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10 universal storylines: How they can help you write your next book

At first glance, these four photos appear to have nothing in common—or at least, very little. But if you dig a little bit deeper, you might discover they share more.

These images depict four very common, universal storylines: rags to riches, small vs. big protagonist, a hero brought down by a fatal flaw, and a love affair.

There are a number of universal storylines that repeat time and again across cultures. Describing human experience naturally falls into certain patterns and structures. We see these in myth, folklore, fairytales and literature in general, as well as in more modern forms (like movies).

In short, universal storylines help us tell effective and engaging stories. Let’s walk through the top ten:

1-     Cinderella. Cinderella is the classic “rags to riches” tale and often is depicted through the triumph of the underdog. It doesn’t just have to be the classic Disney retelling, or films like Ever After, rags to riches can play out across the board. Will Smith is most certainly not a princess in The Pursuit of Happyness, but he sure tells a good story about single-parent poverty to Wallstreet mogul.

2-     Achilles. When’s the last time you thought about Greek Mythology? If it’s been a minute, I’ll share a quick recap with you. Achilles was a hero in the Trojan War who was brought down by a single arrow—in the heel. This universal storyline depicts the hero who is brought down by a fatal flaw. Many stories of scandals involving politicians or celebrities go down this route. I’m thinking about Lance Armstrong.

3-     Faust. There are two types of storylines here: the punishment that goes with paying a debt, or the sense of obligation that the debtor feels. The Faust universal storyline revolves around a debt that must be paid. Fantasy or crime genres are frequent fliers in this category. I don’t know about you, but I can’t hear the word “debt” without seeing an image of Davy Jones.

4-     Tristan & Isolde. Before Katniss, Gale and Peeta (The Hunger Games) or Bella, Edward and Jacob (Twilight), there was Tristan and Isolde (and the evil king she was to marry). It’s the eternal love triangle. Supermarket tabloids thrive on this storyline—not to mention, Hollywood Blockbuster films. Personally, it’s one of my favorite tropes. And it’s a large reason why I wrote I Loved You Yesterday, a contemporary romance that (swoon!) depicts a steamy love triangle involving twin brothers!

5-     Circe. This universal storyline revolves around the mythology of the spider and the fly. It’s the hunter and the hunted trope. This approach to storytelling works really well with escaped prisoners or manhunt stories. It also works well for stories about stalkers.

6-     Romeo & Juliet. What more is there to say about this storyline? Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet transcends time and has been retold for generations. Any storyline that incorporates a happy (or unhappy) love affair utilizes this trope.

7-     Orpheus. Similar to Faust, the Orpheus universal tale can take two approaches. The focus can be about loss on its own, or about the quest recovering what has been lost. If you recall from Greek Mythology, Orpheus descended into the Underworld to find his lost wife. This universal storyline has a wide range of uses in today’s modern world.

8-     Irrepressible Hero. Chant with me. Rudy! Rudy! Rudy! Okay, just kidding, but it’s a prime example of the Irrepressible Hero. This universal storyline focuses on the hero who cannot be kept down. Any success story where the character involved goes from strength to strength, shrugging off problems fits in here.

9-     Dangerous Outsider. This storyline can go in a few directions. It may be the foreign terrorist seeking to destroy the country. Or another version is the outsider who, because they have not been corrupted by the system, comes in and cleans things up. My grandmother loved John Wayne. I can’t even talk about this trope without thinking about the hours I logged on her couch watching westerns!

10- David & Goliath. And last, but not least, we have the biblical tale of David and Goliath. It’s big vs. small, where the “small” protagonist is invariably seen as the hero. For example, the individual vs. governmental bureaucracy. Or the small shopkeeper fighting against the large corporate chain. This storyline is wildly popular in romance novels today—and for good reason!

And there you have it! The next time you sit down to plot your next novel, think about universal storylines! They’ll help you tell your tale—and guarantee you a reader who wants to read your story.


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