Novel Writing – The Understory

Novel writing requires a complex set of skills ranging from plotting to dialogue to knowing everything that will happen on the page, before it happens. In November 2011, I wrote a novel for National Novel Writing Month. The experience itself remains unlike any other I’ve ever completed, participated in, done.

I struggled because I had not fleshed out what I thought was the back story. But, in fact, what I had not done was flesh out the understory. Steven Pressfield describes the understory as

…the architecture that undergirds and supports the surface story.

Pressfield goes on to describe examples from contemporary movies and greek tragedies on how the understory comes through to the surface of the story. I appreciate how he exhorts writers to reveal the understory through dialogue or direct action rather than flashbacks or voice over narration. Or the dreaded Prologue which now seesm to inhabit every mystery now being published in the U.S. I have concluded that authors include Prologues because they can’t or wont’ incorporate into the surface story. But I digress.

I’ve learned that novel writing may best be served by knowing as much as possible about such things as understory and backstory. Pressfield describes the difference as:

Backstory explains a character’s individual past and hints at her motivation. Understory is the story-architecture supporting the surface story.

Pottering about a novel results in a lot of written words and pages and some very huge holes in the manuscripts. I look forward to writing the understory for a novel I am working on now. Armed with Pressfield’s suggestions, the next draft will be measurably better.

cover for Moxie, Vol. 1 by Jay SennettMy essay collection, Moxie, Vol. 1, will be released January 15, 2018. Preorder your copy today at Amazon, Nook, Kobo and Apple Books.

1 Comment

  1. Oh my word. I read that post today and cut and pasted it into a word document so I could print it out for my notebook and here you read it too. Shazam. I’m now trying to figure out the understory to my novel and I’m not sure it has one that will rise to the top except, how will she heal? I’m wondering if every novel needs a hidden understory. I see the need for it especially in intrigue or mystery, etc, but since i can’t figure out what mine is out of the plot i have….hmmmmmmm

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