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.

Mark Twain

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.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Caz on September 28, 2022 at 2:16 am

    What a great example for illustrating your point, and for showing the importance, value, and challenge of having an understory to fully engage readers.

    • Nain Bel on September 28, 2022 at 6:25 am

      Thank you Steven ,interesting to read and feel what remains written in our souls ,which landscape emerges from the meaning we gave to the words we read .
      I always waited for the echoes to the books I read but never really reflected about an understory before writing something (I haven t published a book but write since I was a child) .
      If we think about the understory first wouldn t we cut the wings of what emerges to ourselves because we get to intentional ?
      I ll try it anyways !

    • Skyman Magic on May 5, 2023 at 5:00 am

      Thanks for the information contained in this case it is the best

  2. Reuven on September 28, 2022 at 3:12 am

    You have opened me up to the soul of my story and the soul of my writing.

    The under story : what’s under the hood that gives speed and makes turns and keeps the road ahead a journey worth getting reading about.
    It’s a simple idea really. After it’s been articulated!

    Thank you

    • jon b. on September 28, 2022 at 6:20 am

      “The beats of the Understory.” And so plays the music of the soul..

  3. Tolis Alexopoulos on September 28, 2022 at 4:21 am

    Thank you so much dear Steve,

    So you lead us to understand the Understory better. How could I put all this in one phrase? Maybe: “It (the Understory) is one small river-of-the-souls’ small current (the rest of the river is deep and invisible) that finds a way up to the pages, and it makes the reader feel that all the surface of the book is just a shop window. And when that mysterious current finds a way up, the reader realizes that behind the simple window there is the whole meaning of life/world, a whole Shop of the Soul, the hell and the awe and the mystery that we want to connect with, because it is equal in all of us (in many forms), but it is always invisible and untapped unless we recognize it behind the window or behind other windows like immense beauty and great heroic or tragic challenges.”

    Ah, but i cheated! My phrase is a multiplex of phrases.

    I’ve been trying to finish my book for years now. There Must be there such currents of my soul all over the place. But they may be scattered and different to each other. That’s ok. One last thought I hope is useful, is that maybe this difficulty to end these last chapters of my book, may be an underlying/hidden way for my soul’s river to create even more currents, the last ones, the most difficult ones. When the secret river’s most obvious currents have gone up the surface, I hope that the river will force itself (if we keep going) to find even deeper currents to share with the world.

    And which current will have the most value? The most easy to come up or the most difficult? Maybe both, when and if their time has come.

    But let us hope that we end that book at first <3

    • Lin Keeling on September 28, 2022 at 11:21 am

      Love the images of currents in a river, Tolis!

  4. Jackie on September 28, 2022 at 5:04 am

    Now I know why the stories that sit unfinished are unfinished, no understory to touch the soul. Why continue? Something to think about when I feel like giving up on the book with soul. Something to keep in mind on the current work in progress. Thanks, Steve.

    • Lin Keeling on September 28, 2022 at 11:24 am

      I know what you mean, Jackie. I’ve been writing a book on and off for at least 7 years–probably more like 15–and didn’t get into it until I could see the soul of it. And, now a 2nd book has come into being through work on the 1st–which isn’t finished. Sometimes, I guess they need the time to come to life, for the soul to become visible.

      Thanks, Steve, for explaining the Understory. I can see it in non-fiction as well. When a book doesn’t have a soul it’s dead boring and a hard read, but when it does, it pulls you in and makes contact with your soul.

      • Jackie on September 28, 2022 at 2:53 pm

        Stick with it Lin. Early this morning, I worked without having an understory. Then I tucked what Steve wrote into a mind corner and took a break. I went outside and did things. I came back with my understory.

        • Lin Keeling on September 28, 2022 at 5:44 pm

          Good feeling when that happens, isn’t it?

  5. Harrison R. Greene on September 28, 2022 at 6:28 am

    This is an imperative for a successful book. Easy to understand but it will make the writer examine their soul.

  6. Dartagnan on September 28, 2022 at 6:39 am

    You’re touching slightly on what a theme truly is. This is what’s missing in almost all modern “storytelling” – because without a theme – a story is pointless. The reason we tell stories is because they have point. More than what you’ve touched on though – the theme should be generative – meaning everything in the story comes from the theme. Nothing is random. All the greatest stories share this but most can’t see it because if you don’t create you don’t need to understand it. It creates an emotional understanding of the story – not an intellectual one. Which is far more powerful.

    I have found only one book which really gets at this in any depth – and you can too if you look for it.

  7. jodypaynesays on September 28, 2022 at 6:53 am

    Yes! You and Mark Twain have just stated exactly what I’ve been trying to say for almost three hundred pages. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


  8. Nom de Plume on September 28, 2022 at 6:55 am

    If you all would permit a relative newcomer (with perhaps half a dozen posts) to stray from the topic, I would like to offer Sensei Steve and all the rest here my deepest thanks for the support you show every week. A number of things are coming together for me, and part of it has been this weekly dive into the workings of creativity and the Muse, and how we as artists* (with an asterisk, as I am no artists — but are we not all artists?) must be open to inspiration and pursue ideas and prove ourselves worthy of them. Well, it’s not writing, but I am starting a new business venture, something quite new to me, and in every way a creative undertaking. Fingers are crossed, but I intend to enjoy the journey fully, regardless of outcome.

    Thank you all!

    • Joe on September 28, 2022 at 8:06 am

      Glad you’re around, Nom de Plume.

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on September 28, 2022 at 8:23 am

      Good luck, Nom de Plum! I would suggest that you create the powerful wave of Understory beneath your enterprise. Let it have a soul if you can. It will make things harder (the higher the purpose, the higher the Resistance as it seems) but I believe it will pay off when the disastreous forces of inevitability (the troubles) will come to you, by not letting you quit in one way or another.

    • Maureen Anderson on September 28, 2022 at 8:53 am

      Enjoying the trip, regardless of the outcome? You won’t be sorry!

      And you’re in good company…

      • Jackie on September 28, 2022 at 3:00 pm

        Maureen, thanks for this link. Big fan. I have a laminated Farside that still makes me laugh though I’ve read it hundreds of times. Great to see others jumping into new uncomfortable things. I don’t feel so crazy signing up for colored pencil classes.

    • Brian Nelson on September 28, 2022 at 8:58 am

      That is a terrific detour this morning! Congrats, and Godspeed! I also find this place inspiring and renewing. I have never considered myself an artist, but did finally accept that I’m a ‘creative’. I’m sure you’ve read “War of Art”, but SP clearly remarks that Resistance comes for anyone trying to create good in the world–not just paint a picture, or write a novel. You’re in great company.

      • Nom de Plume on September 28, 2022 at 9:47 am

        Thanks, everyone! You all are the best community on the internet!

        Tolis, as it happens, I do have a powerful Understory to the project. It is already driving me on. The effect will be second-order, but none the less real.

        Brian, of course, and reading the War of Art and learning about Resistance really opened my eyes and explained some previous life experiences. Now I know to expect Resistance and welcome it: “Hey, there you are, I’ve been expecting you. You might as well grab a beer and make yourself comfortable over there, but I’ve got work to do.”

        If that is too flippant, I know Resistance deserves respect; it is the iron when we lift and the water when we swim, it is that which makes us stronger. (Is this the first comment on this blog to reference Jocko Willink? “Good.”)

        Gracias, amigos!

        • Brian Nelson on September 28, 2022 at 6:03 pm

          Jocko is on the money with “Good.” I can listen to that over and over.

          In OCS (officer candidate school) our black hatted TACs (essentially Drills, but Officers not NCOs), would tear up some plan/operation a candidate just completed. “What were you thinking?!?!?”

          OC Nelson, “Well, Sir…my long, winding, cogent explanation IMHO…”

          TAC, “And.”

          OC Nelson, “Well, uh, Sir, like I said…reiterate my excuse…”

          TAC, “And.”

          OC Nelson, “Sir, like I said…”

          TAC, “And.”

          I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and usually really liked my own explanation for failure. “It’s not my leadership, it is my MEN!” or some other shallow, responsibility-avoidant strategy.


          I say that to myself all the time now. It’s raining outside, I don’t want to run.
          I didn’t sleep well last night.
          I’m too busy.

    • Lin Keeling on September 28, 2022 at 11:27 am

      Good luck with your new venture, Nom, sounds like you are on the right track. As my favorite author, Ursula K LeGuin wrote once, “it’s good to have an end to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.”

    • Jackie on September 28, 2022 at 2:55 pm

      Nom de Plume, I wish you one hell of a ride. Best wishes.

  9. Joanne on September 28, 2022 at 7:40 am

    I’m changed. Thank you.

  10. Brad Graft on September 28, 2022 at 7:57 am

    Great stuff, as always. Feels to me like another required line on the Coyne/Pressfield “Story Grid/Foolscap” outline for our novels.
    What is the Understory?

    • Joe on September 28, 2022 at 8:07 am

      Maybe as a tattoo, Brad?

  11. Jesse on September 28, 2022 at 8:17 am

    Wow, thank. you.

  12. cheryl on September 28, 2022 at 9:19 am

    That was so beautiful, WOW, I got it right in my soul or heart, xoxoxoxo

  13. Brian Nelson on September 28, 2022 at 10:22 am

    Got me thinking for sure. Not only about what I’m trying to do, but also to identify it in other stories. I just finished JK Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” the other day–and I didn’t get the understory until the very end–but it was so powerful. Similar to the reaction I had in “A Man at Arms” when Ruth finally speaks.

    I probably mentioned this on the last understory post, but my suspicion is that the understory is unique to the artist. Everyone has their own understory to tell. Ok–totally projecting here–but it seems to me we need to find our own understory before we can produce.

    • Lin Keeling on September 28, 2022 at 11:29 am

      I agree, Brian, that we all have an Understory to tell, but are there archetypal understories, like there are archetypal themes? The Hero’s Journey comes to mind as an Understory.

      • Brian Nelson on September 28, 2022 at 3:05 pm

        Yes, I think the understories–holy cow I’m going out on a limb here–are universal, archetypal. There might be 30-50 universal truths, but they must be retold again and again and again as language, culture, and values mutate. I think the reason an understory resonates and holds an audience is because we know in places so deep we cannot pinpoint their authenticity and truth. Hero’s Journey is certainly one of the universal truths.

        • Lin Keeling on September 28, 2022 at 5:50 pm

          “Eternal truth needs a human language that alters with the spirit of the times. The primordial images undergo ceaseless transformation and yet remain ever the same, but only in new form can they be understood anew. Always they require a new conception.” –C G Jung

    • Veleka on September 28, 2022 at 2:06 pm

      Brian, you wrote: “I just finished JK Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” the other day–and I didn’t get the understory until the very end–but it was so powerful. Similar to the reaction I had in “A Man at Arms” when Ruth finally speaks.” What is that understory you found? I learn new ideas more easily with examples.

      • Brian Nelson on September 28, 2022 at 3:12 pm

        Veleka (super cool name BTW),
        I’m going to answer this with a shotgun approach, because I’m not 100% sure I can answer this concisely.

        A Man At Arms: love conquers all, love is redemptive, love is salvation. It is, in the end, the only reason we exist. It is only expressed when we can protect the most vulnerable among us, and be willing to give our lives for them. Love is the entire point.
        Matthew 25:25/26 35 “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

        A Casual Vacancy: Courage is the fountainhead of all virtue. Courage is often masked in the most unlikely of containers. The weak are often the most strong. The strong are often the most weak/wicked. Never judge a book by its cover, or a person by their heritage/circumstance.

        I could be off by a million miles, but those are the currents, the themes, the understories I got.

  14. Veleka on September 28, 2022 at 10:58 am

    Steve, fabulous! How would you feel about our doing a treasure hunt for Soul Gold in our favorite popular books and films? I’ll start. I don’t think Prince Judah Ben-Hur would have paid any attention to the crucifixion of a carpenter from Nazareth except that he himself had had such great suffering so that when Jesus said, “Forgive them, they know not what they do,” then Judah was able to tell Esther, “Almost at the moment he died, I heard him say it, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”

    That’s the Soul Gold to me. Judah ended up free of hate.

  15. Eilish Bouchier on September 28, 2022 at 3:36 pm

    I love this thank you and superb example. Touch the soul everything else is narrative.

  16. Kate Stanton on September 28, 2022 at 4:21 pm

    Each Wednesday I come here for the comments and Steve’s wisdom. Today, I leave with my ass handed to me. The understory is not for the faint-hearted. Thank you, Steve, for lighting a fire today. We must have courage when writing and creating. Sometimes I am scared to be so brutally honest in my songwriting, but it is the truth that connects us. Have an awesome week, all!!

  17. Anonymous on September 28, 2022 at 6:05 pm

    I am trying to use this stuff to understand the landscape of my soul so that I can better connect to the landscape of the soul of my readers. Thank you again, Steven for being such an awesome guide!

  18. Stephen S. Power on September 28, 2022 at 6:19 pm

    This is a great way of seeing a story, more than a theme and more than a subplot and a better way of thinking of it than “character arc,” making it more plottish.

  19. Trina Morgan on September 29, 2022 at 11:03 am

    I sure do feel privileged to be a receiver of the knowledge you share by means of this blog. Your wisdom and the generosity with which it is offered is greatly appreciated.


    Trina Morgan

  20. Gerry Lantz on September 29, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    So beautiful Steve–a wonderful analysis, based on the story itself and not discussion of the author’s intent, that tells why Huckleberry Finn was truly the first fully American novel in content, tone and theme–that demonstrated our coming to literary and moral maturity. Huck’s moral journey through his struggle with slavery has rattled down and through so much of our literature. Thanks again for this Steve. Thanks Mark Twain. It’s time to re-read it again.

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  22. Veleka on October 9, 2022 at 9:15 am

    Steven!! The movie “The Lost King” has a phenomenal Understory!!!! The Overstory is fun and exciting, too, but the Understory is truly brilliant. I can’t wait to see it!!!!!!!

    And to think if you had not posted this, I never would have noticed it. ♥

  23. Marvin Walsh on December 1, 2022 at 11:44 am

    Thank you for the great post!

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