The Universal Story

Are you working on a novel and need help with story structure?

If so, I recommend

THE PLOT WHISPERER by Martha Alderson.

In chapter 2, there’s an overview of the “Universal Story.”

Alderson writes:

“Tap into the Universal Story and better direct the flow of your story to connect with your reader on a deep and profound level.” (pg 23)

She then outlines the three phases of the Universal Story:

  1. The Beginning – Comfort and Separation
  2. The Middle – Resistance and Struggle
  3. The End – Transformation and Return


The idea here is we see a little of the character’s life prior to the big events of the story. We see that something about the character is lacking – a personal flaw, a less than ideal situation or relationship, etc. But we see the character in an established way of life. This is the “comfort.”

Then something happens that forces the character to take action – a problem, a loss, a fear. This is the “separation.” As the character takes action, a life-changing journey begins. And there’s no going back to the way things were.

Alderson writes:

“The beginning of your story should accomplish the following goals:

  1. Establish the story’s time and place.
  2. Set up the dramatic action and the underlying conflict that will run throughout the story.
  3. Introduce the major characters, giving the reader an idea of who they are, their emotional makeup, and the weight they carry in the story.
  4. Allude to the theme.
  5. Introduce the protagonist’s short-term goal and give a hint, at least, of her long-term goal.” (pg 26)

Alderson warns that writers will often give too much information about their characters in the beginning.

Most readers don’t want to be hit with pages of info-dumping.

Alderson writes:

“Writers spend lots of time imagining and writing every detail of a character’s past, from childhood to maturity. Rather than share everything right away to demonstrate how clever you are, consider instead how curiosity works.”

“Curiosity draws the reader deeper into the story world. Give away everything up front and you lose that.” (pg 27)


This is the largest portion of a story. The main character is “confronted with a new and strange world.” (Alderson Pg 32)

This doesn’t mean the character has to be in a different physical place, though that’s often the case in stories. This “new world” can also be a new situation, a new relationship, a new danger, a new frame of mind, etc.

In this “new world” there are constant problems, and the main character must adjust beliefs and values while confronting these problems.

Alderson writes:

“Antagonists, both external and internal, emerge from every angle in the middle of the story. These obstacles can be human or non-human. Other challenges originate in the character herself, in other people’s fears and judgments, and in the rules of society.” (Pg 32)

In the middle of Phase Two, there’s a “Halfway Point” that’s a “major turning point.” (Pg 32) Here, we get something that takes the story in a new direction. Maybe an earth-shattering plot twist is revealed. Maybe the character makes a big choice that will lead to a significant consequence.

At the end of Phase Two, there’s “The Crisis.” The character has been dealt a major blow and is at a low point where all seems lost. Here, there’s time for soul searching, and this introspection leads to the character discovering his or her personal flaw that was introduced to the reader in the beginning. This discovery will lead to a new pathway to change and success.


The character comes out of The Crisis, changed, and gathers what is needed for success. Then the tension ramps up, building to the climax.

At the climax we see the character is successful with overcoming the main problem of the story (if it’s a happy ending) because of the personal change that was experienced, and we see that the transformation into a new person is complete.

Finally, there’s the resolution where we get a glimpse of how the character is different as a result of the adventure.

I realize this post is an oversimplification and barely scratches the surface of the Universal Story. However, sometimes it’s helpful to see a boiled down overview.

THE PLOT WHISPERER has much more to say about every aspect of the Universal Story and many other topics, so give it a read.

Toydust out!

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