There are universal topics that fuel so many of the stories we love — from war and peace to abandonment and exile. How you manipulate and build on these sources is your creative contribution.
You can write about anything on Earth, but the truth is that some topics are of interest to more people than others. They have emotional depth. They ring true. They can be heard over and over again.
Some topics are just eternal and universal. Here’s a list of the “Big 10.”
Death (and life)
In many ways, writing is about exploring the line between life and death. Fiction is obsessed with death. It’s what we fear most, seek to understand most, and it’s all around us. The same is true of life in all its variations. Brushes with death create new feelings in us about what it means to be alive.
Love (and hate)
Next in this list comes love. If one enjoys ultimate love, one can also experience ultimate loss. Falling in love, competing for love, and losing love are the most often used plot points in storytelling. Love is why romance is the best-selling genre. Hate is an equally potent content source; many stories turn on characters who once loved becoming bitter enemies.
War (and peace)
Many famous books are set during era-defining events. The most powerful must be war. Life is upended, death is everywhere. When love blossoms, it appears miraculous. All bets are off, morality is warped, and rules go out the window during war. Heroes and villains man every street corner and events have huge, even global, consequences. Best of all is the promise of peace.
Adventure (and mundanity)
Adventures fill bookshelves. Adventure-seekers are perennial fodder for fiction, whether they be explorers, pirates, born winners, or total losers. Adventures can take many forms and include coming-of-age stories or striving to make a dream come true. Forcing a character to lead an adventure is also powerful. Just look at the megahit The Hunger Games. The opposite of adventure is mundane. The ho-hum is the hero’s status quo at the start of so many stories.
Being lost (and being found)
Getting lost is terrifying. Being found is joyous. Whether explicit or implicit, the sense of being lost and found underpins a huge range of stories.
Belonging (and exile)
Everyone wants to belong. Almost every great story is about finally finding one’s swan family. The opposite is being on the fringe, an outcast, an exile, or even hunted. Whether finding a soulmate, family, friends, or a new town to settle down in, the reward of many fictional journeys is a sense of belonging.
Longing (and getting)
The defining features of all great fictional characters is a “deep want.” Longing is one of the most powerful of human primal urges. The longer something is withheld, the more life-changing it is when it’s attained.
Failure (and success)
Think of almost any story you know and there will be the crush of failure within one or more characters. Of course, overcoming failure is part of almost every character arc and is the basis of the “underdog wins” story. Success is usually the basis of the happy ending, and plays out in the context of love and belonging.
Betrayal (and loyalty)
A great emotional surprise — usually with serious consequences — is betrayal. It can turn a leader to a traitor, be the failure of keeping a promise, or infidelity to love or a cause.
Demons (and angels)
Whether it’s good and bad people or monsters and fairy godmothers, we are fascinated by what we fear and those who can intervene to save us.
Eternal and universal topics
These topics — and their relatives — are the driving forces that rule lives and create (or crush) hopes and dreams. They provide endless story material, and when you use them, you get huge story bang. These subjects create immediate recognition and grab readers’ attentions.
These are often the themes of great stories and the heart of plot and the wants of characters. They can help define the beginning and ending of stories — as polar opposites.
These themes are rife with emotions and emotional moments. How better to make readers cry, or smile, or be uplifted than by creating versions of these story subjects?
Best of all they come in infinite varieties to suit all flavors of human experience.
These topics are especially rich and flexible when they have a polar opposite. What is death without life? Or love without hate?
It’s actual the continuum in each case that is all-important — though we tend to find more of the extremes in stories. The spectrum of feelings and events between the two ends offers a rich choice of story material.
How do people cheat death to live? How do they come to hate when they once loved, or vice versa, like so many of the classic romance novels?
Questions and events
Since these are abstractions, the story comes when they are brought to life through questions and events. What if I accept this adventure? What do I need to do to belong?
In general, these topics are so abstract they lie above any particular type of story, but some have whole genres dedicated to them — the focus on love in romances has created the best-selling genre today.
Evolving a topic into a great story requires picking out power moments, those life-defining moments that change lives and thus serve as the engines of great stories.
In the domain of love, we might have girl meets boy, watching a loved one die, or being crowned queen when you are forced to marry a king in a arranged and loveless match while your true love watches from the wings. Certainly you can think of endless more.
It’s easy to spin up scenarios around any of the above concepts; they are inherently rich pickings.
The “extreme topic vocabulary” of life
These topics are all extremes and the extraordinary is the stuff of great writing. Characters in books don’t just “live” but do something out of the ordinary.
There are many more extreme topics available upon which to build stories. We can think of rich lists of extreme events based around the ideas of revenge, threats, absences, abuses, kidnappings, sacrifice, rescues, martyrdom, sainthood, philanthropy, elections, leaders, royalty, coronations, miracles, curses, prophecies, nightmares, dreams — and so much more. (Here’s a list of 160 abstract nouns for inspiration.)
Your topic cloud and map
What does the “topic cloud” of your story look like? What combinations are you focusing on?
What if you mapped the occurrence of “big topics” in your story from start to end? How many eternal and universal topics do you cover and how well do you link them and transition between them?
How extreme and of wide-appeal are the subjects you choose to deal with? How might you elevate your topic cloud to improve your writing?
All of the concepts above are great content sources and are often the themes of our favorite stories. These are the big abstractions we care about, riddled with potential power moments.
Unpacked, explored, and lived by intriguing characters in novel situations, they come to life. They can be endlessly plumbed and we can forever enjoy stories that deal with these universal topics in creative and innovative ways.