Do you remember the last time someone told you a story and you laughed so hard you cried? How about the last time you wept as they shared their tale? Or got angry? Scared? Envious?

Have you read a narrative book that punched you in the gut*, or stayed with you for weeks, or made you laugh out loud on the city bus?

And writers, do you then think “How do I do that?” (Or worse: “I’ll never be able to do that.”)

Guess what? You totally can.

*Far be it from me to let a moment pass to recommend a book. I just read The Power by Naomi Alderman and, holy crap, my gut has been punched (or, um, electrocuted). Read it, I beg of you. So, so good.

On the flip side, do you remember someone sharing a story with you and it just kind of fell flat? Or read a book that after finishing it you just shrugged and thought, “meh…”?

There are many things that can cause both of ends of this spectrum, from the voice of the storyteller to narrative suspense to having uniquely intriguing details to work with.

But there is one thing that every writer and storyteller needs to consider, and that is the universal themes that are present in the story.

Without considering themes that are present in your story, you will not know where to focus your attention as you write it. You will get lost in the weeds of the details while losing sight of the reason your audience might be interested in the first place.

First the bad news. As humans we are all selfish and our time is short. As readers, we want to know one thing: “How does this relate to me?” If it doesn’t, the reader will abandon the story. The listener’s eyes will glaze over. You know this is true, because you’ve been that reader or listener. We all have.

Now for the good news:  this is a relatively easy fix.

Consider the universal themes of your story. Shall I list but a few? Love. Loss. Heartbreak. Illness. Grieving. Parenting. Family. Marriage. Racism. Misogyny. Dreams. Maturity. Immaturity. Loneliness. Forgiveness.

The list is endless.

The point is that as writers we need to be aware, from the first draft, of the themes that are present in our stories. These are the places at which the listener will be able to enter and say, yes, I get that. Or, yes, I’ve felt that.

The audience didn’t experience our story, but they have experienced the universal themes within them. Tap into that.

When I was in my mid-20s, I wound up on a jury for a murder trial. The man accused in the case shot and killed a cashier. The question was if it was intentional or by accident.

The details of the case, now long over and part of the public record, are interesting in and of themselves. I told the story over and over until all of my friends and family were probably sick of it. I don’t know; they were pretty gracious about it.

The thing is that for years afterwards, I was troubled by that experience. I wrote about it but it kept falling flat, like a rote list of events with no real impact for anyone but me. I could tell I wasn’t getting to the core of my problem. I abandoned and returned to this story in my writing several times for the next 15 years, but I never shared it with anyone because it didn’t feel complete.

The part of the story that I remember with equal parts shame and pride is that I was the reason we deliberated as long as we did. I was the youngest person on the jury and at the height of my passion for justice and equality for people who have been historically marginalized. I was angry that this jury of all white people (myself included) could decide within minutes – minutes – that the young black man in the courtroom was guilty. So I dug in my heels. I got defiant. I was totally wrong, the evidence was clear and I knew it, but I couldn’t stop myself because it wasn’t fair and I didn’t know how to make that young man’s world better.

In my early drafts of the story, I left this whole component out. But therein lay the universal themes: racism and white privilege and youthful naȉvety. Once I realized that and really sat with the way the whole experience matured me, I was able to write it. And it was almost immediately published.

Action steps to find the universal themes in your story:

  1. If it is a true story, ask yourself how you felt at various points of the experience. Emotions are a great indicator, because we all feel them. Create a list of those emotions.
  2. If it is fiction, do the same for your protagonist and even your antagonist.
  3. Look back on the list of emotions, and ask yourself “Why?”
  4. If the answer is too simple, insincere, or shallow, dig deeper. “Why?” (Example: If I said I was “frustrated” in the jury deliberation room because everyone voted “guilty” so fast, I would need to go deeper to find out why that was frustrating.)
  5. The answers to your WHYs are going to give you your universal themes.

Sometimes the universal themes are right there, staring you in the face. Other times, we have to work to find them. But it is our job to do this. And it’s essential that we do.

Because our stories are important, but they will fall flat with readers if we don’t know why.

Want to learn more about ways to impact and engage your reader with a true story?  

In this free workshop, we will explore six essential strategies to crafting engaging and impactful true stories for your memoir, essays, blog, family legacy, or for live storytelling events.

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