Why Should We Care - Making Your Story Universal Part One
By Alexandra Davies
Good, bad, long or short— Every writer’s story is special to them. They’ve toiled for hours over character arcs and story structure. They’ve perfected pacing and plot points. They’ve struggled over notes and edits. Oh and then there’s the rewrites and the other rewrites and the other rewrites. A writer’s story is personal and important, it’s their baby that they hold with caring arms...
The question is, why should anyone else care?
Whether you’re writing an epic space alien opera or an indie drama about your favorite hobby, you have to be able to pitch your story in a way that gets other people excited and interested. How do I do that, you ask? Don’t worry, we got you.
Step One: find the universal theme living in your story. While most stories have more than one, focusing on one will be simpler and easier for the person listening to your pitch/reading your bible or script. Your theme can be something classic (Man vs. Nature or Coming of Age, for example) or it can be something a bit more off the beaten path. Maybe your story is about a selfish person learning to care for others, and so the universal theme is redemption. Maybe your story is about a good person having to adapt to a dangerous environment, and so the universal theme is the resilience of the human spirit. Think about what it is you want to leave your audience with when they walk out of the theater. What do you want them to have learned from the experience?
Step Two: find what’s relatable about your character. Characters in a story aren’t different from real people. For the most part, characters are the product of their circumstances and their environment. At first glance, Ellen Ripley from Alien and Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road are very different from the average person you’d meet at the grocery store or the local coffee shop. Most of us probably haven’t been stalked by an alien or saved a number of women from sexual slavery only to be chased through the desert by a cult leader, but we’ve all been afraid of something and have had to overcome that fear and take action because other people are depending on us. We can relate to that feeling, even if we can’t relate to the circumstances.
Step Three: find the best way to articulate the theme and relatability. This is where things get tricky and will probably take a fair amount of practice to be able to do succinctly and clearly. The general idea is to make sure your main character’s emotions are clear and identifiable (fear, joy, discomfort, pride, etc.) during the pivotal points of the story. Think about how they feel when the aliens attack, or how they feel when their boyfriend/girlfriend that they hoped to marry packs their bags and walks out the door, and tell the person you’re pitching to what that feeling is. We need information about your character, and information about what they’re going through, in order to relate to them. For the theme, it’s not a bad idea to state that outright. Try saying “at the end of the day, this story is about…” The clearer and more succinct you can be, the better.
Before we wrap up this discussion, I feel it’s important to stress that getting comfortable talking about these things take time, especially when you’re very connected to your story. It’s tempting to go on the defensive when someone asks why they should care about your story or your character. Rather than getting frustrated that they couldn’t immediately see what’s so clear to you, take a deep breath and reiterate the characters’ emotional arc and the theme.
You can do this!
(check back next week for Part Two)