We were talking last week about Steve Jobs’ two questions to his peeps at Apple. First question: “What business are we in?” Second: “What business are we REALLY in?”

From this idea we extrapolated two questions about our own writing. #1: What is our story about? #2: What is it REALLY about?

I keep a file (among a hundred others) for each story I work on. I call it UNDERSTORY.

What I’m hoping to lay out in this file is what the story is REALLY about. In other words, the story within and underneath the story.

In Star Wars, for example, the story, as I see it, really isn’t about the galactic rebellion or the fate of the Death Star or even Luke and Leia and Han Solo’s external adventures. What the story is REALLY about is Luke Skywalker’s inner passage–his self-initiation or “hero’s journey” from Lost Boy to Jedi knight.

Luke’s passage from Lost Boy to Jedi knight is what the first “Star Wars” is REALLY about

On a deeper level, of course, the story is about you and me—and our own journeys in this same interior sphere.

This understory is, in my opinion, what audiences related to so powerfully and what to this day makes the Star Wars franchise unstoppable.

So what’s the specific understory? If we were writing a parallel script to the actual surface screenplay, what “scenes” would it contain? How would this companion script intersect with the actual screenplay?

My short version:

1. Luke at the story’s start on Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s evaporator farm. How does he view his status on this remote orb? “If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” In other words, the extreme periphery from which Luke’s odyssey begins.

2. Luke’s instinctive skill with his “speeder” — the hovercraft-style hot rod he zips around the desert planet Tattooine in. 

3. The idea that Luke’s father (whose identity he doesn’t knnw) was a Jedi knight. In other words, in combination with #2 above, Luke possesses the bloodlines and the native spirit to live out his destiny. 

4. Various scenes and intersections with Obi-Wan Kenobi, specifically all the lessons that this mentor imparts concerning “the Force.”  (We could also make the case that the even-deeper story of Star Wars is the battle between the two sides of the Force.) 

5. Clashes with Darth Vader, specifically this villain’s attempted seduction of Luke to the Dark Side.

6. Death (or willful vanishing into the Force) of Obi-Wan Kenobi. In other words, a moment after which Luke is on his own to decide his own fate. 

7. Climactic battle against the Death Star. Obi-Wan’s spirit appears to Luke as he propels his X-wing fighter into the heart of the Empire’s most evil weapon. “Trust the Force, Luke.” 

These to me are (some of) the primary beats of the understory of the first Star Wars—-the depiction of Luke Skywalker’s passage to initiation (or self-initiation) as a Jedi knight.

We could change every other specific in the story, replace Princess Leia with another character, alter Han Solo’s relationship with Luke, etc. But we must retain these beats or others like them as our understory. They are Luke’s hero’s journey. That are what the story is REALLY about.

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22 Comments

  1. Yvonne on June 16, 2021 at 4:56 am

    Steve, is the understory always the hero’s journey?

    • Michael Esser on June 16, 2021 at 8:26 am

      The understory is always about identity.

      The hero’s journey is a journey from the outside into the core of one’s true self.

      The understory always tries to answer these questions:

      – why am I here?
      – who am I?
      – what is my purpose?

      This holds true for all stories, from Power Rangers, where Zordon recruits “teens with attitudes” to become “powerful superheros” to The Sopranos where Tony, a mal functioning Mafioso, aims to become a man with a heart with the help of Jennifer Melfi.

      • Erica Anderson on June 16, 2021 at 8:39 am

        I totally agree. Thank you for sharing your insights about the understory. It’s very helpful to me as I’m writing my first book.

      • Cordia A Pearson on June 26, 2021 at 6:33 pm

        Michael, (coughs politely into her hand) these are every creative, driven person’s questions, yes?

        • Michael Esser on June 30, 2021 at 7:30 am

          Cordia,

          these are question that every human being asks her/himself.
          We don’t do it consciously because it would interfere too much with everyday’s life and the chores we have to get at.
          If you write stories you chose to Puy these questions in the foreground. I believe that you cannot create a character without having her/him go after the answer of these questions.
          And so, given that you deal with them each day in your work, yes, I think at a certain point they become questions you also deal with in your life

  2. Joe Jansen on June 16, 2021 at 5:09 am

    Maybe these “understories” resonate with us because it’s how we move through the world ourselves. We think we’re farmhands working some backwater, barely aware that we’re on our own hero’s journey.

    • Chuck DeBettignies on June 16, 2021 at 7:17 am

      Yes, I agree Joe. That’s my understanding and belief.

      Deliberately putting in that understory, which often follows the heroes journey structure, has us resonating with a story in a way that’s hard to put into words, and something we may not be consciously aware of.

      I’ve heard that if you strike a tuning fork and get it vibrating, and then put another tuning fork next to it, the second tuning fork will begin vibrating in a sympathetic vibration.

      I think this understory idea works in a similar way, where we resonate at deep level with the hero’s journey framework that we share, both with the characters in the story and each other.

    • Kate Stanton on June 16, 2021 at 7:30 am

      Another great blog post by Steven! I’m reading a book right now about the author/authority an author has to tell their story. Readers like to see parts of themselves in the protagonist. Luke Skywalker overcomes family dysfunction, passivity, and becomes his true Self as The War of Art describes. We all have two selves. The one with the masks we portray to the world, and the one we are truly inside. I recently picked up Big Magic that some recommended on here. Part of my hero’s journey or understory as a songwriter is definitely shedding the old self–the “not good enough” self I learned from childhood.

      From Elsa in Disney’s Frozen to Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, the Hero’s Journey isn’t always easy or in black or white. All the shades of grey come into play–am I the victim? Am I the villian? OR, am I responsible for my own well-being and will create my own skills and revelation out of the pit of death & rebirth. Fascinating stuff!!

      Btw Joe, I listened to your thoughtful podcast with Maureen and Katie Anderson. I literally had goosebumps when you all were discussing the generousity of spirit in regards to grief. Thank you for sharing your light. I wholeheartedly believe many people who act out in any way are dealing with a stage of grief they haven’t processed yet. Teens may not yet have the tools to cope with grief. It’s a wonderful thing you wrote a book to help both the adults in their life and the teens themselves to work through grief. I also enjoyed hearing about reenactments. It reminds me of method acting. It’s very important this art doesn’t go away–such a beautiful way to share history! Check out this artful conversation by Maureen:
      http://maureenanderson.com/audio/060521hour1.mp3

      • Joe on June 16, 2021 at 11:59 am

        Kate… I agree that people relate more to stories, novels, film, music… by seeing some aspect of themselves reflected there. I liked this short video on the “beholder’s share”: https://aeon.co/videos/on-the-beholders-share-how-past-experience-influences-our-perception-of-art

        Shedding “not good enough” is good medicine. I like what the Stoics have to say about having choice over how to respond.

        I think we’re probably all part hero and part villain. Depends who you ask.

        Thanks for sharing that link. It was a good conversation with Maureen and her daughter/co-host Katie (and engineer/producer/husband/father Darrell). I’m afraid I was too windy. First time I’d ever talked with anyone on a podcast… shorter answers are better. Look forward to listening to their conversation with you coming up next week.

        • Maureen Anderson on June 16, 2021 at 5:35 pm

          Thanks, you two!

          Maureen, also known as that rare person who hasn’t seen Star Wars

          • Kate Stanton on June 17, 2021 at 6:28 am

            Hi Maureen! You’re welcome. It was an enjoyable listen.
            I had never seen Star Wars until I met my husband. He sat me down and had me watch the original 3 first. Then I watched Episode I, II, and III. With his help, I became curious about the cultural impact of Star Wars. I found it hard to get into until I actually sat down and had someone who grew up with the films tell me how cool they were at the time. We have since taken my daughter to see the newer films in theaters. The Mandalorian is probably my favorite part of the Star Wars series. I binged that show! Think Clint Eastwood lone ranger bounty hunter from space complete with Ennio Morricone’s The Ecstasy of Gold inspired music by the super talented Ludwig Goransson.



  3. Doug on June 16, 2021 at 9:23 am

    Dig the hole a little deeper, and go three movies into the saga.
    Luke becomes a true, full Jedi when he does NOT defeat his father in combat. He forgives his father for, basically not being a father, his sins as Darth Vader.
    From forgiveness, Vader becomes his father, Anakin, and redeems himself. It is Anakin/Vader who defeats the Emperor.
    Wow, that is deep. Messa Messa thinksa soooo.

    • Kimberly A Smith on June 16, 2021 at 10:35 am

      Well done

    • Colleen Maloney on June 17, 2021 at 2:51 am

      Doug,
      That’s a great point. As a trilogy, Star Wars also has a larger story arc– or in the context of this post, I guess we could call it an ‘over story’. While each individual story seems to be about Luke, in the grand scheme of things, we get Vader/Anakin’s story.
      -Colleen

    • Anne Marie Gazzolo on June 17, 2021 at 10:31 am

      Exactly, Doug! The forgiveness and self-sacrificial love on both father and son is a big part of what makes Return of the Jedi the best of the original three. Darth Vader is not interesting (anymore than Gollum or Sauron) because he’s simply a villain but Darth Ani (as I like to call him) – a tortured soul who has realized he has totally screwed up the last 20+ years of his life and comes at the end to the life he should have had all along – now he is fascinating. Same for Smeagol, the tortured soul still somehow existing after centuries of domination from the Ring and Sauron.

  4. Tolis Alexopoulos on June 16, 2021 at 2:31 pm

    Thank you dear Steve,
    it is hard for me to know what the underlying story is really about in my writing, if it has a specific goal where it can lead the reader, because I think I follow the path of no prose by instinct, so such a file may help a lot. An “understory” is formed for sure, but the challenge is if it will have meaning for an audience, if it will be balanced enough, for the path is revealed in numerous small chunks and not in one whole and thus the understory can be more complex than crystal clear. On the other hand, it makes me feel that it’s a challenge, a chance to test wider perceptions.
    I like the idea of an Understory file although I fear, perhaps mistakenly -I cant tell- that the specific hero’s journey steps may not easily lead to one’s discovery of true self, because they lead on an already explored field where everything is analyzed and known. On the other hand, success leaves tracks. You said it best: we may be scared to death while trying to write.

  5. Jurgen Strack on June 19, 2021 at 2:05 am

    Hey.
    As an avid reader of Steve’s forum, #6 above, “a moment after which Luke is on his own to decide his own fate” reminds me of one of those great ‘private moments’ in movies we discussed previously.
    Have a great week.
    Jürgen

  6. Douglas L. Mills on June 20, 2021 at 4:41 am

    What a great idea about the Understory! Thanks for sharing!
    Probably it will be weird when I say here that I’ve not watched ‘Star Wars’ still, but I really like the explanation of the idea! Thank you, Steven! Always priceless pieces of advice!
    By the way, the last story that inspired me is ‘Shooting an Elephant’ essay by George Orwell (here you can find some thoughts on it: https://eduzaurus.com/free-essay-samples/shooting-an-elephant/) Do you have here some posts about Orwell’s writing approaches? Thanks again!

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  8. wuxiaworld on June 30, 2021 at 9:01 pm

    Great article, I think I have the same opinion as you. I hope you will have many more good articles.

  9. Brandon Webb on July 1, 2021 at 8:21 am

    Thanks for cutting the trail ahead for us Steven. Just sold my first novel to PRH after writing nonfiction for a decade. I feel like I’m learning to ride a bike again! Incredible resource you are putting into the world. -BW

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