Lilly’s Thoughts on: Touching the Universal Heart…
Spinning stories is one of the most divine crafts I can think of. Long before I ever turned my eye toward publication, I was entirely caught up in the pleasant occupation of spinning stories for the mere pleasure of doing it. I loved living in my “other worlds.” It wasn’t until later that I realized there were people who enjoyed some of my stories almost as much as I did. Which got me to wondering, “What makes some stories popular and others (written just as well) not?”
Thus began a study (on my own because it would be several more years before I discovered such wonderful publications as The Writer and Writer’s Digest), to see which things caused the greatest reactions among my readers. And such accolades if I ever managed to tailor a story that caused them to laugh out loud (or even cry), that I was soon hooked on the particular process for doing that. To the point that I finally came up with my own formula. One I still use to this day.
I call it writing for the universal heart (because everybody has one of those). And while I truly feel as if I came up with this method all on my own, there are enough famous writers around (some even my favorites — imagine that!) who have been working the same way plenty long enough to prove that impossible. Still, for what it’s worth, here it is.
First, I start with a plot — any plot — “the skeleton” upon which all else will hang. Plots are everywhere, I just reach out and nab one. Without the slightest worry of committing plagiarism, because by the time I’m through, it will be entirely unrecognizable. Not even the same thing anymore. But I discovered early on that it does have to contain certain elements to begin with, in order to “stand up.” Such as a universal premise that triggers something emotional in a reader that is already there. Like the thought of your grandmother renting a room in her house to a foreign exchange student (to make ends meet), only to find out that he (or she) is really part of an Al Qaeda cell group. Or discovering a trapdoor in your basement that leads to a secret passageway. These are what I call ready-made plots, because they bring their own curiosities with them, along with an instant connection to emotions already built-in to readers.
But watch out! While you could say that a handsome man falls in love with a beautiful girl, and — through many perils eventually wins her– is the universal plot of all time, it doesn’t have near the kind of arrow-sharp draw as: An American working on ski patrol during a Winder Olympics, falls in love with a beautiful Israeli skater, only to return from a difficult rescue and find that the entire city has been seized by terrorists, and he can no longer get back in.
With the first, you will have to convince readers to like your characters enough to even care what they are going through. And if their conflicts revolve around some catastrophe that few of us have, or know anything about (like marrying someone with Alzheimers), you will also have to spend some time disproving to them that this would be believable only if the other person had Dementia. Even though, from a writer’s standpoint, you could get plenty of conflict going in this scenario, you would still have to work hard at building your premise into something believable to the average reader.
On the other hand, the second plot comes with a two-fold built-in reaction to what most people already fear: being separated from loved ones, and being attacked by terrorists during a public event. Using these kind of “plot templates” can jump-start a story like nothing else, because the very thought of them has already done a lot of the ground work for you. They come complete with their own pre-made chills and thrills. A lot of books about the writing craft call these “high concept plots.”
I have written a lot of stories over the years that haven’t been of much interest to anyone but me. But when I started asking myself the question, “Who else would like this story?” I suddenly wasn’t so sure I wanted to spend all the time and effort it takes to write a full-length book on something that would only appeal to people who are related to me. The ones who love me so much they would buy anything I wrote, even if it were a field guide to the courting rituals of butterflies (which is a very interesting subject, by the way, but this isn’t the time to go there).
No. Much better to aim at that great universal heart of all humanity. The one that, if you actually manage to put a finger on its pulse, can send reverberations throughout the world. And in our very own writer’s heart… isn’t that really what we are all ultimately after? A thought that sounds so audacious to some of us that we almost feel we would have to have some kind of certified permission to think along those lines. Or at least spend a lifetime working our way up to the privilege. If so, here’s a little something just for us…
“When my heart overflows with a good theme (or plot)… my words become the vehicle of a skillful writer.” (that’s a Lilly paraphrase of Psalm 45:1)
Which is how I look at the subject, anyway.