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How to Make Your Story Universal

universal storiesEVERY great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows it to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension.

Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent.

Done in a crude way, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in gradually, skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly.

Making Stories Universal through Symbolism

Symbolic ascension works in this way: At first the settings, incidents and specific actions of characters in a story represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.

In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier – the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills.

But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself – as does Nick (Christopher Walken).

The death of Nick precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this effortless duality that gives the story its enduring power.

In my own novel, The Land Below, life in a converted underground mine (the sanctuary of the only humans to have survived a cataclysm), becomes increasingly claustrophobic for its young protagonist, Paulie.

He dreams of the open resplendent spaces filled with grass and waterfalls that he has only seen in books. His decision to climb to the surface, against the warnings of his elders, is a symbolic rejection of fear and ignorance. It represents his desire for knowledge. His actual physical journey to reach the surface has therefore acquired symbolic meaning.

Summary

Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.

Exploring the Story Network III

Story Networks

In this third and final post on understanding story networks, we look at the dynamic relationship that exists between the 2nd turning point, climax, and denouement.

The 2nd Turning Point & Climax

The 2nd Turning Point spins the story around in a new direction by introducing fresh information, which, in turn, announces and seeds the third and final act. The purpose of act iii is to bring matters to a head, preferably in a final do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist (Hero) and the antagonist, resolve loose ends, prepare the way for a return to the ordinary or changed world, and offer a moral statement in the form of the theme. The relationship of the 2nd turning point to the climax is one of growing dramatic intensity along the path set out by the 2nd turning point, revved up by a constant upping of the stakes, which by definition, involves twists, turns, and surprises, albeit of a less severe nature than those of the turning points themselves.

The Climax and Denouement

Resolving loose ends is precisely the function of the denouement. The final battle between the Hero and antagonist has ended, the Hero has returned in victory or defeat to a changed, or ordinary world, and the theme of the story has been determined. The relationship between the climax and Denouement, is, therefore, one of resolution and explanation.

Summary

The relationship of the 2nd turning point to the climax is one of mounting intensity, inflected by small twists and surprises; the relationship between the climax and denouement is one of resolution and explanation.

This series of posts has examined the main structural nodes of a story, not as lone units performing static tasks, but as nodes whose full function is revealed only when viewed collectively as a dynamic network, with each node defining itself by virtue of its relationships to the nodes before and after it.

Invitation

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