This post is by my friend, Andi Cumbo. You can (and should!) find Andi on her blog You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@andilit) as well. Thanks for joining us today, Andi!

Ted Gup gave me lots of great writing advice when I was in his creative nonfiction class in grad school.  Write through to the end; don’t edit as you go.  Don’t talk about what you’re writing because that steals the life from it.  Be careful about parroting yourself.

But by far the best wisdom he ever shared with me was this, “Look for the story behind the story.”

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Photo by Kevin Dooley

It’s a profoundly simple concept when I think about it.  All of the stories we love—be they fiction, oral history, biography, or fable—have a truth that sits behind the action of the story itself.  In some work—see Aesop and many children’s picture books as examples—the truth is right out there, a moral lesson blatantly painted.

But in other works—J.R.R. Tolkien’s great trilogy, JoAnn Beard’s powerful essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” the utter beauty of Charlotte’s Web—there is a purpose woven quietly into the language and scenes themselves.

Frodo must carry on in spite of profound fear.

Beard shows how grief can pound us in the most powerful ways even as we stand up in the midst of soul-wrenching tragedy.

Wilbur learns of sacrifice and friendship from a tiny creature.

The stories behind the stories.

How to Teach Moral Truth in Fiction

Without these greater truths, writing falls flat; it leaves us bored; or perhaps worse, we walk away from a work without questions or insights to consider later, we walk away unchanged.  For work to stick with us, it has to have some larger point behind it.

Lest you think I am advocating that we all write fables, let me be clear: direct moral lessons, as I see it, belong in only three kinds of writing—children’s picture books,  fairy tales and fables, and sermons.  The rest of our writing needs to be more subtle, more driven by undercurrent, or else we run the risk of our readers feeling like we preach to them.

How to do this gets very tricky, but here are my best suggestions:

1. Don’t Write What You Know

First, another bit of wisdom from Ted Gup—don’t write what you have already figured out.  If we know what we’re going to say, if we know the lesson we want to impart, we need to leave the story behind. The life is gone from it.

Instead, we can write into the stories we don’t quite understand, the ones that make us sad or angry or puzzled.  Write there and find our purpose as we write.  That’s the second best advice he ever gave me.

2. Write What You Feel

Secondly, the “story behind the story” often lies in the emotional truth of what we’re writing, not in what we think about that story. It’s very easy for writers to jump to analysis rather than staying in the physical and emotional detail of a scene, but it’s in those details that the deeper truth often lies.

For example, I once wrote about a blown glass paperweight that my parents’ owned when I was a kid.  I described the vibrant reds, yellows and greens imbedded in the nearly translucent crystal. I talked about how it sat on a washstand in our more formal living room by our piano and organ. I considered the weight of the piece and how it always felt cold when I picked it up.

Through these details, I reached into a visceral part of myself that was connected to my childhood home and found, there, that I was homesick for this place and this time that I could never visit again.  The details . . . the truth really is in the details.

The story behind the story.  It’s what drives us to keep reading—it’s where we find ourselves in the pages—it’s where we learn.  Try it out. See what you find in your own work.

Do you write about the story behind the story? What’s the story behind the story in the pieces you have written? 


Take a short piece of writing you love – a short story, an essay, even a chapter of a book.  Read it through twice – the first time just for the sheer joy of it, the second time with a more critical eye.  Study what the story is – the who, what, when, where, and why.  Then, look for the story behind the story – focus on the larger idea behind what is said.

Hint: the “why” usually has to do with the larger purpose.

Then, look at a piece of your own work and do the same.  See what you find.

Ted Gup’s website is

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