Martha Alderson has worked with hundreds of writers in sold-out plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations for more than fifteen years. Her clients include bestselling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow her blog.
What You Can Learn from the Universal Story
My understanding of the Universal Story and its importance emerged from twenty years of research into the anatomy of stories and consulting with writers from all over the world. By gaining a fluent knowledge of the Universal Story, you gain at least two strengths:
1. The more skilled you are at presenting your words according to the time-honored techniques, the more compelling your story and the stronger its connection will be with readers and audiences.
2. By creating a transformative plot for your story, you improve your productivity as a writer, which in turn transforms the quality of both your writing life and your personal life.
Wisdom about the Universal Story improves your story and it also will improve your life. Stand back from the drama of your own life and gain a deeper understanding of the bigger picture by assessing where you currently are in the Universal Story. Determine how your own individual story is related to and is integrated within the whole of your life. Learn about the strength and purpose of your own personal power and what weakens you as a writer and a person. Seize the capacity to create vital stories and live a meaningful life.
The Universal Story is in the undercurrent of every breath you take, every story you tell yourself, and all the stories you write. Learn to refer to it when you arrange a story or when, having written, you find yourself mired and lost or simply curious about where you are and where you are headed or, at least, the general direction in which you are moving.
The better you know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and the broader your understanding of the universality of the story of your life, the less resistance and pain you experience when crafting a story. Understanding the universality and interconnectedness of everyone’s stories allows you to appreciate the forces that both support and interfere with your success.
The deeper you delve into the Universal Story, the more you will recognize the universal components in your work—your protagonist’s emotions in a scene, your reaction to situations, and the significance of friends and foes in your story and in your life.
The more conscious you are of the meaning of your writing and your story, the closer attention you pay to the words you write, the schedules you create, and the language you speak.
A belief in the partnership between the writer and the Universal Story makes you less inclined to give full ownership of the story to your ego. This partnership helps you do what needs to be done for the good of the story and readies you to work in concert within yourself and outside yourself. Thus, you will be more willing to open yourself up for critiques and feedback from others.
That said, I recommend that you never show your first draft to anyone. The first draft of a writing project is the generative phase. At the end of it, you are faced with a manuscript full of holes and missteps, even confusion and chaos. This is part of the process. Bringing in an unbridled critic risks stifling the muse and could intimidate you into stagnation.
Your first draft is a fragile thread of a dream. You know what you want to convey—well, maybe. Few writers adequately communicate a complete vision in the first draft of a story, especially when writing by the seat of your pants. Allow others to read your writing now and you may lose energy for your story and become overwhelmed by the task ahead of you.
Submitting your work for others to evaluate and judge is never easy, but then writing it in the first place was not easy either. Before making a copy of the story for others to read, release old beliefs that do not fit you anymore. By now, you already have purged scenes and chapters that lacked a thematic thread leading to the climax. Just as the release of those unnecessary words frees your story to embrace a new identity, you are free to create a higher and more vibrant meaning to your life.
Release Your Ego When You Release Your Story to Be Read and Critiqued by Others
You have three choices about how to react to feedback from others:
1. Your body shrinks and withdraws. Negative words crowd your mind. You give up.
2. You become angry and belligerent, rejected constructive criticism that could be helpful.
3. You consider the feedback and intent thematically. You wake up and move ahead.
In learning about the Universal Story, you come to understand that you are more than the words you write and the books you publish. You are a writer. Because you are a writer, you listen differently to other people’s judgments about your words and your books.