Secrets of the Society Genre, Part Two

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One of the most difficult to understand genres seems to be the Society Genre, and within that genre, the most misunderstood subgenre is Domestic Society. 

As an editor, I often get calls from struggling writers who, after some study of the Story Grid methodology, think they’re writing a Domestic Society story. They aren’t calling me because their experience of trying to squeeze their story arc into the parameters of this subgenre has been pleasant. They are frustrated because they “can’t make the pieces fit.” They think something is wrong with them or their story and they’re wondering if maybe it’s both, if they should just give up writing altogether. 

After a short conversation about their story and struggles, I almost always tell these writers that they’re right to ask for help but wrong about the rest. The writer isn’t the problem, the story isn’t entirely the problem (all unfinished stories have challenges), and most of these writers are NOT writing a Domestic Society story.

Gasp.

The good news for these writers, after discovering that they’ve initially identified the wrong genre for their story, is that we can then identify the right genre for the kind of story they want to tell. And, as you know, choosing the right genre can mean the difference between being stuck in misery and gaining the insight needed to propel you into finishing your darn book. 

I’d like to help you do the same. 

To show how I know these struggling writers weren’t writing Domestic Society stories, I’d like to demonstrate just what a Domestic Society story is, and then walk you through the questions I ask writers who are struggling with this subgenre. You can use this knowledge to commit to Domestic Society once and for all or to move onto other possibilities. 

Examining Genre Via a Masterwork;
My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

At Story Grid, we say the best way to examine a genre is through a masterwork (actually, many of them). The masterwork I chose is My SIster’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. It’s a perennial bestseller and an award-winner, and it was adapted as a large-budget film. It meets the definition of successful (by just about any standards) and well-written (by Story Grid standards), and it’s a damn good story.

Narrative Device 

The narrative of My Sister’s Keeper alternates between first-person accounts by the novel’s different characters. The bulk of the story takes place in the present, in a one-and-a-half week stretch of time. One final chapter, the epilogue, occurs forward in time and is narrated by point of view not used in previous scenes. 

Editor Note: Narrative device is not dictated by the subgenre but it is common to find these stories written using multiple points of view perspectives.

Subgenre Overview 

According to the Story Grid methodology, the Domestic Society story, at its heart, is a story of rebellion from within a domestic situation. We define a domestic situation as any group of people living together as a family, whether that be by blood, legal ties, or self-identification (Ex: a foster home, a small religious sect, a traditional family with children, a long-term encampment, etc.)
In My Sister’s Keeper, the three biological children of a married couple rebel against the mother who has become a tyrant out of desperation (to save the life of one of the children at the expense of the others). Eventually, the father joins the children in the rebellion against the mother.

The Domestic Society story focuses on family problems in which the external social judgment and power divide (ageism, racism, misogyny, civil rights violations, etc.) are operating within the family. This usually looks like a “parental figure” dominating others in the “household.” Some examples:

  • A violent and drunk father demands the family bow to his whims, tolerate his outbursts, and work to support his addiction. Family members fight for their autonomy and rights despite the potential threat to their lives.
  • An abusive mother demands her family’s subjection to the rituals of her obsessive-compulsive cleaning and her focus on appearance and social standing. Her spouse and children rebel despite dangerous stakes. 
  • A small and close-knit religious community demands absolute submission to a religious leader or religious norms. A small group of subjugated characters rebels despite the possibility of losing everything they worked to build for their “chosen family” structure.
  • A group of long-term isolated workers on an ocean oil rig who are beholden to a boss who controls outgoing communication. They don’t want to escape the job but they want freedom from tyranny and to maintain their “family” on the rig.
    In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna and her family’s differing perspectives of their situation represent a much larger societal debate about children’s legal medical rights and parenting choices associated with the obligations one sibling has to “help” another at their own expense.  

Additionally:
The power divide between the subjugator(s) and those disenfranchised is large and evident to the audience.
There is a shift in power from the subjugators to the subjugated as a result of the action in the climactic event.
(We’ll look at these in the sections on Conventions and Obligatory Moments.)

What’s the Global Value?

Values in a story shape your protagonists’ arc. They are the result of the characters’ actions or inaction. The Global Value describes the protagonists’ primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. 

The Global Value of a Domestic Society story ranges between impotence and power, freedom, and subjugation.
In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna and her siblings begin the story as powerless against the tyrannical decisions the mother makes regarding their care. They rebel against tyranny when they create a joint effort to open a court case against the mother. In the end, Anna is free from her mother’s subjugation regarding her medical care and takes the role of power for herself, which also frees her siblings. 

What’s the Controlling Idea?

The Controlling Idea of a story is the “lesson” you’d like your reader to come away with, the meaning you hope they apply to your story. Also called a theme or a premise, it’s the single sentence summing up the argument your story attempts to prove. 

The Controlling Idea of your Domestic Society story may be either positive or negative. Examples are:

Prescriptive– When a family member exposes the hypocrisy of a tyrannical family member, they gain freedom/power.

Cautionary– When family members allied with the subjugated protagonist are co-opted, the tyrannical family member wins. 

The controlling idea of My Sister’s Keeper might look like this:
When Anna and her siblings launch a rebellion against their mother’s tyranny of their care, they gain both power and freedom but at great sacrifice.

What are the Conventions?

Here’s how Shawn explains Conventions, “They are elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled or so bored out of their skull that no matter how beautiful the sentences, they’ll quit reading. Conventions are not obligatory scenes…they are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward (minor revelatory turning points that must be there but can be weaved into the story at the writer’s discretion).” Conventions set up the Obligatory Moments.

Kim Kessler teaches us that the conventions are the required set-ups in the story that the obligatory moments pay off.

A Domestic Society story is populated by multiple subjugated characters who confront their family-bound subjugator(s). This means the Domestic Society story is a mini-plot, in which the multiple family members represent aspects of the primary protagonist.
In My Sister’s Keeper, the primary protagonist is Anna. All of the other characters represent the conflicting feelings and thoughts she has about her situation. Her mother represents Anna’s desire to keep her sister alive at any cost. Her father represents her ambivalence and autonomy. Her brother represents her naivete, her misguided thought that she needs some redemption, her neglect by a parent, the other choices she could have made, and her rebellious nature. Her sister represents her deep sadness, sense of powerlessness, and her desire for her sister to go ahead and die. Her attorney represents her deep anxiety, her need for love, the fragility of life, her keeping of deep secrets, and a desire for justice and an end to tyranny.

There are characters who represent the “haves” (power, safety, livelihood) and characters who represent the “have nots” (danger, oppression, and unmet needs). 
In My Sister’s Keeper, the parents represent the power of having and the children represent the have nots. The attorney represents the gray area between the two. 

The external conflict for the protagonists comes from society’s judgment of the protagonists’ value which manifests in subjugation by class or civil rights. 
In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna and her siblings are bound to the mother’s wishes by their age and are unable to make medical decisions on their own. They are also unable to leave the tyranny of the mother because they are dependent on her care.

There are deep and intense interpersonal connections between characters.
In My Sister’s Keeper, the characters are a traditional nuclear family in which life circumstances and supposedly love bind them on multiple levels, especially emotionally.

What are the Obligatory Moments?

Obligatory Moments are the required moments (sometimes referred to as scenes) you’ll need to include for a particular genre. If you leave out one of these moments, your story won’t meet the requirements of the genre.

According to Kim Kessler, obligatory moments pay-off what was set-up by the conventions. 

There is an inciting threat or challenge to the antagonist (the family member in power). This is not the same as in an Action Rebellion story in which the inciting incident is a threat to the protagonist’s whole society.
In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna and her siblings initiate a lawsuit against their parents that would allow Anna’s freedom to live without physical sacrifice for her sister and will allow her sister to die as she wishes.

The protagonists deny the responsibility to respond or to rise up against the antagonistic family member. 
In My Sister’s Keeper. Anna is reluctant to initiate the lawsuit and does not tell her parents what she has done, which delays her need to take responsibility for her actions or verbally stand up to her mother.

Forced to respond, the protagonists lash out according to their positions in the power hierarchy of the family. 
In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna stands her ground with the lawsuit, her brother commits arson and argues with his parents, her sister sustains the pressure on Anna to continue the lawsuit, her father argues with the mother.

The protagonists’ initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonistic family member fails.
In My Sister’s Keeper, the mother does not relent in her subjugation of the children when confronted with the lawsuit. She lashes out against Anna and prepares for a court battle.

The protagonists learn what the antagonist’s object of desire (what they want, what they think is the key to power) is and set out to achieve it for themselves. 
In My Sister’s Keeper, the children learn the motive of the mother is to win the court battle to ensure control of the family. The children decide to do the same. 

During an “all is lost moment,” the protagonists realize they must change their approach in order to shift power from the antagonist to themselves.
In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna and her father are determined not to testify but they realize they must testify against the mother in order to defeat her. 

The climactic event of the story is when power either changes hands from the subjugators to the subjugated (protagonists succeed) or the subjugators remain in power (protagonists fail). The winner and the loser are made clear.
In My Sister’s Keeper, the climactic event is the decision in the court case. The mother loses the right to decide Anna’s medical care and Anna gains the power and freedom to make her own choices via her attorney as guardian.

Whether the protagonists win or lose in the climactic revolution scene, they are rewarded in the Resolution or Climax on either the internal, the interpersonal, or the external level.
In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna is rewarded with her medical freedom, respect from her family members, and a friend in her attorney. Her sister is rewarded with the right to die. The father is rewarded with stronger ties to his family, including his wife. 

The antagonistic family member is doomed to subjugation, exile, or death. 
In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna’s mother forever loses the ability to make medical decisions on Anna’s behalf. She loses the ability to tyrannize her family by sacrificing the well-being of one child to another. She also loses the life of a child, a fate many would argue is worse than death.

The ending is paradoxical and bittersweet, either a win-but-lose or lose-but-win for the protagonists.
In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna and her siblings may have won their lawsuit but Anna dies. Her sister’s life may be saved, but she will forever live with the guilt. One child lives and one child dies, both unexpectedly. 

What Does This Mean for Your Story?

Let’s go back to those writers who thought they were writing a Domestic Society story but called me because they were stuck and couldn’t make their story fit the Subgenre.

Let’s look at how I help them see that their story doesn’t fit the genre or that it does fit the genre but just needs some small tweaks. Ask yourself these same questions about your story.

Who is your protagonist? 
A Domestic Society story is a mini-plot with multiple protagonists. If you only have one protagonist, you don’t yet meet the requirements of the subgenre. 
Two possible options:
1. Expand your number of protagonists making each one a reflection of some aspect of the primary protagonist.
2. Keep just one protagonist and identify a different genre that better demonstrates the kind of story you want to tell.
If your single protagonist defeats a villain via rebelling, consider that you may have an Action/Rebellion story with a Worldview or Status supporting story. 

Are your protagonists subjugated as a group, within a family, and by a family member? 
Examples of subjugated characters are those oppressed due to age, disability, skin color, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, etc. If your story is about straight white men in modern America struggling in business, chances are they are not oppressed. Instead, you may have a Status story, a Business Performance story, or both.

What is your inciting incident?
If your inciting incident is not a threat or challenge to the antagonist (the family member in power) and is, instead, a threat to the protagonist (those subjugated), consider changing your inciting incident or consider another genre. Action/Rebellion, Worldview, and Status are always a good place to start. 

What are your protagonists pursuing?
If your protagonists are not in pursuit of the power that the antagonistic family member holds, and the protagonists simply want to defeat the antagonist, consider another genre or change the protagonists’ reason for wanting to defeat the antagonist.

What is the big “all is lost moment” of your story?
If it’s not when the protagonists realize they must change their approach in order to shift power from the antagonist to themselves, then ask yourself if this is a challenge with your story, or is there another genre that requires an “all-is-lost” moment similar to yours?

What is your climactic event?
This may be the most important question you ask yourself for meeting the obligatory moments of your genre. If the climactic event of your story is not when power either changes hands from the subjugators to the subjugated (protagonists succeed) or the subjugators remain in power (protagonists fail), you need to choose another genre or rework your climactic event.

What is your ending pay-off?
If the ending pay-off of your story doesn’t have the antagonist suffering some kind of punishment for their inappropriate wielding of power, and the antagonist simply learns a lesson and repents, consider changing this aspect of your ending or identifying a different genre for your story. Justice must be served in some way that makes the antagonist’s life more difficult or ends their life.

Are there deep and intense interpersonal connections between your characters? 
If not, and your characters are just colleagues or new friends, there aren’t significant enough ties to bind the subjugated. There must be clear emotional reasons the protagonists are subjugated beyond physical circumstances. 

Do the problems in your story characters’ family represent a microcosm of a larger societal problem such as ageism or misogyny or is the subjugation simply by physical control and brute force? 
If the subjugation is simply by force, consider the Action Genre or increasing the emotional connections and stakes for your characters that contribute to their lack of power.

Are you still wondering if your story meets the requirements of the subgenre? 

The most common combination for someone who has misidentified their story as a Domestic Society story is Status + Action. So, if you’re not sure where to start when evaluating other possibilities, start there.

Often those Action + Status stories have a tertiary genre (or subplot) of Love (which includes familial love). 

A Domestic Society story will often have aspects of a Crime story and may even have a Worldview supporting story instead of a Status story. So be sure you know how to differentiate your genres and make sure you’ve chosen the right one for your story. 

If you’d like to discuss your story and are seeking an editor for your work, you can schedule a free half-hour consultation with me. I’d love to help.

Interested in other articles I’ve written on genre? 

I hope this article has helped you narrow in on what you need to do for your story. 

I wish you the best of luck and hard work!

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About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez helps writers develop their stories and believes stories are our most important catalyst for change. She is the editor of award-winning and bestselling authors, including Shawn Coyne of Story Grid fame, but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and narrative nonfiction writers. Rachelle received an MA in psychology from Goddard College and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Masters in Creative Writing Program on a merit scholarship. She served as an art therapist for HIV impacted children, a social worker for adults in crisis, and as an executive director for a national writing community before becoming a Story Grid Certified Editor. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family, ridiculous dogs, and a few too many urban chickens. Rachelle was recently published in Four Core Fiction. Download her free guide, An Introduction to Genre. Attend her free masterclass, Get Your Story Unstuck. Schedule a consultation with her on your story at rachelleramirez.com.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
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Author Rachelle Ramirez

2 Comments

Mark says:

Fantastic summary of My Sister’s Keeper and demonstration of the Society- Domestic genre in that story and in general.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Aw, thanks Mark. Your opinion means a lot to me. The book isn’t for everyone but I really did want to help clear up the confusion around this subgenre.

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