Editors call it “narrative drive.”
Writers want it.
Readers need it.
How do you get it?
One way is by skillful use of an Understory.
One of my favorite scenes in movies of the past few years is the Frozen Park Bench scene in the first of the Jason Bourne movies—The Bourne Identity.
To refresh your memory:
It’s early in the story. We’ve met Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and learned that he is a young man who has lost his memory. He doesn’t know who he is. He’s an American on his own in Europe, specifically Zurich (where Swiss bank accounts are), in the depths of winter.
Jason’s recall may be void at the moment, but he has been able in the film’s earlier scenes to deduce a few things about who he might be.
First, he knows he is somebody specific. He does have an identity. He just doesn’t know what it is.
He knows something mysterious (and almost certainly nefarious) has happened to him to blot out his memory.
He knows he is part of some ongoing plot or scheme that involves other individuals, possibly allies, more likely enemies. But he doesn’t know who they are or how he fits in with their designs, and of course he can’t remember what their specific scenario is.
It’s night. Outdoors in Zurich. Freezing cold. Jason is in jeans and a down jacket. He has stopped in a park and lain down on a bench, just trying to survive till morning.
Two Swiss cops appear. They roust Jason roughly. They start to collar him, handcuff him. Suddenly …
Jason turns into a kung fu master. Chop chop bam bam he hammers both officers with Bruce Lee-like skill, using only his bare hands. He knocks the cops cold and even strips one of his weapon.
For a moment Jason stands over his victims, staring at his own hands, amazed at what he has done. Then he dashes away into the night. (See the YouTube clip of this scene, hyperlinked above.)
This scene, or something like it, is a staple of action novels and movies. It always works. It always plays great.
It hooks the reader/viewer.
It propels the story forward.
Because implicit in it is a mysterious and exciting understory.
The reader/viewer wants to learn this understory.
It’s the understory that hooks the reader/viewer, even more than the real-time story.
Not every book or movie has an understory.
Many unfold simply in real time.
But certain types of narratives always have understories. Detective stories. Amnesia tales. Many sci-fi sagas. Mysteries of every kind.
What keeps the reader turning pages is the desire to get to the understory.
Going back to Jason Bourne and the frozen park bench. In this scene we realize:
- This young man is no ordinary Joe.
- He possesses skills unique to “men of action”—spies, assassins, elite military personnel, law enforcement officers, killers.
We can’t help but ask ourselves:
- Who is he?
- How did he acquire these skills? Did somebody train him? Who? For what purpose?
- Why is he now “rogue?” What happened to him? Why?
- Are other people after him? Is he being hunted? By whom? For what purpose?
- Was he on some kind of assignment? Did something go wrong? What?
- Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
See the narrative drive? The audience is now asking itself a boatload of questions that can only be answered by committing themselves to the story as it unfolds. This one simple scene, with its peek at the understory, has propelled the narrative forward with irresistible velocity.
Better yet, the power of these who-is-this-dude questions is doubled because not only are we in the audience asking them, but our protagonist on-screen, Jason Bourne, is asking them too—and he is now driven, with life-and-death urgency, to get the answers.
Are you working on a novel or a screenplay now?
Ask yourself, “Is my story happening in real time only? Or does it have an understory?”
If it does, you’ve got a powerful tool at your disposal to make your narrative jump off the page or screen.
[P.S. Remember a couple of weeks ago I said I had recently done three interviews? Well, the second one was with Marie Forleo for her blog/show “MarieTV.” Here’s the link. The interview is on video.
If you’re not familiar with Marie, she’s based in New York and does a weekly online interview show, usually with writers, entrepreneurs, and creative people of all kinds. Marie herself was made for TV. She has undeniable star quality; she’s a high-energy, high-wattage personality but also a serious, and very successful, entrepreneur, role model, and source of wisdom and encouragement. I’m a subscriber myself. I watch Marie’s show every week.]
That was a great scene. Carried himself like a victimized vagrant, until the cop poked him with the nightstick. Lit him up like pushing a button. That SIG came apart a little too easy, but hey, it’s the movies.
I’ve been fighting this “ordinary Joe” trope my whole life. I’m going downtown and take a nap on a park bench and see if I can turn that around. You know, see what happens.
Good conversation with Marie. From the number of comments, it looks like her tribe connected with what you had to say. That lady could start an army.
And, today’s topic makes me think of this short (5-min) video produced by a group called FOST: Future of Storytelling. Neuroscientist Anil Seth says: “There’s an old art-history concept called ‘the beholder’s share.’ This is the idea that humans respond well to art that forces them to be involved in making sense of the image, whether they’re aware of it or not.”
I’m seeing this at play in your list of questions that “we can’t help but ask ourselves.” Tony Gilroy and Blake Herron (and Ludlum before them) hooking us and engaging us by forcing us (willingly) to make sense of it and figure out who this guy is.
Consciousness and Creation: The Neuroscience of Perception:
In a nutshell it’s called mapping. We seek the familiar and attempt to understand everything with a patterned template. We map everything. Which is also why we’re uncomfortable with awareness. Awareness lacks repeated patterns of any kind. Which isn’t to say there isn’t order; just none you can recognize or predict–which equals utter freedom. Something most are afraid of.
Wow, between Steven and Joe, this post is shaping into a powerful lesson, indeed. I can see that understory is the best place for intrigue, where curiosity is born.
Helpful as always. The struggle I have now is looking at my current project and ascertaining if there is enough understory to keep the reader interested. I will know more once it goes out to test readers but thank you for this insight as it is yet another tool to improve my craft.
I finally found what I thought I couldn’t do years ago. It’s been almost 7 years that I have been writing on real time and I was shocked to see I was going nowhere. Then I changed my own rules. Go with some narratives. Undestory. Amazing. It’s turning live. Reading you Steven gives me the chill to continue writing like a pro. I am getting there. I am getting better and better. Thank you for sharing all these beautiful wonders.
Great food for thought. I’m going to ponder this concept and enjoy my coffee. As always, thanks.
Agree with the power of understory; the Jason Bourne series is one of my favorites. Also, I don’t think I could have ever used the word “lain” properly in a sentence until now. Steve, you rock.
I LOVE writing the understory into my books! It feels like I’m making a special candy for my reader to unwrap and enjoy. I did this with my sci-fi novel and the saboteur, using flashbacks and flashforwards. I think it is my favorite way to write – and read for that matter – small wonder I try to employ it every chance I get!
In my simplistic way of making sense of things, it feels like this functions a lot like dramatic irony, but only on a second viewing/reading.
If we finish the story and restart it, we know something about the character’s situation that they do not. (And until we experienced the story once, we did not.) Again, I know this is simplistic. But if I were to fit this idea into a model that I already have, I might call it narrative irony.
Thanks for pointing out this important concept, Mr. Pressfield.