“Same thing happened to me.”
“Oh yeah, been there.”
So nice to know we’re not alone, isn’t it? Shared experience holds together family, friends, community, country, alliances. Don’t you wish folks in conflict around the globe would get together and see how much they have in common?
Fortunately for us, novels can produce that effect. When they do that wonderfully well something uncommon happens…they sell big, crossing many demographic lines and sometimes international borders.
High impact fiction simultaneously does two seemingly contradictory things: On the one hand it conjures highly detailed story worlds that are entirely unique to its authors. On the other hand, it portrays universal human experiences with which millions of readers can identify.
Think about paranormal fiction, for example. It’s fun to dwell in the world of demon hunters, fallen angels and witches who text. But what is it that draws us deeply into such stories and which we remember afterward? The violence? The mystical? The spells?
What we remember are the ordinary human dilemmas, foibles, frustrations and ironies that make paranormal characters real like the rest of us. The witch’s mastery of water magic might be cool, but what truly enchants us is that her teenaged son doesn’t call home before he blows his curfew.
Universal human experiences are a foundation of highly successful fantasy, mystery, historical, literary, women’s and romance fiction. Even literature’s most distinctive protagonists may seem like no others, but in fact what they go through resonates with us all. Think of Atticus Finch’s problems as a single dad, or Forrest Gump’s feeling of not fitting in.
To widen the appeal of your work try these tactics…
What’s one thing that makes your protagonist completely unique? What also makes your protagonist exactly like anyone else? For each factor, find five new ways and spots to make those qualities concrete.
If your story is full of events that could only happen here, add two events that could happen anywhere. If your story is a rich celebration of real life, take two story events and blow them up until they couldn’t really happen.
What has happened in your own life recently that made you angry, made you cry or made you laugh out loud? Make a place in your manuscript for that exact same event, or one so close to it that your blood pressure rises, your eyes water or you can’t keep your laughter in.
Writing beautifully isn’t just about language or deft deployment of literary devices. It’s about touching a million hearts with what hurts and heals. It’s telling a story that makes us all feel, “Been there.”
photo courtesy Flickr’s Josep Ma. Rosell