By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 13, 2013
I was laid up in bed with the flu this week and wound up watching the first two Bourne movies, starring Matt Damon, back-to-back. The experience got me thinking about the Understory.
When I start a new book, I open a file and title it UNDERSTORY. The understory is the architecture that undergirds and supports the surface story.
In the first Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity, the surface story starts like this:
Jason Bourne is floating unconscious at sea, with two bullets in his back. A fishing boat rescues him. When he comes to, JB has no memory of who he is or how he got into this situation, but he discovers that he possesses certain lethal skills–i.e., he’s a great hand-to-hand fighter, he knows instinctively how to case a joint, etc.
That’s the surface story.
The understory is that JB is a CIA-trained assassin. His last mission (immediately before the movie’s start) was to kill an African diplomat aboard a yacht at sea. He failed somehow, got shot, and wound up in the drink.
Jason himself, of course, knows nothing of this. Neither do we, the audience.
The Bourne movies are amnesia stories. An amnesia story represents the classic surface story/understory dynamic. The whole movie/book is about the hero uncovering the understory.
In the climax, the understory surfaces and merges with the main story.
Chinatown by Robert Towne is another terrific understory story.
(I’m aware that many readers of this blog are not familiar with Chinatown. It’s before their time. This ommission, I suggest, should be remedied ASAP. Please, if you haven’t seen Chinatown, netflix it tout de suite. Not only is the movie great fun, but it’s such a classic of storytelling that you can study it for years [I have] and never run out of new things to discover.)
Here’s the surface story of the start of Chinatown:
Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a flashy L.A. private eye. Into his office walks a well-dressed woman who identifies herself as Evelyn Mulwray, wife of Water Commissioner Hollis Mulwray. Mrs. Mulwray suspects her husband is having an affair and hires Jake to tail him. Sure enough, as Jake puts the eyeball on the water commissioner, he discovers him meeting clandestinely with a very attractive and mysterious young woman. Suddenly Jake’s findings appear in the newspaper, prompting a scandal. Jake is mystified. How did this happen? Now the door to his office opens again. This time in walks Faye Dunaway. She identifies herself as the real Evelyn Mulwray. She is furious about the scandal and informs Jake that he will hear from her lawyer.
I see you like publicity, Mr. Gittes. Well, you’re about to get it.
That’s the surface story.
What’s happening underneath is that Jake is being set up by someone with unknown evil designs. That person hired the fake Mrs. Mulwray (to sucker Jake) and planted the story in the newspaper (using Jake’s reputation as an attention-seeker to give it credibility). That person will eventually kill both Hollis Mulwray and the fake Mrs. Mulwray–and that’s only the start of his nefarious scheming.
As writers, we must know the understory cold. At any point in the surface story if we were asked, “What’s going on here?”, we must be able to explain by citing the understory.
There’s a difference between the understory and the backstory. Backstory explains a character’s individual past and hints at her motivation. Understory is the story-architecture supporting the surface story.
The first Hangover, written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, is another great understory story. When the buddy-characters Stu, Alan, and Phil (Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper) wake up in their Vegas suite with no memory of the night before but with a live tiger in the house, Stu missing a front tooth, and their friend Doug (Justin Bartha) missing entirely, we know that the whole movie will be about uncovering the understory.
Part of the fun of watching a movie or reading a novel is trying to figure out the understory. The audience is trying to solve it along with the protagonist. In Chinatown and the Bourne movies, the audience is ahead of the protagonist. They know more than he does. In The Hangover, we in the audience uncover the mystery step-by-step along with the guys.
In other words, the global story is unfolding simultaneously on two levels: surface story and understory. The surface story in many ways is simply the unearthing of the understory.
The better and more interesting the understory, the better and more interesting the surface story.
The more the understory differs from the surface story, the more intriguing it will be for the audience–and the more fun.
Certain tricks are sometimes used to deliver the understory to the reader/audience. Flashbacks. Voiceovers. Straight-out exposition scenes. It’s the mark of strong storytelling to get the understory out in drama and in conflict, without resorting to these devices.
I’ve found that a good way to organize an understory file is by making a timeline.
I will literally graph the action, day by day, hour by hour. Almost always the understory starts before the surface story. In certain Greek tragedies, the understory begins in a previous generation, even two or three generations. It may go back all the way to Olympus, to the gods themselves.
In the story’s climax, the understory rises to the surface. It becomes part of the surface story. As one is resolved, so is the other.
In Chinatown, the moment is the classic “She’s my sister, she’s my daughter, she’s my sister and my daughter” scene. The Bourne movies do a brilliant job of revealing just enough of the understory to satisfy us for this movie, but leaving us wanting more from the sequel. And the sequel. And the sequel.
A case could be made that you and I are living our lives–our real lives–on two levels. The surface story is what we do every day. What’s our understory? What’s yours?
Will it surface one day? In the end, isn’t that what we’re working for in everything we do–to discover our own understory? To answer Stanislavsky’s three questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want?