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.
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.