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Monday, October 10, 2016

Crafting a Killer Undercurrent for Your Story

Sometimes I imagine the plot of a story like a cross stitch, with the front of the stitch being what the reader actually sees; it's the surface of the story. Everything is nice and neat and clear and nearly perfect. But then there's the back of it, where you can see the real work beneath the surface. I like to call that stuff the "undercurrent"--which I guess implies that I also see the plot of a novel like a body of water. There's the surface. And there's the undercurrent.

The undercurrent can be big or small, but it should always be there. In your story, the true plot should be bigger, with more knots and underworkings, than what we see on the surface, otherwise it will feel flat, get boring, and worst of all, leave a reader feeling uninvested in the book.

I see this happen in unpublished stories from time to time. There is no undercurrent. It's a tiny, tiny surface stream of a story. Everything is just as it seems. Everything is straightforward. Everything is visible the first time through. Sometimes with stories like this, readers can't tell exactly what's wrong, but they just know they don't want to read more. They aren't interested. They don't care what happens next.

Every great story has some size of an undercurrent--the backside of the cross stitch, the bottom of the iceberg--or whatever metaphor you prefer. But there is a whole spectrum of sizes.

0 (no undercurrent)-------------------------------100 (mostly entirely undercurrent)

I already talked a bit about stories that have no undercurrent. If you aren't writing a novel and are instead writing for very young children (perhaps those who can't read yet), you may write just a surface story. But for the rest of us . . . we've got to have a little something with more depth.

So let's look at the other end of the spectrum. You can have a plot that happens almost entirely in the undercurrent. "Hills like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway is a perfect example of this. The entire plot and significance of the story is all in the undercurrent, to the extent that if the average person reads the story, they would think it was dumb, pointless really, because nothing of note seems to be happening at all on the surface level.

Ernest Hemingway looking intelligent

Sure, Hemingway wrote a story like that. But if you write a story like that, good luck getting it published and finding readers for it. Because oddly enough, a story that is 100% undercurrent actually appears nearly the same as story that has 0% undercurrent. If the reader doesn't understand what's going on and isn't savvy enough to pick up on the undercurrent, and if there is nothing connecting it to the surface, the story will feel as insignificant as one that has no undercurrent. (Besides, in today's world, it seems a little much to expect the reader to work that hard to understand what a story like "Hills like White Elephants" is actually about, and when you figure it out, it's not a particularly fascinating undercurrent to discover.)

(Update: Then there are examples like Crimes of Grindelwald, where the plot lines are all undercurrent, but the creators are trying to get them to function as if surface stories, without actually making any a surface story. Problematic.)

So almost all of us should be aiming for somewhere in the middle. Somewhere between 10% and 90%--which is still a huge breadth.

I think Harry Potter is a great example of a series that has a very strong surface and a very strong undercurrent.

See, truly Harry Potter has an undercurrent we perceive, but in its undercurrent, it has different levels of depth. At the top layer, are the main mysteries that are solved at the end of the book; a little deeper, and it's the mysteries solved throughout the series; go deeper, and you have some mysteries that get a little less attention; it goes all the way down, so that there are very minor, minor details that connect on a significant level, and if you don't believe me, I'll be happy to tell you some of them.

In reality, its the breadth of its undercurrent, and Rowling winning our trust that she will deliver on it, that bred so many enthusiastic fan theories.

But the surface of Harry Potter isn't boring either. Even if you don't get to the deepest part of the undercurrent, and just stay near the top, you still get a great story. If a reader ever does want to go deeper, however, they'll get an even better one.

Let's break down one of the books, and I'll illustrate the levels I mean. Chamber of Secrets is a great one to refer to. (**by the way, I know some of my younger followers haven't read the whole series yet, know that there are spoilers for the series here**)

Levels of Undercurrent

On the surface of Chamber of Secrets' plot are all the things we see on the page itself. Mainly, for this book, this is Harry's second year at Hogwarts and him trying to figure out who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

Level 1
Just below the surface is the first level of the undercurrent. This is what is actually happening at Hogwarts at its barest level. Essentially, that Ginny Weasley got Tom Riddle's diary and opened the Chamber of Secrets.

Level 2
Just below that part of the undercurrent is the fact that Tom Riddle is Voldemort, and he's essentially what's going on here. His goals for regaining life are here in this level. And Lucius Malfoy's plot to slip the diary into Hogwarts to start all of this, fits here too. Notice that both of these plot undercurrents refer to stories that are part of something bigger than Harry's or Ginny's. Voldemort and Lucius have bigger histories, motives, and goals that extend beyond the focus of this book itself. They are "bigger than the story."

Level 3
Then we have a level of undercurrent that has roots that go even deeper into the Harry Potter world, like the fact that the diary is actually a horcrux, something we don't discover or care about until the 6th book (and yet J.K. Rowling had it planned as such all along). We also get several mentions in this book about how Harry is similar to Tom Riddle. In fact, there are even a few lines about Harry feeling "connected" to him, which are nods to the fact Harry is a horcrux himself.

Level 4
Then we can get to a level of undercurrent with fascinating connections and details, perhaps not as significant, but sometimes just as mind blowing when you connect the dots. One of my favorite tidbits that fits here is the fact that both vanishing cabinets that are so central to the 6th book are introduced and nodded to here in book 2. In fact, it's in Chamber of Secrets where the one at Hogwarts actually gets broken (from Peeves)--the sole reason Malfoy has to slave over months trying to fix it in book 6. If you think this is just coincidence, or something Rowling just decided to run with later, I can give you plenty of more points like this one in the series--like the fact Harry actually finds, picks up, and moves the Ravenclaw Diadem in Half-blood Prince, when he has to hurry and hide his book from Snape. Or the fact that when Harry's aunt Petunia is talking about "that wizard boy" who told her and Lily about Dementors in book 5, she's actually referring to Snape and not James. And the list goes on.

Level 5
This is the level where things are put into play, but it's up to the reader to get all the subtext and connect the dots, which leads into fan theories, that sometimes J.K. Rowling has confirmed. I know I said Chamber of Secrets was a great example, but honestly, I'm drawing a blank right here at the moment. But a good one for the series as a whole is that Harry, Snape, and Voldemort represent the three brothers in the Deathly Hallows fairy tale--and it couldn't be truer for Harry, who literally does take of his invisibility cloak just before meeting death--like an equal. (Added to that theory is that Dumbledore represents death, and greets Harry like at equal).

Not to mention the fact Dumbledore actually (basically) gave away each Hallow like Death does

So, there is all this going on in the undercurrent, but we only see the surface. If all of the undercurrent of Harry Potter was on the surface, the story would be so gaudy and confusing, we'd never get through it. From our perspective, however, the surface of the story can seem rather simple, and easy to follow. Harry goes to school, learns spells, uncovers a mystery, defeats the Dark Arts. But the moment you start to peel all that back, you'll begin to see how complex it actually is. (That, my friends, is the definition of talent in any of the arts.)

This is one reason why the Harry Potter books have so much dang reread value. But because the surface itself is interesting, it can still capture the casual or reluctant reader too.

Let's be honest, most people's books won't be as elaborate as that (let alone if we've got the chops to render it with as much sophistication and talent as Rowling). But every book should at least have a level of undercurrent. And in fact, some of the best books only go to levels 1 and 2.

How NOT to Handle Undercurrent

Let me give you some advice on what not to do. And sadly, I've seen this done in several published books.

Don't promise a huge undercurrent with three or more levels and only deliver on level 1 or 2. I hesitate to say specific titles, but I'll use one example because it's over 10 years old now.

First, let me preface by saying that Harry Potter gave me unrealistic expectations for novels, because of what I just explained above. The undercurrent is very elaborate (and very rewarding for the deep readers). I actually thought I would find several other books with plots and undercurrents that deliberate. Silly me.

But the worst part of the quest, is that some of them actually promised readers a big undercurrent. And then didn't deliver. One of these is a series I still consider dear to my heart: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. As the series progresses, you get more and more hints to a elaborate undercurrent--where all the mysteries and details that keep getting mentioned are going to tie up, or at least, you, the reader, will be able to tie them up.

I spent a lot of time trying to connect the dots as the later half of the series was being released one by one. I was a Harry Potter kid. I was determined to figure this out. But as I finished the final book in the series, I came to the realization I was wrong. In reality, the author didn't have a fantastic, multi-faceted undercurrent--he was stringing me along with a carrot on a stick. I had tried to come up with dozens of explanations and connections, and not only was I wrong--there were no explanations and connections, not any you would ordinarily find in the deeper levels of the undercurrent (though I actually came up with some good ones on my own).

In reality, the author only purposefully hinted at something bigger (it was obvious enough that it was on purpose) without actually having had anything planned.

I still like the series and don't regret reading it (excited for the new adaptation coming to Netflix soon). But it was the biggest disappointment of the whole series. There is another series more recently that had the same problem. So many hints. So much potential. Such a flop.

At least other books I read didn't promise to go deep.

So, in short, don't make promises you can't keep, if your goal is to write a good story and give your readers a good read.

The Undercurrent Thins as the Story Unfolds

It is possible to have a story that has a strong undercurrent, a deep undercurrent, that thins out through the novel--in fact, it almost always should thin out on some level.

I've talked about one of my favorite shows I watched growing up, Trigun, on here before, but in the first half of Trigun, the undercurrent is all way, way down low, far far away from the surface of what's happening, to the point where you are convinced this is pretty much just a fun, entertaining, little episodic show . . . until you hit the midpoint, then bam, this is a lot bigger and deeper than you thought you'd ever signed up for.

In fact, by the end of the series, the whole story is much bigger than you could have ever imagined, than you could have ever predicted. This is largely because the writers started the series promising a thin, one or two level undercurrent to the audience, when in fact, parts of it go to levels 4 and 5, only you won't make the connections until later or until you rewatch the show.

The dangers in doing something like this is that your audience might want a deeper story, and perceiving this one to be rather simple, leave it to find a deeper one before you begin to reveal the big stuff. But there is a way around this problem. Make the surface and early levels of the undercurrent dang entertaining. Entertaining enough that they'll sit through 12 episodes because it's so amusing, as is.

Essentially, unlike A Series of Unfortunate Events, Trigun made little to no promises of a deep, vast undercurrent, so the show was able to blow minds by over-delivering, going beyond what was promised to the audience. That's one of mine and my brother's mottos: under commit and over deliver. It's amazing the effect it can have.

As the story of Trigun and most other narratives progress, the undercurrent in a sense almost always naturally begins to thin out. It's not that the story isn't deep or becomes shallow, per se, but that the undercurrent is elevated to a higher level or to the surface itself as things are discovered. The fact Harry is a horcrux is brought to the surface of the story, and becomes a key player on the surface. Harry, Hermione, and Ron realize the heavy locket they found in Grimmauld Place in book 5 is the horcrux they are looking for in book 7. These are revelations that take place on page, and become part of the surface story.

It's important to note that not everything comes to the surface. Some things may never surface. Again, "Hills like White Elephants" is an example of next to nothing coming to the surface. With the vanishing cabinets appearing in Chamber of Secrets and then playing a vital role in Half-blood Prince --that connection is never made on page. It stays down in the undercurrent. It's up to the reader to make the connection. In this way, the reader becomes more of a participant in the story instead of just a spectator.

From my experience, most stories don't do this sort of thing. Their undercurrent goes to level 1 or 2 and then it thins out so all of it comes to the surface and on the page. These can still be very satisfying stories. There are plenty of bestselling stories that do this. But the Harry Potter kid in me longs for more stories with elaborate undercurrents, where some realizations are meant for me, the reader, to discover.

How Much Undercurrent

There are a lot of avenues to telling a great story. But almost every great story has some undercurrent. How much and how deep and how much of it surfaces is up to the writer. But I think perhaps the safest and most appealing route is to do a little of everything, like Rowling did. A surface story that anyone can enjoy. Lighter levels of undercurrent that surface. Deeper levels of undercurrent (that sometimes surface in other books of the series, if you are writing a series), with some of the deeper parts never fully surfacing (and some not changing levels at all). In fact, I believe this is one of the key attributes that made Harry Potter appealing to such a wide readership, and I touched on it in my Harry Potter thesis.

People always refer to the magical world for drawing people in--and I believe that, and it should be acknowledged--but there are loads of stories with fantastic magical worlds that draw people in, and few are nearly as successful as Harry Potter. What most stories don't have is such a deep and wide breadth of an undercurrent that can appeal to such a huge range of readers--from the utterly reluctant to the "experts." Rowling created an undercurrent for each type of reader. Every type can enjoy the story, and can decide how deep they want to go. There is something for someone at each level.

Again, this is one of the reasons the books have such a killer reread value. As a reader progresses personally, their readings of Harry Potter can get deeper--and we know we can trust that Rowling has gone that deep, because she's proven that to us time and again. She won't lead us to dead ends like Lemony Snicket did. She has the chops and she delivers. Every time I read Harry Potter, there is something new. It's rereadable because it changes with each reading.

And one of the reasons it changes with each reading, is because the reader has the opportunity to be an intellectual participator in the plot and universe, and not just a spectator. In the writing world, we spend so much time talking about the importance of the reader experiencing the emotions for themselves, participating in the emotions, but next to nothing is said on the effectiveness of them participating and experiencing in the intellectual side of a story.

Crafting an undercurrent like this takes skill, but it can be done, and it can be taught. I have a technical post I'm working on that shows how this sort of thing is pulled off well in the text (or, maybe better put, "off text")--a lot of which directly overlaps with how to properly render a mystery in your story. I don't know if it will be done next week, but the majority of the post is written.

Until next time, think about the undercurrents in your writing and try to glimpse them in published and unpublished stories. Happy writing.


  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

    I'm a re-reader (ten times is not too many for a book I love), and it struck me that one of the things that I love about certain books is exactly what you talk about here. Every time I read them I understand more and make new connections.

    In contrast, many unpublished works I've read felt hollow and I couldn't figure out why. I suspect this is part of the reason.

    A.S. Akkalon

    1. Oh yeah, I've for sure read Harry Potter more than ten times. I wish I could feel that way about all books, but unfortunately, sometimes that level depth just isn't there.

      Thanks for the kind note ^_^

    2. Thank you so much for these you are literally saving my book right now. I always thought the Harry Potter series was one of the best I've ever read (and about the only book I could ever reread) and now I know why!

    3. It is truly an amazing series! So glad this will help you with your book!

  2. Great post! Another example like Harry Potter that has both good surface story & astonishing deep undercurrent would be Game of Thrones. Each time you reread it, it gets better. You see the dots and connect them and find new and more new undercurrents. Amazing! Same goes for Tolkien. :D

    1. Oh, yeah, thanks for the added examples. I actually haven't read Game of Thrones, but I didn't realize it had such a good undercurrent. Tolkien of course is a great example too. Thanks, Maria

  3. Great article! Some of my favorite books, The Tales of Goldstone Wood and The Queen's Thief, are prime examples of this; you can read them so many times, yet still discover new connections, and threads between the books that hint at more. Definitely something to aspire to!

    1. Thank you. And thanks for visiting. Love books like that.

  4. Great read! The intellectual bliss of a good story isn't talked about enough. It's always about experiencing the emotions. Also, I really like the picture of an "undercurrent". Nice. As for another great "undercurrent bliss": The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss. The joggling of streams and clues on different levels is amazing! I bet you could write a ton of articles about it. :)

    1. True, the community does tend to focus more on the emotions--which *are* super important. I've heard that one is great (it's on my unending tbr list--I should bump it up :)

  5. Tremendous!:) However, I understand level 3 of undercurrent and up as in your examples could only be developed in series not in stand alone book. How do you think?

    1. Hi Jurgis, thank you! I think you could say, yeah, 3 and 4 would be more for a series, but the idea, too, is that the connected details seem to be . . . smaller and smaller? More on the fringes? I guess that is what I would say. I think you could do something like a 5 in a standalone though, where you leave it more for the audience to connect the dots.


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