There are universal themes in plots. The key is knowing how to approach these in a refreshing way.
Universal themes are those that are common to the human experience. As writers, we tend to worry we’ll bore people with a story that hits on common themes that have been told over and over again.
Some examples off the top of my head: forbidden lovers (ex. Romeo and Juliet), beauty is in the eye of the beholder (ex. Beauty and the Beast), and betrayal by a best friend (ex. Julius Caesar). Those are just three examples, but there are plenty more.
The point is that universal themes work because they touch on the human experience. I don’t remember the number of plot types out there, but there is a finite number of plots out there. You can mix some twists into them, but overall, common themes often emerge while telling the story.
The key is how you tell the story. It’s what you do with the theme that matter. It’s in the execution of the plot that makes all the difference.
Let’s take a look at the universal theme of the underdog who gets the prize. One such story is Cinderella. This story has been told over and over many times. Here you have a girl who is being oppressed by her stepfamily. She ends up winning the heart of the king/prince, usually because of a slipper. The story has been passed down from different countries and from different time periods with various versions of it. You might be familiar with the Brothers Grimm version which had the stepsisters cutting off parts of their foot to fit the slipper. In Disney’s version, it’s all rated G so you won’t see any bloodshed there. But the basic plot stays the same.
One of the oldest versions of the story was in China, and it was first published in the 9th-century compilation Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang. This version is called Ye Xian, and her father had two wives. Well, she loses her mother early on. After her father’s death, she is regulated to servanthood in the house for her stepmother and stepsister. (Only one stepsister is in this version). The girl befriends a fish,who was her guardian spirit sent by her dead mother. (Another version had this fish as being her mother reincarnated.) The stepsister and stepmother eat the fish, and Ye Xian buries the bones. There is a festival taking place where the young maidens are to meet potential husbands. The stepmother forbids her to go. Ye Xian makes a wish to the fish’s bones, and she is magically given a beautiful gown and a pair of golden slippers. She goes to the festival and is admired. She loses her slipper. The slipper is found, and she marries the king and lives happily ever after.
I actually found the variations and similarities while researching Cinderella interesting, so I decided to share the Chinese version. But you get what I’m saying. The common theme in these versions were the underdog, a chance for a better life, an obstacle to that better life, help in getting a better life, the event that changes everything, and finding happiness.
If you strip away all the details in the versions, you get the basic plot. It’s the details you put into the story that make it unique. Instead of having the main character being a girl, you could make him a boy. The chance for a better life might be trying out for a sports team. The obstacle could be bullies in the team who try to stop him. The help could be from a stepfather who practices with the boy to make him the best player on the team. The event that changes everything could be getting the final score that wins the game. The boy is now a hero and admired by all.
See what I did? I removed all the details from Cinderella and just came up with a new story. I used the common themes from Cinderella, but you’ll note that this story is definitely not Cinderella. It is a brand new story.
If you’re struggling to come up with story ideas, this technique can work. Do NOT retell another person’s story. Make the story your own. Give it a fresh look.