If you don’t have universality, your story falls flat. Your reader stops reading, your listener stops listening, and both ask, “So what? What’s in it for me?”
If you’re a writer, especially a new one, you’ve probably written your share of non-universal stories. I have files of them.
So here are some ideas on what universality looks like in a radio story by one of the best on the airwaves, Ira Glass. Glass is the host of the radio and television show This American Life. He describes universality in his Radio Manifesto on Transom.org this way:
“Students often want to spend time with Hells Angels, or people who collect Beanie Babies, or ham radio operators, or knitters. But it’s not enough to just visit with these people. The story has to have more in it than ‘here’s what they do.’ They need to be putting them in categories, comparing them with other things, attaching them to bigger ideas. They need to always be thinking ‘this is like this, ‘ ‘this means that,’ ‘this little thing is an example of this bigger thing.’ “
Another Internet resource that shares in-depth advice from Glass is the article “Mo’ Better Radio” at Current.org, the newspaper and website about public TV and radio. I was relieved to read in the article how hard Glass and his staff work to find universality in a story. If universality is elusive for the Pied Piper of Radio, then no wonder sometimes we struggle with it as writers.
A final resource is an insightful essay by Hillary Frank. Frank, who started as an intern at This American Life and became a contributor, wrote an essay called “How To Get On This American Life“.
Here’s how Frank characterizes universality:
“Without some bigger point, some moment of reflection, these stories come off like a private joke that the listener isn’t in on. That’s what a lot of the submissions seem like. I wonder if we all hear people like David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell on the air, and get fooled into thinking that the personal stories they tell are just that-personal stories-without noticing how often they jump to big universal ideas anyone can relate to.”
I like Frank’s observations because she uses the very universal experience of the inside joke to explain universality. I get that!
Ultimately, finding universality is worth the work. When I look through my files, the stories in my Acceptance Folder have universality. The stories in my Rejection Folder don’t. Universality is not only your reader’s pay off. It is also the writer’s paycheck.
(Ira Glass is currently touring the lecture circuit. For his 2009 and 2010 schedule, check the Steven Barclay Agency website.)