What’s Your Universal Message?

Written by on May 18, 2011 in Books & Self-Publishing, Writing Tips - 1 Comment

If I asked you what your novel or memoir was about, what would you say? Growing up in the sixties? Saving the world from an alien invasion?

Or would you say your book was about overcoming adversity, finding family in unexpected places, or finding your true place in the world?

The first set of answers deal with your book’s specifics: the particular setting, characters, and conflicts you’ve chosen to tell your story. The second set of answers deal with your book’s universals: the powerful themes that will make your book appealing to a vast number of readers.

A good book has an interesting story that keeps readers entertained. A great book has a universal message that leaves readers changed. But what is a universal message, and how do you know when you’ve found yours?

First, let’s look at a few examples of popular books and the way their authors have imbued them with a universal message.

Into the Wild is a book about a young man who strikes out in the Alaskan wilderness. But it’s also a book about love, forgiveness, and the search for truth. Here’s a quote from the book:

“The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences.”

And here’s another one:

“Some people feel like they don’t deserve love. They walk away quietly into empty spaces, trying to close the gaps of the past.”

Pretty powerful stuff. Let’s look at a few examples from Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help:


“All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”


“Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision. You gone have to ask yourself, ‘Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?'”

What do you notice about these four quotes? Here’s what I notice:

-They make sense even when taken alone, out of the context of the rest of the book.

-They express a unique worldview; they make a strong statement about the world and how to live in it.

-They feel so powerful you want to write them down or remember them.

-Even though they’re so universal, they’re also completely intrinsic to the characters and stories they were pulled from.

A universal message is a message that resounds beyond the story. A message that has meaning even when you strip away the book’s specifics.

So how can you strengthen your book’s universal message? I’ll let you in on my favorite strategy.

First, make a list of all the universal themes your book deals with. Here’s a sample list to get you started:





Atoning for the past

Living your dream

Overcoming adversity




Next, go through the list one item at a time. If you’re writing a novel, ask yourself, “What does my character believe about love/fear/family etc.?”

If you’re writing a memoir, ask yourself, “What do I believe about love/fear/family/etc.?”

Once you start thinking about these big questions, you’ll soon discover that you do have a universal message. And from there, it’s only a matter of weaving those discoveries into your book.

Happy theme-hunting!

One Comment on "What’s Your Universal Message?"

  1. Nikki January 22, 2013 at 5:45 am ·

    This website helped me SOOOO much. I’m working on a book report for school and this article made the whole thing 100 times easier. Thank you!

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