Sunday, May 23, 2021

What's Your Story? By Christine Gunderson

This month we’re talking about “core stories,” and this concept applies not just to writers, but to everyone who loves stories, whether you’re an avid reader, or a compulsive Netflix binger.


In essence, a “core story” is the story you come back to, over and over again, in the books you choose to read, the books you choose to write, the tv shows and movies you choose to watch, or all three.


I first learned about this concept at a writer’s workshop. The presenter was both psychologist and a best-selling author and she pointed out that some topics are interesting because they are hard wired into the human psyche. 


The list of topics will be familiar to anyone who’s ever binged a TV series or stayed up way past their bedtime reading a book. As a species, we cannot resist the following subjects: gossip, secrets, wealth, status, war, relationships, love, sex, murder, fame, power and survival. 


These topics have been around since humans started living together in caves thousands of years ago. While gnawing on a mastodon bone, a caveman leaned forward, lowered his voice and said, “You didn’t hear it from me, but the guy who lives in that really big cave next to the antelope trail discovered something he calls ‘fire.’”


Paying attention to these things helped us survive and thrive in human societies. Thousands of years later, we still choose stories that cater to our favorite human topics. 


If you find wealth, status, love and relationships interesting, you might be reading regency romances or watching Bridgerton. If murder and secrets are your thing, you might be reading Steig Larsson or watching a lot of Law and Order: SVU.


The next question is why do you like these topics? That’s harder to answer.


In the writing workshop I mentioned earlier, we each made a list of the books and movies we love most. Then we identified some common elements. 


I learned that while I may look like a suburban mother of three with a purse filled with orthodontist appointment cards and a wardrobe from Talbots, in my heart I am actually Michonne from The Walking Dead. Or possibly a Shield Maiden. Or maybe both, depending on the severity of the enemy threat. Post-apocalyptic landscapes are my happy place. Promise me the breakdown of civilization and I will buy the book and see the movie. 


But when it comes to writing, my core story is different. An editor friend pointed out that every book I’ve written is about freedom.


This was news to me, but I eventually realized she was right. My message is always somehow the same: we cannot be happy unless we have the freedom to be who we really are. 


I still don’t know why I write about this. And maybe that’s why I keep writing about it. Maybe that’s why we go back to the same books and movies over and over again. We’re looking for the answer to a question that only we can ask. And like our primordial ancestors, we’re pretty sure that answer is hidden somewhere in a story.




Christine Gunderson is writer who lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star the Wonder dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion, or unloading the dishwasher. You can reach her at



  1. Freedom! What a fantastic core story.

    1. It's funny how sometimes other people can see things in our writing that we can't see ourselves.

  2. Thoughtful post, I've found myself returning frequently to remembering kids I went to school with 50+ years ago. How clueless I was about the amount of adversity in their lives. Most of my main characters deal with some form of it and are able to get by it. I am still saddened when I think of the ones in real life who ended up stuck in such an evil labyrinth that they never found a way out.

  3. Your books would probably be really helpful and comforting to them if you could go back in time and give them something you've written as an adult. Maybe that's your gift to kids now who are stuck in the same difficult situations :-)