Story and Understory

Have you watched any of “My Life as a Rolling Stone” on EPIX? In Episode Two, somebody observes of Keith Richards, “He could sit for hours playing two chords over and over, just waiting for the rest of the song to appear.”

Keith Richards

When I heard that, I thought at once, “Keith had the Story; he was waiting for the Understory to reveal itself.” Or it could have been the opposite. He might have had the Understory (those two chords and the riff they produced) and was searching for the Story.

Some stories have no understory. Everything is on the surface. Will the Outlaw Josey Wales track down and kill his turncoat commander Fletcher and the bad Redleg who murdered Josey’s family? Will Conan the Barbarian catch up with and hack to pieces the Evil Barbarians who murdered his family? Will Liam Neeson find and wreak vengeance on the sex traffickers who kidnapped his daughter?

But the best dramas (and comedies) have a Story and an Understory. Oddly enough, it’s the Understory that we readers and audiences are hooked by. In When Harry Met Sally, the Story is the adventures of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan over the course of their college and post-college years. The Understory—the question the movie asks—is “When will Billy Crystal realize that he’s in love with Meg Ryan and that they can be both friends and lovers?”

That question is what pulls you and me through the story. We’re really following the Understory, not the Story.

But back to Keith Richards. The Story in any song is the melody/lyrics. That’s “on top.” That’s what we hear first. But beneath the melody is the countermelody, the backbeat, and the bass line. Those are the Understory. It’s those that we dance to. It’s those that hook us. Those are what we’re really hearing, even as we sing along with the lyrics.

The Understory, by its very nature, is embedded in the Story. That’s what Keith was searching for when he played those two chords over and over. “What beat/counter-melody does this riff want to have?” He knew it was in there somewhere. He was just waiting for it to show itself.

In any story I’m working on, I keep a file called UNDERSTORY. I ask myself, “What’s really going on beneath the surface of this narrative?” Is the hero changing? Is she in denial of some aspect of her life that she’ll have to confront head-on in the climax? Is she building, little by little, throughout the story, to some breakthrough that will change everything for her? 

Is Michael Corleone, increment by increment, becoming the Don? Is Sara Conner, little by little, evolving into a self-contained individual and hero in her own right?

If you and I are writing any story (or song), we need to ask ourselves, “What are the beats of the Understory?” Can we track Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman’s evolution, beat-by-beat, as his internal transformation plays out?

If you haven’t listened to “Gimme Shelter” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in a while, try them again and tune into the unkillable Understory beneath 

            Ooh, well, a storm is threatenin’

            my very life today

and

            I was born

            in a crossfire hurricane.

DO THE WORK

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.

do the work book banner 1

THE AUTHENTIC SWING

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.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

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.

noboybookcover

TURNING PRO

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?"

Turning-Pro
61Jh9HSBs6L

"PUT YOUR ASS WHERE YOUR HEART WANTS TO BE"

Available for pre-order in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

53 Comments

  1. Abe on September 14, 2022 at 1:56 am

    Great post. If you haven’t read “Inside Story” by Dara Marks, I highly recommend it!

    • Bing on September 14, 2022 at 3:44 am

      Thanks Abe, I just ordered the book, it looks really good.

      • Annelie on September 14, 2022 at 4:50 am

        Thank you Steven Pressfield, everything you write has quality, an undertone, that signals something that is worth pondering… something that relates to the standard of who we are or who we intend to become. Thank you.
        There is always a sense of “ hope” in your work..… that applies to everyone.. I love your writings. God Bless.

      • Terryl Chapman on September 14, 2022 at 4:27 pm

        In a lonely shack by a railroad track
        He spent his younger days
        And I guess the sound of the outward-bound
        Made him a slave to his wand’rin ways

        – Herb Newman “The Wayward Wind”

  2. Veleka on September 14, 2022 at 1:59 am

    This is exactly what I need to think about in this moment as I ponder my own story’s understory.

    Here’s what I think the understory of my favorite movie, “Ben-Hur”, is. Judah’s understory to me is his own exit from Eden (his innocence and integrity) when he’s arrested, so he can’t even conceive that Messala could be so evil since he judges his friend by his own code, so he blames and hates Rome. But that was who Messala was. And Judah had to finally accept that and let it go to be restored to his original purity, but now enlightened. Like Siddhartha.

  3. Roy on September 14, 2022 at 2:03 am

    Thanks for this Steve. I did watch the Keith Jagger programme and the process you are tackling about is exactly what I am going through currently with my novel. As always your post is so helpful. Keep them coming!

  4. Roy on September 14, 2022 at 2:05 am

    Thanks for this Steve. I did watch the programme and the process you are tackling about is exactly what I am going through currently with my novel. As always your post is so helpful. Keep them coming!

  5. Roy on September 14, 2022 at 2:07 am

    Sorry got the name wrong in first post!

  6. Rachel Walsh on September 14, 2022 at 2:54 am

    Great post, Steve. I loved the programme, and I also love Keith’s autobiography, LIFE. In it, he riffs on all sorts of things to do with the creative life, such as why he believes that writer’s block is bull, and his thoughts on how showing up every day to do the work, gets the work done: “We felt then that it was impossible that we couldn’t come up with something every day, or every two days. That was what we did, and even if it was the bare bones of a riff, it was something to go on, and then while they were trying to get the sound on it or we were trying to shape the riff, the song would fall into place of its own volition.”

  7. Matt Jardine on September 14, 2022 at 3:09 am

    My favourite post of yours so far Steven (and I’m a fan of them all.) 🙏😊

  8. Joe Jansen on September 14, 2022 at 3:33 am

    Some quotes in my stash, on writing and music:

    ****
    “I’m a word freak. I like words. I’ve always compared writing to music. That’s the way I feel about good paragraphs. When it really works, it’s like music.” — Hunter S. Thompson

    ****
    “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” — Truman Capote

    ****
    “This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

    “Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.” — Gary Provost

    • Brian Nelson on September 14, 2022 at 9:30 am

      Joe,
      I’d love to see your quotes folder…is must contain numerous sub-folders by topic. Your ability to find the perfect quotes is so helpful. Additional and different pieces of evidence to add ballast to Steve’s main point. I love it!
      bsn

    • Gerry Lantz on September 14, 2022 at 9:36 am

      Such a great collection of quotations Joe. I’m stealing them. Gary Provost’s wonderful example even applies to business writing–even more so.

      • Jackie on September 14, 2022 at 12:23 pm

        Joe,
        Love the Gary Provost quote. Need to borow this one. Thanks.

    • Omwow on September 16, 2022 at 11:30 am

      … the inner music that the words make. How beautiful! Thanks for sharing, Joe.

  9. Tolis Alexopoulos on September 14, 2022 at 3:50 am

    Thank you so much dear Steve,

    ah, the understory… it may be the original heart, while the story may be the logic and it’s effects on the heart.

    I think it beat hard in the Star Wars original trilogy (1977-1983) but not in the next ones.

    It beat hard in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy but not in the Hobbit.

    In the original Jurassic Park, not in it’s sequels.

    Lawrence. Maximus. Dr. Zhivago.

    Perhaps even in Terminator II -there was magic in it, so much magic. Not in the other sequels though. Predator 1 also?

    Strangely, all these heart-felt-movies were more raw than their sequels. That must mean something -reminds me of the *absence of automations*. They seemed like original scenes, experimental, and not given recipes like cooking a certain cake. Not any digital-means help also: George Lucas had to create every starship from scratch as a miniature model and had to use all mechanics to make it seem as if it was flying in the sky. Could that hard, creative work with no safety nets be what made him create such an understory? Or it was just the recipe from Joseph Campbell? Hmm.

    I think I read at mr. Coyne’s beautiful book “The Story Grid” that classic works do not actually fit in a specific gender, they are like hybrids, they’re everywhere and nowhere. I would say, more intuitive than premade. Must we “Unlearn what we have Learned”? Did even the creator of Yoda forget to do exactly that, and started automating after so many years?

    I identify with Keith Richards -what great songs.. Playing a chord for hours waiting for the “energy” to arrive. I could add that you may also feel anxious and empty if you are waiting for very long, but one should not lose hope. It is “their task alone” if it happens. And it doesn’t mean the end. It means the beginning of their personal fight, and thus the originality of their work.

    My last thought is that Story is crucial too. Not in terms of value, maybe it’s value is close to zero. But in terms of pulling the “understoryers” out of their infinite exploration so that one day they may end that book, that script. Jim Rohn said: “When should you start building a house? As soon as you’ll have it finished.”

    I struggle with that last one. Must end that story now. Or else the understory, my heart, will keep beating without ever reaching the ultimate. And then one day it will have to stop.

    Hi to all friends here, I wish a week full of unstoppable creative discipline to you!

    • Johne Cook on September 14, 2022 at 8:43 am

      Plus one for the Story Grid reference!

  10. Bing on September 14, 2022 at 4:13 am

    Thank you Steve. I love the idea of an under story. I am in the middle of publishing my art book after 26 yrs of resistance. I feel my art is really just a front man for my real passion (under story) which is like Jacob in the bible wrestling with an Angel (God) and will not stop until God blesses him. My passion is not making art, my passion is wrestling with resistance, taking heaven by storm, never quitting. I am in my eighties, I want to go out ‘pedal to the metal’. I love this site, like kind, like mind, thanks, love you all.

    • Jackie on September 14, 2022 at 4:51 am

      Bing, thought you might like this quote.
      “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “Wow what a ride!”

      ― Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967

      • Bing on September 14, 2022 at 8:18 am

        Thank You Jackie – yea, you totally got it!

        • Jackie on September 14, 2022 at 12:25 pm

          Bing,
          Inspire us. Keep to the task!

  11. Anonymous on September 14, 2022 at 4:35 am

    Wonderful story and insight. I have been doing something similar for years as an artist. I stand at my work bench with lots of pieces of paper and images, playing with the shapes waiting for the connections to come and then the collage appears. I had always put it down to not knowing what to do but now I realize it’s way more than that. Thank you.

  12. Yvonne on September 14, 2022 at 4:44 am

    I love this. Perfect timing for me as I wrestle with my current story. As always, thank you, Steve!

  13. Jackie on September 14, 2022 at 5:11 am

    Most of what sits unfinished in the desk or under the easel has no soul. When the understory shows itself only then is the piece done. Thanks for putting this into words, Steve.
    It’s the understory of Paint it Black that gets me to make an utter fool of myself on the dance floor, the understory that turned me into a boisterous twirling maniac at a Stones concert. It’s feelings expressed indirectly, subtly maybe even without intent, but it’s there. You feel it.
    My favorite Keith Richards story came through a friend. She was at a hotel with her husband for a business trip. She went to the elevator and there stood Keith Richards. Star struck, she blurted, “You’re Keith Richards!” He replied, “Well yes I am.” She said it was the best elevator ride of her life.

  14. David on September 14, 2022 at 8:49 am

    It is the Open G tuning I have heard Keith say that opened up his world of possibility between those “two chords.” What are the right notes that you can realize between the I and IV chord, listen to the hammer on and pull offs on a track like ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and of course that back beat laid down by the late great Charlie Watts that allows the song to breathe. The sum of the parts is what always gave the Stones the magic stuff.

  15. Michael Adamovich on September 14, 2022 at 9:17 am

    I once heard Robert Bly refer to something in poetry called “the deep image”. The lines of the poem move almost gesturally—like a mime. What do those movements show in the blank spaces ? What does the deposit in our soul that remains? This seems to be analogous to the understory idea.

  16. Gerry Lantz on September 14, 2022 at 9:41 am

    So damn good, so damn right. This is a keeper Steve (they all are). This note and Keith’s remark resonates so much for me. It explains why we return to great films, plays, novels, short stories, paintings and sculpture even–I don’t think the last two are far-fetched. And we don’t have to know or guess at the artist’s “intention” to get the understory. It beats deep in your heart and drags your mind along.

  17. Lin Keeling on September 14, 2022 at 10:54 am

    I had to go away and think about this one for a while. I get how the understory works in fiction, but non-fiction? And what about my artwork? Jackie, you’re so right. “When the understory shows itself only then is the piece done.” But what is the understory when your work is about the silence, about the non-verbal and visceral, the emotion that can’t be spoken because that dilutes its power? Twyla Tharp, in The Creative Habit, talked about the story behind her choreography and that it didn’t help, sometimes hurt, if she explicitly explained it to her audience by identifying it in the title or some other explanation. The dance had to say it without saying it. Is the essence of a work its understory? Does it apply to works that do not have words? Full of questions today, not much else. Thanks, Steve, for giving me something to gnaw on for at least a week!

    • Jackie on September 14, 2022 at 12:31 pm

      Lin,
      I think as long as you put all you’ve got into the work, the understory appears. For work without words, some people will get it, some people won’t. And some people take what is relevant to only them. This is magic Lin. Just go with it and embrace it.

      • Lin Keeling on September 14, 2022 at 3:32 pm

        Thanks, Jackie. Like I wrote recently, you have to step off the cliff with the certainty that you can fly.

    • Brian Nelson on September 14, 2022 at 12:44 pm

      Lin,
      I feel like we’re in the same place with this. More questions than answers…
      bsn

  18. Brian Nelson on September 14, 2022 at 11:06 am

    Ok, I’m ready to get stupid and ‘think out loud’ with the keyboard.

    Is the understory synonymous with theme? I’ve shown up here for the past decade as a non writer, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I’m much more of a creative than I ever let on in a previous life–or possible shadow career hiding inside the monstrous bureaucracy the DOD. So much easier to hide when the uniform is designed to be hard to see…in fact, any kind of uniform might be seen as a facade.

    A couple of months ago, a few insights into my own understory have made certain that I must write–even if it is only for me. I have something I have to say, what I’ve been trying to say for most of my life in fact. I didn’t have the words, nor the appropriate direction. Everything seemed jumbled and fell in on itself. Not that I could just sit down and dictate it all right now–but I at least have a direction and a theme. Maybe an understory.

    My thoughts usually burst out in bullet statements–rapid fire points with a longer explanation for clarity.

    Understory seems like one of those bullet statements I’ll hold onto without authoring myself.

    The question that came to my mind as I was reading this is how much of the understory is really the creator’s understory. A snapshot into the progression of one’s own being at a time and space.

    Which makes me think that many if not most understory’s might be impossible to immediately articulate, both for the author and for the patron. Music has this delayed–often by decades–before I truly understand what they are trying to say. While I may not be able to articulate the understory, I have always known it is there (without the pre-frontal, clearly stated knowing) something powerful about some songs more than others. They are the songs I listen to over and over and over again–for years, they are on most of my playlists–and then, in some kind of weird alchemical reaction–I get it.

    This has also been happening to me in Scripture, some poems, and even fairy-tale-ish sayings. Bumper sticker wisdom if you will.

    I read in some pop-non-fiction science-y book a few years ago about how when people had to explain why they chose one painting over an other–they usually changed their minds. Weird–but maybe not. Maybe the true wisdom inside isn’t always ripe for picking. Maybe it needs to age like wine, but hopefully we can follow that wisdom without doubting its accuracy even when we cannot explain it.

    The understory, when I myself can say it out loud, hits me like a sledgehammer. I can never unsee it again, like a blinding flash of the obvious–but it had remained hidden for years. Is it the same with artists? Does their understory come to them years later?

    I love Jackie’s explanation of how the understory is what makes her ‘lose her shit’ on the dance floor (my words), but I had this vision of a woman dancing in circles with hair flying akimbo, immune to the thoughts of others. That is the power of the universal harmony, but often ineffable to our conscious minds.
    bsn

  19. Tom on September 14, 2022 at 11:15 am

    I’m kind of fascinated by this.

    I think it’s possible for an author’s conscious mind to know either the story, the understory, or both. If you know just the story, then it’s an easy step to starting to draft, but the rest has to come later. If you know just the understory, then you kind of have to wait until your conscious mind figures out the story before you can begin drafting with any clarity. If you know both, then you can write both aspects of what needs to be written.

    The unconscious mind, sometimes referred to as the adaptive unconscious, I’m convinced has a pretty good idea from the beginning what the story is and what the understory is, but it’s difficult for your unconscious to convey this knowledge to your conscious mind, which is the process that’s at the very center of artistic expression.

    In my experience, I often know the story, and I usually have to wait for my unconscious mind to convey the understory to me, which might happen a number of revisions later. But with patience, hard work, and deliberate practice, it usually comes. Knowing the understory consciously can greatly enrich the story.

    This is similar to getting to know your characters well, who then tell you (!), as if they were real people who have minds of their own, what the story will be, which astounds me every time.

    It seems this relates directly to what Keith Richards might have been doing—either waiting for his unconscious mind to reveal the understory to him, or doing his best to get his conscious mind out of the way so that his unconscious could whisper this information clearly to him.

    The incredibly brilliant riff that opens this song ‘Monkey Man’ is probably what he had first when writing that song (that riff is genius). I guess I could be considered the story or the understory, but my best guess is he had to wait for his unconscious to whisper the rest to him.

  20. Tom on September 14, 2022 at 11:19 am

    (sorry for the typos—I’m using speech to text, which seems to undermine things)

  21. Jackie on September 14, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    Brian and Tom,
    Sometimes, I think, it’s just about how it feels and being open to ANYTHING! Have a great productive, magical week all.

    • Lin Keeling on September 14, 2022 at 3:39 pm

      Absolutely right, Jackie. I guess it doesn’t matter so much if you don’t consciously see the understory. As Tom says, it will reveal itself if you let it. And, Brian, no stupid there that I can see.

  22. Maureen Anderson on September 14, 2022 at 1:57 pm

    The line in the Desiderata that gets to me the most is, “No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.”

    I think of understory as theme. What is the theme of my life? In my case it’s probably shame — at being here at all. Which would be sad, were it not for the delicious challenge of transcending it. Someday. Maybe!

    • Lin Keeling on September 14, 2022 at 3:44 pm

      Is it really shame, Maureen, or fear? Just read your new site and know you’re on to something,. The delicious challenge of transcending–I love that line!

    • Bing on September 14, 2022 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks Maureen, that went straight to my heart.

      • Maureen Anderson on September 14, 2022 at 3:57 pm

        Thanks Lin and Bing! And Lin, good question. I’m tempted to say my (standard) fears are wrapped in shame, but that feels like adding energy to the darkness. To be continued! 🙂

    • Brian Nelson on September 14, 2022 at 4:04 pm

      Maureen,
      Been listening off and on to a Rogan podcast with Dr Gabor Mate. MD and author, talking about toxic culture…and how all addiction/ADHD is a symptom of trauma and our toxic culture.

      When you wrote ‘shame’ I both cringed in pain and acknowledgement. I wish it weren’t so…but there it is.

      I imagine a significant component of shame also arises from the same toxic culture and generational trauma. Read something in ‘Fellowship of the River’ (US educated MD who opens Ayahuasca clinic in Peru). Animal experiment where they traumatized mice or rats…then let them breed. 3-4 generations later, those great-grandchildren of the traumatized mice responded to the stimulus in the same way—the trauma was genetically passed on. Blames a lot on Dr Spock. Sebastian Junger touches a similar thread in ‘Tribe’.

      I cannot wish away your shame, any easier than I can tell myself to do the same—but I do find it somewhat cathartic to see evidence that there may be bigger forces at play—and I’m only responding to an unhealthy environment/culture.
      bsn

  23. Maureen Anderson on September 14, 2022 at 4:15 pm

    You know what strikes me about life, Brian? How rare it is that someone HASN’T been traumatized.

    I met a woman at a workshop whose childhood was so idyllic she couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing her “perfect” parents by making any mistakes. Which didn’t sound idyllic to me.

    Maybe the task is to try to go a little easier on each other, realizing we’re all dealing with something (and probably something big).

    • Brian Nelson on September 14, 2022 at 4:42 pm

      Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. I certainly wouldn’t want to be raised in Nerfville. I’d go insane. I think that is part of Mate’s point–we’re all traumatized. Haven’t listened far enough to see his remedies. Lin sent me a link to a Brene Brown talk that I listened to this AM as well–she’s all over shame..so I might have been primed to make an association.

      I find I’m more gentle in the world after I’ve been attacking my own shortcomings. Inversely proportional to the degree of judgment I have on others is the effort to which I’ve been sawing on my own plank.

      There is, at least from my vantage point now, some true gold in those traumas. When I imagine who I would be without them, it is uglier than the present, warts and all.
      bsn

      • Lin Keeling on September 14, 2022 at 4:53 pm

        Brene Brown’s talk was titled Sweaty Creatives. Here’s the link:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-JXOnFOXQk

        (don’t know how to add the hyperlink, sorry…)

        • Lin Keeling on September 14, 2022 at 4:53 pm

          oh, look, it did it for me… learn something new everyday!

        • Kate Stanton on September 15, 2022 at 12:36 pm

          I love Brene Brown, Lin! Nice link; thank you! I’ve enjoyed Steve’s post and reading each and every inspiring comment this week. Food for the creative soul this website is!!!

  24. Michael Beverly on September 15, 2022 at 10:04 am

    Great post. If anyone is still asking, that white on black in the email is unreadable to me. Maybe I’m alone, but man, it’s an eye strain. Not sure what kind of person prefers that….maybe a hybrid human alien whose eyes evolved to read extreme contrast…haha…

    • Kate Stanton on September 15, 2022 at 12:38 pm

      LOL Your comment made me giggle out loud because I do prefer a black background. I have all my devices on “dark mode”…and I’ve often felt like an alien 🙂

      This is a fab post! Now excuse me while I go listen to the Stones. Gonna start with “Paint it Black” I think.
      Have an awesome week!

      • Maureen Anderson on September 15, 2022 at 1:25 pm

        That’s funny, Kate. You know what I just realized? I, too, have all my screens on dark mode — yet I hate the white on black in the eMail version of this blog. More to chew on!

  25. John Thomas on September 15, 2022 at 10:53 pm

    On Gimme Shelter, those two chords laid the basis for Merry Clayton to come in to the studio and let rip on one of the greatest vocal improvisations ever recorded.

    She knew it and stopped the session. Demanded royalties. Performers usually never get them. She refused to back down and the Stones relented.

    You can hear Mick Jagger woop in the background when her voice breaks.

    • John Thomas on September 15, 2022 at 10:59 pm

      I forgot to add. She was pregnant at the time of the session and she misscarriaded the next day.

  26. Veleka on September 21, 2022 at 9:37 am

    I think I have correctly identified the understary the minute I can say, “I KNEW that was going to happen!”

  27. TOTOMAX on September 27, 2022 at 6:56 pm

    You have a talent for describing difficult topics easily and interestingly. Thanks to you, I was able to clearly organize the confusing concepts. I think your metaphor is the best. Thank you! 메이저사이트

Leave a Comment