How to Write Stories Readers Will Actually Remember

How to Write Stories Your Readers Will Remember

How to Write Stories Readers Will Actually RememberThink back about the books you read and the movies you watched in the last year (heck, think about just the ones you experienced in the last month). Which do you still remember vividly? Which are already foggy in your memory?

Now: which type of story do you want to write?

No-brainer, of course. You want to write stories your readers will remember!

But how do you do that?

Although there are a number of factors (some of them entirely subjective to the readers themselves), one of the most important ways to get readers to first care about your stories and, as a result, remember them is to write a story about something.

Wha? Aren’t all stories about something? That’s the whole point of plot, isn’t it?

Yes and no.

Here’s what it boils down to: there are two types of stories. Stories that are about something, and stories that are about something.

What Is Your Story Really About? (Hint, It’s Not Your Plot)

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Plot is an external, visual metaphor for what your story is really about—the story under the story. Theme is the most obvious manifestation of this “understory.” But you can take things even further by creating story subtext that is never brought to the fore, but which powerfully influences your readers’ experiences of the obvious plot.

Consider a couple contrasting examples. We want to look, first, at what these stories are about, and then what they’re about.

What’s Your Story About on Its Surface?

Wolf Children (directed by Mamoru Hosoda): On its surface, this beautiful Japanese animation seems to be about werewolves—specifically a human mother struggling to survive with her half-breed children in the wake of their werewolf father’s death.

Wolf Children

Wolf Children (2012), Studio Chizo.

Stand by Me (directed by Rob Reiner and based on Stephen King’s short story “The Body”): On its surface, this coming-of-age story is about a group of four adolescents striking out on a grand adventure in hopes of discovering the body of a missing boy and getting their pictures in the paper.

Stand by Me movie

Stand by Me (1986), Columbia Pictures.

The Legend of Tarzan (directed by David Yates): On its surface, last year’s attempt at a blockbuster is about an English lord, orphaned and raised in the jungle, who is forced to return to his previous way of life in Africa in order to confront old enemies and protect those he loves.


The Legend of Tarzan (2016), Warner Bros.

What’s Your Story Really About?

Wolf Children: By the time the final credits roll (to the tune of a lullaby about motherhood and a collection of snapshots from the characters’ childhood), viewers understand this is not a story about werewolves. This is a heartrending, life-affirming story about the sacrifices of parenthood, the anguishes of growing up, and the challenges of the parent-child relationship.

Wolf Children 3

Wolf Children (2012), Studio Chizo.

Stand by Me: As with many of Stephen King’s stories, the delightful nostalgia and sometimes over-the-top violence and grossness isn’t actually the point. The point is the character’s deeper inner journeys, in this case, particularly the protagonist Gordie’s exploration of life, death, friendship, and growing up.

Stand by Me John Cusack Will Wheaton

Stand by Me (1986), Columbia Pictures.

The Legend of Tarzan: And now we come to the ringer of the group. What it’s about on the surface is all it’s about. Really, you could stick just about any recent blockbuster in here and find the same regrettable lack of substance. I’m picking on this particular film simply because it had the opportunity to be about more, thanks to the protagonist’s unique circumstances and (unrealized) inner conflict. It’s telling that, a couple months after seeing it, I honestly can’t remember hardly anything about it—in contrast to the previous two films.

Legend of Tarzan

The Legend of Tarzan (2016), Warner Bros.

3 Questions to Help You Find Your “Understory”

Your story’s “understory” is created from deep and meaningful subtext. You find this by examining your story’s plot and asking yourself what greater life questions these external events might logically evoke from your characters.

Ask yourself:

1. If you had to live through the events of your story, what questions of the soul do you think you’d be asking?

2. Then step back even further and look at your story’s big picture. Is the overall conflict a metaphor for something deeper—such as the rigors and blessings of parenthood or coming to grips with death?

3. Once you’ve identified the deeper questions and metaphors offered by your external plot, what can you do to make sure you’re making the most of them?

Don’t leave your story’s best possibilities languishing out of sight. Bring them forward. Use them to strengthen the foundation of your story, to reveal your theme, to get readers to identify with your characters’ struggles, and to write a story they’ll never forget.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! When you look past your plot, what is your story really about? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. One ringer to overrule them all…

    Excellent distinction, really brought to life by your examples.

    To put it another way: stories that stay with us keep us thinking about *all* the challenges of being a parent, or growing up, or other stories’ themes about sacrifice or belonging or such.

    While other stories just make us think about how to grab a vine and swing from it, and not much more. They don’t remember what wider points they could be making, only the too-specific action… so it’s no surprise all of us who don’t live as jungle kings don’t remember those versions of Tarzan.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Though, to be fair, I *would* like to be able to swing on a vine. 😉

      • There once was a vine in the woods near my house that the kids used to swing on – until I broke it.

        We all would grab the end, walk up the hill, then lift our feet and swing out in the air before returning to the hill. One day when I was around twelve I went alone, swung out – and perhaps fifteen feet off the ground heard the snap and realized the vine was no longer attached to the tree. I landed among the rocks and somehow escaped without a scratch.

        That will be in my story, although when the vine breaks he’ll be showing off for his love interest.

  2. Wow, after reading this and contemplating your questions, I just realized that my “question of the soul and its answer,” plus the conflict of the bigger picture of the story (Pre-dystopian story) exactly reflects the relationship between the protagonist , her ex, and her new love. Great post as usual thanks.

  3. I was creating an ad for a set of my books one day and I was trying to figure out what I could say about them in the 80 characters I was given. I thought about what those 4 books, at that time, were about and what my readers said about them and I came up with ‘Family, Friends, Love, Murder and Mayhem’. Since then, as I’ve written 5 more books in that series and a couple in a spin-off series, that phrase has become my mantra. I plan each of the mysteries around those 5 core concepts and my romances (one out and one out soon) follow all but one of them…and there’s death in those too just not murder.

  4. Kate Johnston says

    Good post! I saw Tarzan, and I really, really wanted to like it because I love the traditional story of Tarzan. You’re right, there was so much that could have been done to it that wasn’t. And when you compare it to a classic like Stand by Me, what is lacking is practically palpable.

    I agree with you about finding deeper meanings of our stories beneath the surface. Sometimes, I dread having to pull apart a scene because I know it’s not good enough. But always, always, when I do take the time to pull it apart and search for something better, the scene is 100 times richer and more engaging. The end result is worth the effort!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Some people might argue it’s not a fair comparison, since Tarzan was and is and always will be pulp. But Stephen King is one of the pulpiest writers out there, and yet his stuff is *always* about more than just what’s on the surface. Doesn’t matter what type of story you’re writing, there’s always room for depth.

  5. “The Usual Suspects” is among the most memorable movies because right up front the voice-over (narrator) tells us this about his criminal pals: “These guys don’t break.” And they don’t. But only the protagonist has the ingenuity and imagination to fool the lawman who’s after him. The real story is about redemption. And who can forget the twist in “Presumed Innocent” by Scott Turow? Rusty is declared not guilty, yet the real story is his wife’s guilt. What a moral dilemma that is. And then there’s the one with Michael Douglas dealing with a vindictive lover who stalks him and his family. It’s really about obsession.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I still haven’t seen The Usual Suspects. I’ve been circling it this month. Really need to make time for it.

  6. Becki J. Kidd says

    My story is in 4-parts. I’ve realized how the main character grows to see his enemy as a kid with struggles to overcome, too. Each of secondary characters grow facing fears & overcoming obstacles. Really fun to watch all of this happen.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! I find it always elevates a story when the author is able to look at the antagonist as a complex human being with dreams and problems of his own.

  7. I love it! “What questions of the soul” would I be asking?

    Sometimes the little details are the most memorable, though. When a character breaks down in tears, choosing to befriend the bully, stomping on the flower, getting laughed at. Sometimes it’s not the deep, soul-level questions about life but the simple, relatable moments that I remember.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true. But those little moments are almost always due to a rich subtext poking its head up above the surface, however momentarily.

  8. One of the first examples which comes to my mind is Life of Pi; the ending was a big shocker and quite revelatory.
    Inception also fits the bill.
    I definitely enjoy and remember stories much more when, upon reaching the end, I realize there is much more going on than I’d realized, a deeper and broader story behind the story.

  9. Is it possible to discover the true underlying meaning as you are writing or after completing the first draft?

    • Happened to me. I was drafting out a series about bug people destroying enemy colonies, then thought hey wait a minute, the attitudes the characters had mirror attitudes seen now in current society about nationalism and immigration, then an A-ha moment struck, that I could work that into a greater theme.

      I believe it can happen. Funny how I ended up getting emotional and started crying as I realized the theme in my series. Silly maybe? I hope it is a good sign though.

  10. For my Bugfolk series the underlying plot/ heart of it that drives the series is the conflict between nationalism: “Our colony first” vs working together as various nations/ cultures to fight a bigger problem that could potentially destroy our existence.

    This is a message I believe is very relevant right now culturally and what snapped me into returning to the series after putting it on hiatus for about 5 years.

  11. This article really made me rethink the theme of my current project. I had envisioned it being about a search for home and family, but the questions here have helped me see that it’s really about responsibility, specifically the responsibility one has to wield his gifts wisely. I will admit that theme has always been perplexing to me. Characters and plot come naturally, but I have struggled to build a unifying theme into my works. I appreciate the practical advice offered here.

  12. If I think about the novels I remember after a year or more, it would have to be originality: original voice, original plot, or some original theme that resonates with me. Something that stands out, or the attempt at something that stands out, even if it fails. Those novels that I don’t remember, they tend to be inaccessible or disjointed. There are many ways to succeed and many more ways to fail.


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