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.”
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
I was born
in a crossfire hurricane.