Does Your Novel/Movie have an Understory?
If it’s true that the Understory (the unspoken story-beneath-the-story) is more important than the Surface Story—and that it’s what REALLY pulls the reader/viewer through the drama—then what exactly is this thing? Where do we find it? And how do we as writers know if we even have one?
Principle #1: the Understory plays out on the landscape of the soul.
Consider Huckleberry Finn. Who’s the villain? The surface villains are those forces that pursue Jim, the runaway slave, and would recapture and return him to bondage if they could.
Those are the Surface Villains. But the deeper villain, the Understory Villain, is inside Huck’s heart. It’s his own belief, brainwashed into him from birth, that Black people are inferior to Whites and that it’s God’s will that they be enslaved to Whites.
Huck really believes this. Even as he’s fleeing with Jim on a raft on the Mississippi and working with might and main to get Jim to safety, he is wracked by guilt. All the elders in his life, Miss Watson who raised him, would condemn Huck furiously and punish him by the sternest possible measures if they knew how close he was coming to Jim and how bound the two of them were becoming as friends.
This is the Understory. Not the surface events on the Mississippi but the changes in Huck’s heart. The Villain is the notion inside Huck that White is superior to Black and that this dispensation is the will of the Almighty, enforced upon individual mortals, Black and White, beneath pain of hell and damnation.
The beats of the Understory are the moments in real time when Soul Reality, i.e. Jim’s trueness of heart, his kindness, his integrity, and his love for Huck give the lie to this notion that is embedded in Huck’s very cells.
The climax and moral crisis of Huckleberry Finn comes at the very end when Huck sits down to write a letter to Miss Watson (remember, she OWNS Jim), turning Jim in. Huck actually pens the full epistle. Why not? Huck believes in his very bones that to abet Jim in escaping from slavery will be requited in Huck’s afterlife by fire and brimstone.
Then comes this moment:
It was a close place. I took . . . up [the letter I’d written to Miss Watson] and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.
See what I mean about the Understory being played out on the landscape of the soul?
I’m working on a new novel right now. I’m asking myself, as I wrestle with its structure and concept, “What’s the Understory? Where does it play out? Is it happening on the landscape of the soul?”
I’ve never really applied these criteria to any story as part of the process of working on it. It’s a helluva deep exercise. I highly recommend it to all of us.