Uniquely Universal: The Keys to a Winning Story

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Write the story that only you can write. Make it your own. It should be as unique as you are.

Got it? Good. Because we hear this advice frequently and this isn’t one I’m going to debunk. If your story isn’t unique, it is a carbon copy and publishers don’t want things that aren’t original.

But you also need to have a universal element. These universals act as bridges inviting readers into the world of your story.

I had a lesson in both earlier in the week. This year, the Bible study for Presbyterian women is on the sabbath. One of the things that we discussed was the sabbath of our childhoods. Most of us grew up in the St. Louis area where there were blue laws until the 1980s. These laws meant that the only retail available on Sundays was the grocery store. This meant no recreational shopping, no theaters, and so on.

Sounds restrictive? That’s how almost everyone in the group felt about it.

Not surprisingly, I was one of the hold outs. I loved Sundays. We went to church and then I went home with my grandparents. We had lunch. We watched movies — frequently Abbott and Costello or John Wayne. My grandfather and I would putter around in the yard. Maybe I would do a puzzle. At some point we all got our books out. It was divine!

If I wrote a story about this and how I felt about it, it would be unique. So I would have to find one or more universals to act as a bridge to bring readers into the story world.

Surprisingly, the bridge for our discussion was pie crust. Every single person remembered their mother or grandmother baking extra pie crust with cinnamon and sugar. This was a special memory for everyone although the crust form varied. My grandmother used small cookie cutters to shape it. Another woman’s mother twisted it. Yet another mom patted out a circle that she cut into wedges. But no matter. We had already connected over memories of crust.

So how do you do this in your story? Whether you are writing a speculative piece set in a future world or a piece of historic fiction set in Katmandu, you need to find universals that your readers will recognize. Often these universals come in the form of emotion. What are the things that make people feel cherished? Curious? Frightened? Angry? The emotion that you use is going to vary depending on the story and what emotion you want your reader to feel.

At first, it sounds contradictory. Make your story unique and make it universal. But noodle it over and you’ll find a way to do both!