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’ 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 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 the 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 the 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.