Wednesday, May 18, 2011

thoughts on universals

If INTERN has been rather absent from the blogosphere over the past week or so, it's because she has been deep in her basement Book Laboratory conducting experiments and pondering the notion of universals in literature. What does it mean for a novel or memoir to have “universally relevant themes” or for a character to be “universally relatable”? These are terms that pop up pretty frequently in agents’ wishlists for the perfect manuscript, but they can be pretty mystifying until you get the hang of them. If you're not sure what's universally relatable about your story, how do you find out? And what can we learn about universal themes from books that already have them?

INTERN is no Donald Maass (for one thing, her grin is much toothier), but she’s found it helpful to boil down the first question to the following theme-finding formula:

“Not everyone can relate to x, but most people can relate to y.”

Actually, here’s an even better way of putting it:

“Not all readers can relate to (specific thing), but most readers can relate to (general thing).”

Here are some examples:

Not everyone can relate to being a blind ballet dancer, but most people can relate to the struggle to overcome adversity.

Not everyone can relate to being a spaceman with a troubled past, but most people can relate to the yearning to atone for past mistakes.

Not everyone can relate to being a widowed painter who falls in love with the town fire chief, but most people can relate to the bittersweetness of learning to love again following a heartbreak.

See what INTERN means? No matter what your novel or memoir is about (growing up on the prairie, solving international murder mysteries, being a teenage runaway, etc.) you can always rephrase it in its most general terms, otherwise known as its themes.

Think about having a beer with your best friends. Best Friend A is thinking about quitting her job to become a stand-up comedian. Best friend B just found out his girlfriend’s pregnant. Even though your life is completely different from theirs, you can relate to their feelings of uncertainty, hope, and facing big decisions. These are universal feelings that can be applied to a million different specific situations.


Once you’ve identified the elements that make your novel or memoir universally relatable, how can you tell if your novel has succesfully brought these themes out?

Again, INTERN is no expert, but after a couple weeks of experimentation she has developed the following Theme Test:

When you’re reading through your manuscript, are there places where you could pull out a sentence or two that would still be deeply meaningful if you encountered them outside the context of your manuscript?

Or put more simply:

Are there any sentences in your manuscript that a reader would want to scrawl on her bedroom wall or get tattooed across her back?

Here are some examples:

In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, we can pull quotes like:

"Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing."


"If you don't watch it people will force you one way or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite."

If you’ve never read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, these quotes still convey a powerful message. They stand alone, even taken apart from the specifics of the story. They’re universally relatable.

Now, go back to your own manuscript. Can you pull out any quotes that are absolutely intrinsic to your characters, but are also somehow able to stand on their own? If not, you probably need to strengthen your manuscript’s themes.


That’s it for today! INTERN will now retire to her secret underground Book Laboratory to ponder some more.

Edit: Techie Boyfriend points out that this post makes it sound like the key to Universal Themery is to insert lots of Deep Quotes throughout your ms. INTERN is horrified to think that this might be the message that came across in this post! All INTERN meant to say is that *one* thing she has noticed (out of many, many factors that go into the making of strong themes) is a pattern, in some books, of character thoughts/dialogue that are intrinsic to the story while somehow being able to resonate outside the context of the story/book.

INTERN is a total spazz case right now! Hope this clears things up!

PS: For more thoughts on theme (and examples from several books) see this post by Sarah at the Greenhouse Literary Agency.


  1. Okay, INTERN. Fess up.
    This was a fantastic post! No way in h.e.double ell. you are just "an unpaid toiler on the publishing house floor."

    Pulling a single sentence out of your manuscript to test your theme? That one goes into my mental rolodex. Thanks again for your input on the craft.

  2. You know when there's an idea you've been unconsciously aware of, but never able to put into words, and then someone finally explains it on paper and you're like "OMG THAT'S IT!"?
    ... This post is one of those moments :) So true!

  3. I was just trying to express this to someone. Thank you for saying it for me.

  4. I'd never thought of it that way. That's something I definitely need to keep in mind as I'm editing/rewriting.

    Thank you!

  5. Excellent post! I love the Theme Test. I'll definitely be remembering/applying that one in the future.

  6. Wow. I'm saving this to my permanent file. It will be awesome when I get into my memoir edits, I know there are a bunch of "quotes" worthy of a banner.

  7. Theme test, that's great. Kind of like a pregnancy test, your either there or your not.

  8. Awesome. I totally want to go through my WIP now to see what I can pull from it that way... And I will DEFINITELY do this when I'm revising.

  9. This is wonderful. I can now see how to market my novel to a more diverse group of readers.

  10. WHAT?! This is an amazing idea! I always notice those magic sentences, but never really understood why they stuck out for me. Perfect post.

  11. Wonderful post. I love books that have those wonderful quotes you can pull out and they just make so many people go "wow, that's how I feel" even if it's not exactly the same THING as the character.

  12. You are brilliant. This is a great way to think about themes.

  13. Just Another Day In Paradise: INTERN thought it was like a pregnancy test too! "OMG WE'RE GOING TO HAVE A THEME!!!"

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