us, a natural inclination and ability to turn life lessons into story, personal growth into parables. But when we are writing about real life, we often get distracted by the minutia of what actually happened. We forget that what actually happened is not the story.
Events, characters and details of what actually happened can be in the story, but these are not the story. The story is the changes and growth, the meaning made, the universal journey on the path of human existence.
That’s the truth that we need to discern, like the wheat from the chaff.