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Friday, October 21, 2011

What You Can Learn from the Universal Story ~ Martha Alderson

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.


  1. Hi Kelly,
    I'm excited to be on your blog today. Thank you so much for taking part in the blog book tour for the Plot Whisperer book.
    I'll check in here throughout the day to say hi to your visitors and answer questions, etc.
    There are two of you hosting the tour today. Links to both of you are on my blog. I invite everyone to visit both stops.
    Off to twitter and FB about you.
    Be back soon!
    Thanks again, Kelly.

  2. Hey, Martha! I was tickled to see you here on Novel Rocket. I really got a lot out of The Plot Whisperer. :)

  3. I'm reading The Plot Whisperer right now, though I'm slow as molasses. Hope to get it done soon and report on its helpfulness. Thanks for being with us!

  4. Great post!. Martha, I absolutely love your advice & plotting techniques, watched the entire you tube series and am passing it along to writer friends ;-)) Would love a copy of the Plot Whisperer.

  5. Hi Ane,
    I am thrilled you liked the Plot Whisperer book! My dream is to stand toe-to-toe with the big boys who current reign supreme in the plot world.

    In the book, I represent plot from a woman's pov to bring more balance to the discussion...

    I was thrilled when my editor didn't even blink when I used "she" as the generic reference rather than "he" throughout the book.

    I lovingly and predominately showcase women's fiction and women writers, all the while easing all writers (though with extra special and gentle care those writers who write by the seat of their pants and abhor structure) into plot and structure.

    Thanks, Ane. For your kind words! Your opinion means a lot to me.

  6. I love how God works.

    I'm wrestling with draft 1 of Book 2 in a series... Your post is SO timely!

    Thanks Martha, for being part of the Plan!!! :)

  7. Hi Gina, glad to hear you have the book.
    Fun to find you here, Christina! I appreciate your generosity in sharing tips that help your fellow writer!
    Your enthusiasm, KC, lifts me higher...

  8. Hey Martha,
    I like the way you connect writers to the Universal Story. It is fascinating how this shows itself in layers. I see that your YouTube series is relevant not only to the Story itself but also to the Writer's personal journey/history.

    And hello to Novel Rocket...this is a beautiful Website.

    Best Regards,
    Jan K.

  9. Hi Janet,
    The more you delve into the Universal Story, the more you see it everywhere.
    Like now, the last quarter of the year mirrors the last quarter of a novel, memoir and screenplay. Final tests to complete, a chance to shine brightly, and then the year resolves itself in preparation for a new beginning in January.
    I know, I know. I'm obsessed with the Universal Story.
    Fun to see you here, Janet!

  10. PS -- The Novel Rocket is a beautiful website and full of helpful information!

  11. You're right, Martha, I do see the universal story in movies, books, even news reports. I picked up the Blockbuster Plots kit a while ago, and found the sections on plot really helpful. I'd love to win this book and see how your thoughts on plot have evolved!

  12. Hi Angelica,

    Oh, how great to meet someone else who sees it everywhere. How about in your own life? In the life of friends and family? Do it see it there, too?

    Thanks for your comments and good luck with the book giveaway!

  13. Interesting concept about the universal story - perhaps that is what causes the reader to breathe a satisfied sigh at the end of a great novel - it touches a chord within.


  14. Hi Kelly,

    I'm actually not really sure where you are in the world! It's around 6PM PST where I am here at the beach in Northern California.

    Thank you so much for hosting this stop along the blog tour.

    No stops on the tour tomorrow or Sunday, but back at it again on Monday AM with my favorite writer in the entire world!!!

    Thank you all for visiting and commenting and taking part in the tour.

    Happy plotting and lots of love,
    martha aka the plot whisperer

  15. PS -- just saw your comment, Heather. Thank you.

    Yes! that's exactly what knowledge of the Universal Story allows you to create in the reader.


  16. Okay, I'm going to have to display my ignorance... What do you mean by "the Universal Story?" Do you explain it in your book?
    It certainly sounds like a valuable thing to understand!

  17. My apologies for never answering your question, Janice. I got swept away in the mega-blog tour until my head was spinning...

    I feel a bit odd commenting so far after the big event but I hate the question just hanging there unanswered...

    Yes, I explain it in my book.

    The Universal Story runs through nature and our lives and the stories we write. I truly believe the more you understand the Universal Story the better your writing and the better your life.

    Happy plotting,
    plot whisperer

  18. Hi Martha,
    Wow, everytime I read something you write, I learn something new. Going through the blog tour is like taking a full writing course. Thank you for doing this!

  19. You mean a writing life with less resistance and less ego is possible? I'm in with the book.


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