Story and Understory

One of my favorite scenes in movies of the past few years is the Frozen Park Bench scene in the first of the Jason Bourne movies—The Bourne Identity.

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in “The Bourne Identity”

To refresh your memory:

It’s early in the story. We’ve met Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and learned that he is a young man who has lost his memory. He doesn’t know who he is. He’s an American on his own in Europe, specifically Zurich (where Swiss bank accounts are) in the depths of winter.

Jason’s recall may be void at the moment, but he has been able in the film’s early scenes to deduce a few things about who he might be.

First, he knows he is somebody specific. He does have an identity. He just doesn’t know what it is.

He knows something mysterious (and almost certainly nefarious) has happened to him to blot out his memory.

He knows he is part of some ongoing plot or scheme that involves other individuals, possibly allies, more likely enemies. But he doesn’t know who they are or how he fits in with their designs.

Here’s the Park Bench Scene:

It’s night. Outdoors in Zurich. Freezing cold. Jason is in jeans and a threadbare sweater. He stops in a park and lies down on a bench, just trying to survive till morning.

Two Swiss patrol officers appear. They roust Jason roughly, start to handcuff him. Suddenly …

Jason turns into a kung fu master. Chop chop bam bam he hammers both officers with Bruce Lee-like skill, using only his bare hands. He knocks the cops cold.

For a moment Jason stands over his victims, staring at his own hands, amazed at what he has done. Then he dashes away into the night.

This scene, or something like it, is a staple of action novels and movies. It always works. It always plays great.

It hooks the reader/viewer.

It propels the story forward.

Why?

Because implicit in it is a mysterious and exciting understory.

The reader/viewer wants to learn that understory. She can’t help asking of the Jason Bourne character: 

  1. Who is he?
  2. How did he acquire these skills? Did somebody train him? Who? For what purpose?
  3. Why is he now “rogue?” What happened to him? Why?
  4. Are other people after him? Is he being hunted? By whom? For what purpose?
  5. Was he on some kind of assignment? Did something go wrong? What?
  6. Is he a good guy or a bad guy?

Two of the last four books I’ve worked on have had understories. In both cases the reader enters the narrative (that is, the story begins) at a point when the understories are well advanced. “Something” is going on. The protagonist becomes aware of this, and involved emotionally and dramatically in it, at the same time as the reader. 

Both reader and protagonist are asking, “What’s going on beneath the surface? Hidden forces, secret characters are at work here. Who are they? What do they want? How will their machinations affect our hero? Is he/she in jeopardy from them? Will he/she prevail?”

Ask yourself of the material you’re working on, “Is my story happening in real time only? Or does it have an understory?”

If it does, you’ve got a powerful tool at your disposal to make your novel or screenplay really hum.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?"

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20 Comments

  1. Jackie on June 19, 2024 at 3:29 am

    Curiosity, the force that led to a moon landing, countless discoveries, and what made a girl go down a rabbit hole. And the force that makes me want to finish a book whether as a reader or a writer. Thanks Steve.

  2. Joe Jansen on June 19, 2024 at 3:44 am

    That’s a great scene. And early, how he lapses into Swiss-German while being questioned by the polizei. A moment of confusion on his face. “Where did THAT come from?”

    https://youtu.be/SHgs3LFLBzY?si=ygluq7-SORmRjiUW

  3. David Stennes on June 19, 2024 at 4:23 am

    Ahhh. A lightbulb moment. This story is not happening in real time only. I hadn’t considered how it comes to life, beneath it. Surrounding it. In the dimension of the powerful forces of universe energy unseen, that I hadn’t considered, until now. Now it’s unlocked, window open, to come to life in ways I hadn’t considered. Thank you, muse. Sitting outside with pre-dawn coffee, the bird in the tree above me is suddenly singing so much louder, as if she knew. My sleeping dog just lifted her head and turned to look at me, as if she knows too.

  4. david gonzalez azancot on June 19, 2024 at 5:26 am

    Great writing skills lesson, Steve!
    David

  5. Ed Hinman on June 19, 2024 at 6:55 am

    Great tip, Steve! Filling the reader with questions so he keeps turning the page to find answers.

  6. Kathy on June 19, 2024 at 8:25 am

    It’s just so tragic when your partner in life dies. You are left with all these same questions. Who was he really, who am I without him and ohhh… if only I could have just one last conversation, can I please?. Just one more.

    I have so many questions.

    You can live with someone for years, love them everyday, but realize, too late, of all their finer qualities that you missed and didn’t tell them you truly saw them. Maybe because you were not aware it would eventually end.

    We know it will end….

    … but when it happens to the most important person to you, you realize you never really took it seriously. Parents die, friends, aunts, uncles, but losing an intimate partner is like losing yourself.

    My hero is on that park bench, never to awaken and become a fighter of disease again. He’s never going to dig down and recover with an inner strength.

    When I watch movies, listen to songs, even when I try to paint, these things are all I can think about.

    How much is missed because we aren’t taking an end seriously enough. And in many ways, pretend there will be a happy ending.

    🍃🌸🍃

    • Daniel on June 19, 2024 at 11:00 am

      Your comment resonated with me, Kathy. You have a great understory to tell to the world. Have you thought of writing it? That might help you liberate that energy and you can contribute it to the world. Techniques like Hoʻoponopono and meditation might also help.

      • Kathy on June 19, 2024 at 12:33 pm

        Hoʻoponopono… I wish I could feel that. I don’t know. I’m trying to paint it all, but on canvas things become nebulous. Steven says to ask questions of our main character. Ok.

        I write a lot of poetry. I used to promote my art, my paintings, my sculptures, and my poetry, but then I just think, why? Steven says to ask questions. Ok.

        I always think it’s pretty amazing when visual artists are bent on selling their work. What about their journals? Aren’t their paintings just that? So, I’m painting and sculpting now, for me …. and for the rain.

        Thich Nhat Hanh says we continue on there, in the clouds and in the rain.

        So, no intension of doing a thing with them,… my art or expressions. They exist and I see them and I can remember.

        I write a lot of poetry. Songs from the soul. We are all just trying to do that.

        🍃🌸🍃

        • Kathy on June 19, 2024 at 12:39 pm

          A thought I had… a question for the main plot. What’s the purpose? Cause in this moment it feels like a pretty cruel plan.

          🍃🌸🍃

  7. Jim King on June 19, 2024 at 2:40 pm

    What’s fascinating now after reading your analysis is how well this scene is crafted. I knew he had special skills and he didn’t. I was in the flow of the scene and became a part of his frustration of not knowing. The reader or viewer giving themselves to the writer is what makes reading or watching a move so enjoyable. My wife. Not so much…she analyzes every scene a nuance and does a real time critique. We watch movies 180 degrees out of sync…..LOL…

  8. Renita Wellman on June 19, 2024 at 3:13 pm

    The understory must come together and be revealed at the very end.
    (Sorry my website has been down for the last while )

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  10. Anonymous on June 19, 2024 at 5:10 pm

    Kathy I tried to leave a response
    The email ate my homework
    I have been there I share you’re grief
    Creativity and curiosity will see you through

    Charles

  11. Tolis on June 20, 2024 at 1:17 pm

    Thank you so much dear Steve.

    The understory. Dare I say, what is our own understory?

    If we could unravel mine for example, it would have nothing to do with my apparent life at all. Even when I see me at the mirror or at a video, I don’t recognize that stranger. I am not me. These weeks I struggle a little with the thought that I am my conscious thoughts, that’s a possibility too.

    Every man we see is not that man I may say. Maybe the same for a woman?

    That is why the Matrix was one of the best movies out there (I conclude). It showed to this world the story and the understory so deeply through an epic conflict, that we were amazed by owr own fight

    So…

    How do we put that underself (beautiful word) on paper?

    That’s a million dollar question.

    But we must. Especially on those dark times and neutral times (I can tell dull neutrality is worse than darkness) when our prayers go no higher than our head for years or perhaps decades, we must move paying every cm with blood.

    Or maybe not. It’s an obviously open debate. We choose the bloody part.

  12. Danny Morrison on June 21, 2024 at 6:14 am

    Understanding the dynamics between story and understory in any narrative is crucial for depth and richness. The main storyline, or “story,” provides the primary plot and character arcs, while the understory, often more subtle or implicit, adds layers of meaning and complexity. This interplay ensures that both elements complement each other, enhancing the overall narrative experience. For instance, in a film like Treehouse Hollywood, the main plotline might follow a struggling actor’s journey to stardom, while the understory delves into the sacrifices and personal challenges behind the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Such narratives not only entertain but also provoke thought and reflection on deeper themes.

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  14. ALASTAIR MENZIES on June 25, 2024 at 8:52 am

    Hi Steven, first time on your website, I heard about it on your great podcast with Mike Rowe.
    I just watched the 2007 Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men” and there is the scene also at the start of the movie when Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem) violently strangles the sheriff officer to death in the jail. And you start thinking, there is more to this weird-looking guy than a bad haircut!

    Best,
    Alastair

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