Secrets of the Society Genre

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Are you a bad-ass writer ready to start a revolution? Or are you harboring an ideal worth pursuing while preferring more subtle change? Take a journey with me into the Society Genre and unlock the code that will improve your writing, help you shift power from the oppressors to the oppressed, and embolden others to seek equality for all.

Together, we’ll discover an intriguing world where self-respect meets external validation, where characters overcome fear, risk, vulnerability, and impotence to rise up against their subjugators. A world of exhilarating rebellion you can deliver to your readers in the form of entertaining stories.

Together, we can make some trouble.

But how? We start with a basic premise:

Stories are powerful, if they work.

And structure makes stories work.

So let’s start with structure. It’s dependent upon our genres. As a writer, the key to creating change is learning what kind of story evokes the change you wish to see and learning how to tell it. Should you want a refresher on the Story Grid’s categorization of genres (they’re not the same at your local bookstore), you can find it here.

We write better Society stories when

we have a deep understanding of the genre.

Gaining a full understanding of your genre might feel like a hurdle but it’s not insurmountable. For me, working on my current manuscript, it felt like a year-long barroom brawl, though I was the only one fighting. The body of the story was doomed to remain a malformed embryo because I couldn’t settle on my Core Event. My story was disjointed because there was no single clear Value Shift.

Sure, I knew I’d benefit from taking Shawn Coyne’s advice and comparing my story to the masterworks in my genre. I knew the genre was either Society or Status but which story was I trying to tell? I didn’t know how to tease out the differences between the two genres. The dilemma was sucking my creativity and time into a cesspool of Resistance.

I decided to fight the Resistance devil before it pulled me under. I slipped on the metaphorical boxing gloves and completed an in-depth study of the Secrets of the Status Genre.

Still, I wasn’t sure I had the right genre for my manuscript.

So I dove into the Society Genre and learned everything I could from Shawn (In brief, see The Story Grid book, pgs. 84-88, 96-97). I found my solution. Ultimately, I chose Status as the genre for my current manuscript and now, as a bonus, can share the basics and benefits of a Society story with you.

What is a Society Story?

A Society story, at its heart, is a story of rebellion. It’s a story of subjugated people confronting their subjugators. While these groups can be political or socioeconomic, they may also be within a family or other smaller social grouping. The characters in a Society story represent aspects of the protagonist.

“The Society Story is an allegory of power and lies…a mini-plot (multiple characters) external genre that culminates in the revolutionary event when power shifts from one segment of the social order to another. Society stories, like War stories, use tightly confined story trajectories in sharply-focused subgenres to represent global social power struggles. Even the epic Society stories focus on deeply personal and specific human conflict.” —Shawn Coyne

“This genre identifies problems in society—poverty, the education system, antisocial rebellion…then constructs a story demonstrating a cure.” —Robert McKee

We’re drawn to Society stories because

we want to see wrongs made right.

Readers choose Society stories because they want to experience fear, intrigue, and the exhilaration of rebelling against a system without the risk and real-life consequences.

For example, after watching the movie Thelma and Louise (or after a single episode of the television series Mad Men), I didn’t drive myself off a cliff or devote myself to overthrowing the patriarchy on Madison Avenue, but I felt compelled to fight for women’s rights.

What are the Values at Stake in a Society Story?

Values in a story shape your protagonists’ arc. They are the result of the characters’ action or inaction. The Global Value describes the protagonists’ primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. The Global Value of a Society story rides between impotence and power.

Of course you noticed there’s something worse than impotence: The “negation of the negation” in a Society story is impotence masked as well-being. Pro Editor Tip: If a character pretends to have power for personal gain, it’s worse than pursuing real power and failing.

What’s the Controlling Idea of a Society Story?

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, it’s the single sentence summing up the argument your story attempts to prove.

The Controlling Idea of your Society story may be either positive or negative.

Broadly speaking, if your Society story is positive, it will have a Controlling Idea something like : We gain power when we expose the hypocrisy of tyrants.

If your story is negative, it will be more like: Tyrants beat back revolutions by co-opting the leaders of the underclass.

Pro Tip: There’s nothing wrong with using stock ideas or phrases for your Controlling Idea. Your audience will never see it but its essence will guide their understanding of your story with continuity and purpose.

What are Obligatory Scenes

and Why do They matter?

Shawn describes Obligatory Scenes as “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre…. If you leave out a scene, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work.”

Obligatory Scenes of the Society Genre:

  • There is an inciting threat or challenge to the reigning power. Pro Tip: Power is usually embodied in an antagonistic character. Even if your antagonist is a force, there is someone enforcing the rules and doling out the consequences of that force, preventing your protagonists from getting what they want.
  • The protagonists (subjugated persons) deny responsibility to respond or to rise up against the antagonist (reigning power). Pro Tip: This doesn’t mean you have to create an anti-hero or reluctant leader. More on this when we look at subgenres.
  • Forced to respond, the protagonists lash out according to their positions in the power hierarchy.
  • The protagonists’ initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails.
  • The protagonists learn what the antagonist’s object of desire is and sets out to achieve it for themselves. Pro Tip: The object of desire is what the characters view as the “key to power.” The answer is usually external, worldly power rather than personal power.
  • During an All-Is-Lost Moment, the protagonists realize they must change their approach in order to shift power from the antagonist to themselves.
  • The protagonists’ gifts are expressed in the Revolution Scene. This is the Core Event and Climax of the Society story where 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.
  • Whether the protagonists win or lose in the Revolution Scene, they are rewarded in the Resolution or Climax on either the internal, the interpersonal, or the external level.

What are Genre Conventions

and Why do They Matter?

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 of the Society Genre:

  • Each subgenre (detailed below) of the Society Genre has its own conventions but here is what they all seem to have in common:
  • There is one central character with offshoot characters that embody a multitude of that main character’s personality traits (like all the protagonists in The Wizard of Oz are aspects of Dorothy’s character or how Michael Corleone is represented in the supporting characters of The Godfather). This is what Shawn describes as the mini-plot, distinct from arch-plot.
  • There is a “big canvas:” Either a wide scope environmental setting (such as the broad historical social setting of Ragtime or Amistad) or the interpersonal landscape (like the intense single-family world of Long Day’s Journey into Night or The Big Chill).
  • The power divide between those in power and those disenfranchised is large and evident to the audience. (A small group of slaves in juxtaposition to the three national governments involved in the courtroom drama of Amistad.)
  • There is a clear revolutionary Point of No Return: The moment when power shifts is clearly defined and dramatized. This is the big event, the climax. (Slaves win their freedom in Amistad or Thelma and Louise drive off the cliff.)
  • The vanquished group is doomed to subjugation, exile, or death. (In The Godfather the competing New York dons, Moe Greene, and Tessio are murdered and Michael extracts Carlo’s confession.)
  • The ending is paradoxical and bittersweet, either a win-but-lose or lose-but-win for the protagonists. (Thelma and Louise die but they don’t lose their freedom, they defy the patriarchy.) Pro Tip: An easy way of executing this is have the protagonists win in the primary genre and lose in the secondary genre or vice versa. If they win in both, the losses are more subtle. Either way, what they lose is specific to the sacrifices they made in attempts at gaining power and well-being.

What’s Really Driving the Society Story?

Another way to view the Society Genre is via the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The Gas Gauge helps us visualize the full range of characters’ needs as fuel tanks whose levels rise and fall as a result of change. Let one of the tanks drop near E, and your character must act.

Notice that the Society genre is tied to the Esteem tank, where the dual human needs of self-respect and external validation reside. All the external genres, including Society and Performance, are driven by conflict from outside the protagonist. The internal genres, including Status, are driven by conflict within the protagonist. The Esteem tank forms both the dividing line and melting pot between the external and internal genres (I’ll elaborate on this in future posts). The external conflict in the Esteem tank comes from society’s judgment of the protagonists’ worth or value.

What are the Subgenres of Society?

There are five subgenres of the Society Genre.

  • The Domestic story focuses on family problems in which the external social judgment and power divide are within the family: Long Day’s Journey into Night (biological family) and The Big Chill (chosen family) are good examples.
  • The Women’s story focuses on feminist issues in which the external social judgment lies in the power divide between women and patriarchy: Anna Karenina, The Turning Point, and Thelma and Louise are good examples.
  • The Biographical story has a variable focus which depends on the subject matter but the historical individual chosen is a key figure on a large political canvas, subject to social judgment and a power imbalance because of such forces as race and class, or the negative judgment of history: Lincoln and Burr are good examples.
  • The Political story focuses on corruption and/or ideological change in which an actual or figurative revolution takes place and the formerly subjugated become as corrupt as those they’ve overthrown: The Godfather, Howard’s End, Brave New World, and Animal Farm are good examples.
  • The Historical story focuses on major social power imbalances such as slavery, class conflict, and/or colonialism: Ragtime, A Tale of Two Cities, and Amistad are good examples. Pro Tip: Any of the other four subgenres could take place in a historical setting.

Okay.

But It Still Looks a Lot Like a Status Story.

What’s the Difference?

This confused the hell out of me for awhile because I thought a Society story was a tale that served as a commentary on society. A Society story isn’t every, or even most, stories that are commentaries on society. Those are usually Status stories. Status stories are about people making their way in society, establishing or maintaining their rank, and attempting to rise to a higher place within society.

Think of those John Hughes movies of the Eighties (Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, and The Breakfast Club). They taught us that white middle-class teens are people too.

In those movies, the teens may have changed their personal position within their high school microcosm of society but they didn’t take power from one segment of society and transfer it to themselves. The characters themselves shifted in their Internal Genre (Status). While the adults, the societal norms, the entire world of the External Genre (Society), stayed the same.

In a Status story, the Core Event is when the protagonist chooses to do what’s necessary to attain higher status or reject the world they strived to join. There is no revolution, no power shift. Unlike Society stories, Status stories can be mini-plot or arch-plot. They arc between success and failure instead of power and impotence.

Go Ahead, Be a Rebel.

Now you have some basic keys to the Society Genre and many of the tools you’ll need to write better Society stories. Even though you’re likely already a rebel, I’d be remiss not to mention that the way to put this all together is to read as often as you can. Compare masterworks in the genre and hold your own work up to them. Check your work with the Story Grid book and against the Society Genre Secrets here. Use your rebel enthusiasm to get through the long slog of editing your work.

Writing is an act of revolution because of the massive power the written word can conjure. Successful rebels use their knowledge of societal frameworks and human psychology to create change.

Every one of us wants to see a societal change of some kind and there is no better way I can think of than using the Society Genre when your intention is inciting a revolution or simply calling attention to a problem in need of action. The world is ripe for your story. Engage your inner rebel and finish your Society story. The fate of the world depends upon it.

Special thanks to Anne Hawley for creating the Global Value Infographic and genre comparison chart and for editing this post. Special thanks to Diversity Computers for technical assistance.

 

About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez helps writers develop their stories and believes stories are our most important catalyst for change. She received an MA in psychology from Goddard College and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Masters in Creative Writing Program. Rachelle served as the executive director for a national writing community before becoming a Certified Story Grid Editor. She is honored to have edited the award winning fiction of some amazing authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and memoir writers. She is easily bribed with promises of iced coffee drinks, piles of puppies, and long walks in thunderstorms. She is currently on contract, writing a Story Grid guide to a masterwork. Her forthcoming novel is White Grrrl, Black Sheep. Contact Rachelle to schedule a free 30 minute consultation on your writing.
Comments (16)
Author Rachelle Ramirez

16 Comments

Sperry Editorial says:

It’s like Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Society Genre all in one place! Terrific post, Rachelle. I’ll be sending myself and clients back to it for tips and your excellent Status vs Society graphic! Do you think Heathers was the exception to the usual Status teen comedy–seemed like maybe it was actually a story of revolution? Need to watch it again. . . Thank you for writing this!

Reply
Doug says:

I read this and thought of “Caddyshack” as the archetype Society story.
Is there another scene? The protagonist wins, but rejects the power, showing themselves to be a whole person without the need for external validation.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

One of the things Shawn pointed out to us at the Certification course was that a revolution story isn’t a 360 turn. It’s a 180 turn. So, often, the stories we think of as Society are actually Status Stories that ride on Success and Failure. One of the conventions of the Status Story is the protagonist making a choice between pursuing Status at the expense of their values or rejecting the world they strived to obtain. I haven’t seen Caddyshack since I was a kid but from the plot I’m reading about on a couple of different sources, it’s Status primary with a Performance secondary Genre. Why? Because the story seems to focus on success and failure (prestige vs. dominance, financial reward and scholarship) and leads up to one big event/performance in which they win. There isn’t a revolution and power doesn’t change hands. The battle is internal, they’re fighting their egos. No one is truly subjugated in the beginning. No one is truly in power in the end. Am I off on that? Should I go and watch the movie?

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

I’ll rewatch The Heathers again this weekend and let you know. Geeze. We could probably do a whole post on The Heathers and writers would love it. How whacked was that movie? But it resonated with all of us.

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Peter Adamson says:

Great post, Rachelle! Would you please clear up the confusion I have that specifically relates to ‘Status’ with regard the Internal Genre. With rebellion stories, is ‘Status’ always the ‘Internal Genre’ and is it the sub-genre that specifically underpins the aspect of status being dealt with in your story? For example, in my story the Internal Genre is ‘Status > Pathetic’, the sub-genre ‘Pathetic’ denoting that my story ends ironically, i.e. my protagonist loses but wins.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Great question. I addressed this question in the comment section just before I saw your comment here. Answer is below. Basically, they are a great combo of genres. An external Society story (A story) and an internal Status story (B story) are an excellent mash-up in creating a global story (A+B).

Reply
Rachelle Ramirez says:

One of my clients just brought up a good point, where he was confused by this article. I stated that a Status story does not have a revolution (that is true) BUT one can combine an external Society Story with an internal Status Story and there is a revolution in the global story. But the revolution is in the Society through line of the story. Remember, any good story (flash fiction, many jokes, and very short stories perhaps excluded) have an A story and a B story. Best case scenario is an external story and an internal story in one global story, interwoven seamlessly. I love the combination of Status and Society, especially if Society is the primary genre. Think about Black Panthers. This combo is going to be huge in the coming years. Keep writing, my fellow story rebels!

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DAPelican says:

In the article on the line below there is a DOUBLE THE
Still, I wasn’t sure I had the the right genre for my manuscript.

Reply
Rachelle Ramirez says:

Have you read the SG book and pitted one genre against the other? I started with the most obvious ones I could rule out for my work in progress and narrowed it down from there.
All of the Story Grid Editors do free 30 minute consultations for potential clients. A call could really help you gain clarity. Also, they are available to read entire manuscripts (Diagnostic) for one time hourly and monthly coaching (contact editors directly). Now might be a good time to start building a relationship with an editor, even if you’re not ready to invest financially in your work.

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Lynette Willoughby says:

Great post Rachelle – if the protagonist is in a society like a cult and it is only the protagonist who rebels against the antagonist (leader with the power / brainwashing etc) – then is this a psychological thriller rather than a society genre? The antagonist wants power and the prot. wants freedom (and redemption) and from her actions the others who are trapped in the ‘society’ will be freed. However it is not a ‘revolution’ in the sense of a mass revolt.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Excellent question! By the Story Grid definition, a Society story is a mini-plot. However, a single protagonist can stand in as the main representation of all the characters. Different personality traits and external options would be demonstrated in the cast of characters.The protagonist’s personal rebellion could stand in to free the others but there needs to be a power shift from the antagonist to the protagonist. You could argue that the external power shifts from antagonist to the protagonist’s internal power; cult leader owned their personal power and now they do but that’s a tricky one. Why? Because you’d be shifting an external story to an internal one. What you likely have, especially with an arch plot (if that is the case) and story that is a microcosm of society structures, is a Status story. If the focus is on the internal process of the protagonist gaining enough self-respect (which she previously sought through external validation which is likely why she fell prey to the cult in the first place) it’s an internal genre. So, maybe a primary Status and secondary Society story? What’s the climactic event? This often gives a good clue. I can’t wait to see how Anne Hawley (SG Editor) weighs in on this one because this is exactly the kind of story she loves and is currently working on herself (our resident expert). I’ll be happy to keep the conversation going. This could be fun.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hi Rachelle
I posted the question yesterday about the protagonist in the cult – now I can’t respond to the chat for some reason – it comes up with a blog error?? Maybe you can add this to the thread to keep the conversation going, as I find it fascinating.
You asked about the climatic event. I am still trying to ‘outline’ my idea for a novel, but I think that the prot. rebels and she is sent away from the society by the antagonist who is furious.
He sends her to ‘Z’ who appears to be onside with the antag. and it seems certain that she is being sent to her death (or something just as bad). But ‘Z’ does not kill her (another sub-plot) and the antagonist arrives unexpectedly and there is a final showdown.
This is why I asked whether it is more of a psychological thriller ………… I don’t have the feeling that the protagonist feels like she now has the power – it is more about finding the inner strength to do something that she would previously have run from.
It would be great to clarify, as I need to know what are the ‘must-have’ scenes in my novel, and I can’t do that until I am certain of my genre(s) !!

Cheers
Lynette

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Lynette, It does sound like a Thriller with the life and death component. “Life is preserved when the Protagonist unleashes her special gift.” Remember the best stories have two genres, one as a subgenre and one as primary. This last email/comment reads like your primary genre is external: if the focus is her staying alive. Here are some of the conventions of a Thriller: An Inciting Crime indicative of a master Villain. There must be victims. Speech in Praise of the Villain: speech by a character, or a revelation, that praises the cunning/brilliance of the villain. The Hero/Protagonist becomes the Victim. A scene reveals that the Villain makes his crimes personal to the Hero and the Hero becomes the primary Victim. The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain. The core event of the Thriller, the All is Lost Moment when the Hero unleashes his or her gift.
False Ending (there must be two endings). “The thriller is the story form of our time because it concerns the individual coping with omnipresent and often difficult to even comprehend antagonism. The external becomes internal, forcing the protagonist to make fundamental choices to unleash critical gifts..” —Shawn Coyne
However, if the focus of the story is on her internal change and how she learns to stand up for herself, you might have a Maturation Story. “The Worldview Maturation Story is essentially the hero’s journey.” It would be a primary internal genre, “showing the process by which cognitive dissonance upsets the balance of a character’s life, requiring a shift in their view of reality.”–Shawn Coyne
The controlling idea might be something like: “Wisdom and meaning prevail when we learn to express our gifts in a world that we accept as imperfect.” In which case you might want to look at these obligatory scenes: During an All Is Lost moment, Protagonist realizes they must change their black/white view of the world to allow for life’s irony. The climax is when the Protagonist’s gifts are expressed as acceptance of an imperfect world. The protagonist’s loss of innocence is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the universe. A shift in worldview from naiveté to sophistication. Did you read the article I wrote on Secrets of the Status Genre? That might be helpful in eliminating or choosing Status. Then you can pretty much focus your internal genre (whether primary or secondary) on Maturation if you rule out Status.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

A suggestion I have, for when you’re still not sure what your story is and you’re hesitant in the outlining process, is to start writing. Write your way into the story, get a beginning, middle, and an end in text. Then look at what you have for an inciting incident, crisis question, climax (the answer to the crisis question in action), and resolution. Then you can see if it’s more of an internal or external story. Knowing your primary genre is big for editing a book into readability but sometimes you need to get a shitty first draft on the page first.

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Debbie L. Kasman says:

I recently had a 30 minute consultation with Rachelle. She was AMAZING! She quickly helped me sort out which genres I’m working in and what my A story and my B story are. I was extremely impressed with her storygrid knowledge. I highly recommend her!

Reply
Rachelle Ramirez says:

Thank you so much, Debbie! I enjoyed our chat and I can’t wait to see where you book goes. The world needs your story and in a timely manner so keep crackin’ the whip on that baby. Best of luck and hard work to you.

Reply

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