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Writing advice by Robert McKee: For universal appeal, be specific

Like in many areas of life, in writing and storytelling, you get what you want by sacrificing something you want less. You make hard choices.

Writers hoping for a best seller want their stories to influence the largest number of readers or audience members possible, so they generalize, opting for a one-size-fits-all, rather than one-of-a-kind, world. This unfortunate step actually shrinks, rather than expands, their future audience or readership.

Robert McKee. Storynomics

You choose the one-of-a-kind world when you write. And then you let your readers’ imagination do the generalization.

The mind works best when it moves from the specific to the universal—not the other way around. Consider, for example, the phrase a piece of furniture. As you read it, a vague image blurs your imagination and halts your thoughts because your mind has no inclination to go backward to the particular. But if I say, “A wingback Duchess chair upholstered in blood-red leather,” a clear image glows in your mind. Instinctively, your imagination moves forward from this particular to the general, slotting the chair into the mental category “furniture.” This applies to all aspects of a story’s world, physical and social. Therefore, the principle: The more specific the setting, the more universal the story’s appeal.

Robert McKee. Storynomics

This is a great lesson. Whenever you’re struggling with how to approach writing a certain piece, how to express a certain idea, how to elicit a certain feeling—ask yourself first: What specific situation could trigger this?

If you write on the most general level about it, what you get is dull text-book writing.

And whenever you’re reviewing and editing your own work, ask yourself: Is this general or specific? And how could I move this more to the specific?

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