Secrets of the Status Genre
What if I told you there was a code hidden right in front of you that could inspire and improve your writing, help you gain more social influence, wealth, your best mate, and higher opportunities for advancement. Would you want to read about it?
I want to learn how to move up the ladder and, most importantly, how not to lose the status I’ve gained.
That’s why stories in the Status genre appeal to me. If they appeal to you, too, then welcome to the rich world where self-esteem meets external validation, where characters rise gloriously on their own merits or fall ignominiously by their own weaknesses. A world of admiration, joy, catharsis, and pity that you can harness and deliver to your readers.
We write better Status stories when we have
a deep understanding of the genre.
Without having identified a genre, I didn’t have guideposts, many suggestions, or many ideas for structure. I didn’t have books or movies to compare and contrast with my own work because I didn’t know what I was looking for. As a result, my stories were scattershot.
Once I acknowledged my personal connection to the Status Genre, I could commit to it as the primary genre for my novel-in-progress. Mining The Story Grid for insight into the genre has greatly improved the quality of my stories.
When you fully invest in understanding the genre, and when read widely and watch stories within the Status genre, you just may discover the same.
Let’s dig into the basics.
Need to get familiar with the Story Grid’s genre categories first? You’ll find a refresher here.
What is status?
When I began researching the Status Genre, I was surprised to learn that status is not a birthright. It doesn’t necessarily derive from having financial wealth or meeting current beauty standards. One’s status may have nothing to do with the results of an IQ or genetics test.
Status is anchored in self-respect.
It’s important to distinguish between social class and social status. Class refers to the large divisions of society by economic hierarchy. Status is the rank an individual has within a social hierarchy.
You know how that goes. You might have a high status in your church and a low status in business. Or you may have a high status in your book club but low status at the mayor’s annual gala.
Status is based on our behavior, determination, and self-esteem. It’s variable.
Status is within our control.
We try to get or maintain status in two ways.
The first is prestige.
Prestige is earned when we and others recognize our skills or our value to the community. Prestige can be established by performance or by relationships.
The second is dominance.
Dominance is demanded by appearing or behaving physically dominant over others (faster, stronger, bigger, more violent), or by intimidating others with threats or bullying.
What good is a Status story?
Decades of research have shown that we’re all deeply affected by status. There are great benefits to high status and serious ramifications of low status. Even our daily micro interactions often revolve around our status: who gets seated first at the diner and who can or can’t wiggle out of a speeding ticket.
We can all relate to a Status story because status-seeking is in our basic nature, in our biology as social animals. The constructs of obtaining, maintaining, and losing status are issues we and our characters contend with every day.
This is a huge gift to writers and readers.
Status stories can be Prescriptive Tales, showing us how to advance or maintain our position in a social hierarchy…how to succeed.
Or they can be Cautionary Tales that tell us what choices and actions will result in a loss of status…in failure.
Status Stories help us create a narrative around our possibilities, limitations, and decisions. By writing a good Status Story you help your reader obtain their dreams and avoid their nightmares.
We’re drawn to Status stories for similar reasons.
The experience the reader is chasing helps answer their questions via themes. We don’t like to box ourselves in but, like the characters we create, we have themes, values, and principles that help determine our objects of desire (external character goals), and what we think it takes to obtain them (plot drivers). We encounter and create barriers (character faults and external antagonists) we must overcome to obtain those goals (identifies character’s actual need which is to change) and our actions (reveals characterization) determine whether or not we succeed or fail. The appeal of your story depends on your attention to all of these.
Readers choose Status stories because they want to experience certain emotions without the risk of real-life failure. According to Shawn Coyne The Core Emotions of the Status Genre are specific to the subgenre the reader is expecting. Readers want to experience admiration or joyous relief at a protagonist’s success, or pity at their failure, or catharsis at their tragic doom (see subgenres).
Okay. So what IS a Status story?
“The Status story is an arch-plot (Hero’s Journey) or mini-plot (multiple characters) Internal Genre that explores social mobility and the nature of success…. The Status story concerns a single protagonist’s quest to rise in social standing, and the price he or she must pay in order to do so.” Coyne
Status stories are about a change in social position. They’re driven by the nature of the protagonist’s inner conflict. Characters in a Status story WANT validation from others because they NEED esteem and self-respect. In short, their external object of desire is different from their internal need.
As we see in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, a Status story arises from the need for esteem. The Status protagonist’s primary goal isn’t survival, safety, or love. It’s esteem, standing, third-party validation. A firm place in the social order.
What is the value at stake in a Status story?
The Global Value at Stake describes the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. In a Status story that change runs along the spectrum of success and failure.
Notice that there’s something worse than failure. In a Status story, the “negation of the negation” is Selling Out. Selling Out in pursuit of your goal is worse than honorable failure. It’s the Status equivalent of damnation.
What defines success?
The definition of success and failure in a Status story is specific to the protagonist. It depends on their starting point and their personal goals. How far they rise by external-world standards is irrelevant.
For example, in Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha, the protagonist Sayuri begins as a slave. Her life’s goal is not to become an empress or win a Nobel Peace Prize or even to run the geisha house. It’s simply to become the mistress of the wealthy married man she is in love with. Spoiler alert! She succeeds. Within the context of her rigid world, that success is valid. Her status rises.
What’s the Controlling Idea of a Status Story?
A story’s Controlling Idea (sometimes called the theme) is the lesson you want your reader to come away with. It’s the meaning they will assign to your story, usually unconsciously. A Controlling Idea can be stated in a single sentence that distills the argument your story attempts to make through narrative.
It’s made up of the big value change at the climax of your story, plus the specific cause of that change. Each of the main content genres has a generic pair of controlling ideas, one for the positive outcome and one for the negative. (For everything about Controlling Idea, see Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway on the blog.)
In a Status story, where the value spectrum is Failure to Success, the broad Controlling Idea is either:
- Success results when a person is true to their values, whether or not they obtain a higher social status – OR –
In the example from Memoirs of a Geisha, we might tailor the Controlling Idea this way: “Success in a rigid hierarchy results when a young woman single-mindedly pursues a realistic personal goal.”
- Failure results when a person sells out their values to gain a higher social status.
What are Genre Conventions
and Why do we Need Them?
Coyne explains Conventions as, “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 woven into the story at the writer’s discretion).”
What are the Conventions of the Status Genre?
Each subgenre of the Status Genre has some of its own conventions, but all four subgenres have the following in common:
- A strong Mentor figure who teaches the protagonist how to gain success or avoid failure. This may be either a positive figure like Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator, or a negative one like Fagin in Oliver Twist.
- Large social problems as the subtext of the story. Racism, misogyny, class division, etc.
- A Herald or Threshold Guardian, usually another status striver, but one who has sold out and who provides a cautionary tale for the protagonist.
- A clear point of no return for the protagonist where they see the truth and realize they can never go back to the way things were.
- An ironic or bittersweet ending. The protagonist wins but loses, or loses but wins.
What are Obligatory Scenes
and why do they matter?
Coyne 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 an obligatory scene, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work.
“A lot of writers have contempt for obligatory scenes…They don’t want to write them because they find them cheesy. A few even insist that their work is so intellectually challenging and above “genre,” that their revolutionary technique frees them from having to fulfill these obligations. They’ll tell you that their work is more of homage to a genre, not really part of the genre, etc. Which is complete Bullshit.’
What are the Obligatory Scenes
of the Status Genre?
Hint: In most of the main content genres, the Obligatory Scenes are adaptations of the principal stages of the Hero’s Journey.
- An inciting incident challenges the protagonist’s status quo. (See what we did there? Every story has an inciting incident that disrupts the protagonist’s ordinary life. What that incident disrupts depends on the genre. A Status story isn’t going to be incited by a deadly tornado, but by a threat to the protagonist’s position.)
- The protagonist leaves home to seek their fortune–or, alternatively, stays home but follows their dream in secret, as Sarah Crewe, the protagonist of A Little Princess, does: she maintains a secret inner life that gives her strength in the hostile environment she can’t leave. (See The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson for more on the feminine version of the Hero’s Journey.)
- Forced to adapt to a new environment, the protagonist relies on old habits and humiliates themselves. See every “fish out of water” Status story in which, for example, the country bumpkin dresses wrong for the fancy city party.
- The protagonist learns what the antagonist’s object of desire is and sets out to achieve it for themselves. Even Maximus, the protagonist of Gladiator whose principles never waver, must understand that antagonist Commodus wants the respect of his father the emperor. That same desire motivates Maximus himself.
- The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails. In a Status story, the antagonist either has higher status and more power than the protagonist or threatens the protagonist’s status from below–such as by blackmail.
- During an all-is-lost moment, the protagonist realizes they must change their definition of success or risk betraying their principles. Depending on the subgenre, sometimes they do betray their principles: they sell out.
- The Core Event: The protagonist chooses either to do what’s necessary to attain higher status, or to reject the world they strived to join. In Memoirs of a Geisha Sayuri chooses to betray one man and forfeit her status within the geisha world, in order to secure the man who holds the key to the status she really wants.
- The protagonist saves or loses themselves based on their actions in the Core Event. Failure is better than selling out. Maximus loses his life but gains an honorable afterlife by fighting Commodus.
What are the Status subgenres?
The four subgenres of Status are defined by the combination of the protagonist’s starting and ending points:
Starts low and ends low. A subjugated or weak protagonist tries to rise and falls. This protagonist doesn’t get what they want, though they may get what they need through some level of sacrifice. The Core Emotion (what the reader expects to feel by choosing a story of this type) is pity. An example is the film Little Miss Sunshine.
If the protagonist ends up with neither what they want nor what they need despite great sacrifice, audiences looking to feel pity may also feel inspired by the protagonist’s actions, however unsuccessful, against injustice. As an example: the film Milk.
Starts high and ends low: A flawed protagonist tries to rise or maintain higher status–often through dominance–but makes a mistake that dooms them to failure and punishment. Readers want to experience catharsis at the protagonist’s tragic doom and satisfaction at the protagonist’s just punishment. Examples include Dreiser’s novel American Tragedy, and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.
Starts low and ends high: A weak or subjugated protagonist tries to rise or maintain status and succeeds against all odds. They often get what they want and what they need, but with some level of personal sacrifice. They earn their status through prestige, not dominance. Readers want to experience admiration and joyous relief at a protagonist’s success, maybe even inspiration or courage to complete a similar journey. Examples include the film and stage musical Annie, and the children’s novel The Secret Garden.
Starts high and ends high: A principled protagonist rises without compromise. They get what they want and the benefits they deserve but at a great personal sacrifice. They often earn their status primarily through prestige but can also display dominance. The anti-hero as the protagonist doesn’t work here. Readers want to experience admiration or joyous relief at a protagonist’s success, maybe even inspiration or courage to overcome similar odds on their own. Examples include A Little Princess, the film Gladiator, and the film and memoir Serpico.
What about characterization in a Status story?
Shawn Coyne has said that it is characters’ actions–what they choose to do, and not what they think, say, or look like–that create characterization. A character pursuing status as their principal objective has essentially two avenues of action open to them: prestige and dominance.
Characters pursuing status through dominance will likely be argumentative and focused on winning at any expense; stubborn, defiant, and accusatory. At their most passive they are suspicious, indifferent, tense, and passive-aggressive.
Characters pursuing status through prestige are likely emotionally open, professional, assertive, and inquiring. At their most passive they are too friendly, talkative, and positive, and have unrealistic expectations.
The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model provides some useful ideas for Status story characterization.
If your protagonist pursues status via dominance, you’ll need other characters who are submissive. If via prestige, you’ll need other characters who are admiring.
If your antagonist has status via dominance, your protagonist must seek it through prestige. Villain Commodus and Hero Maximus of Gladiator provide a clear example.
Conversely, If your antagonist has status through prestige, your protagonist will have to gain status through dominance. Mark Zuckerberg of the film The Social Network comes to mind.
These are generalities you can play with as a writer. Consider what will happen to your story with the main character who has a lot of prestige and a little dominance (common in Action-oriented movies with a Status internal genre): Maximus from Gladiator, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell from Top Gun.
Consider too, what will happen to your story with the main character who has a lot of dominance with only hints of prestige, like rebel John (Judd Nelson) of The Breakfast Club, and Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network.
If your global genre happens to be War or Performance, a Status internal genre for your protagonist could be a great fit. Performance and War share the Esteem level of the Gas Gauge of Need with Status and make natural genre bedfellows. (Consider the great Performance stories Rocky, Billy Elliot, and Big Night, which all have Status internal genres. My favorite combination is Status and Society. You can learn more about the Society Genre and how it complements and differs from Status by reading Secrets of the Society Genre.
Find and absorb as many Status stories as you can. I’ve offered a few suggestions here. You’ll think of more by remembering tales of enterprising young go-getters, social-climbing wannabes, pitiable losers, or uncompromising heroes. Remember, too, that plenty of status stories are comedies.
Read, read, and read some more. Watch movies. In stories that work, try to find the obligatory scenes and conventions. In stories that don’t feel to you like they work, try to identify what’s missing.
Time to put it all together.
Now you hold in your hands the keys to the Status Genre. You have the tools you need to go write a better Status story.
Test your protagonist for values of success and failure.
Check that they want worldly success and need self-esteem and respect.
Get your words on the page and then compare your story to masterworks.
Check it against The Story Grid book and the Status Genre secrets I’ve given here.
Use what you learn to edit your work and finish that story.
Your readers, like me, are waiting.
Need some extra help completing your manuscript? Grab a spot on my calendar for a free half-hour consultation so we can determine how I can best help you meet your story goals.
Interested in other articles I’ve written on genre? Check out these links:
Secrets of the Performance Genre, Secrets of the Morality Genre, Secrets of the Society Genre, Secrets of Writing Memoir, Secrets of the Crime Genre, Secrets of the Worldview Genre, Secrets of the War Genre, Secrets of the Action Genre, Secrets of the Thriller, Part One and Two, Secrets of the Horror Genre , Secrets of the Western Genre, and Secrets of the Love Genre, Secrets of the Big Idea Book, Part One, and Part Two.
I wish you the best of luck and hard work with your story.
*Special thanks to Anne Hawley, Certified Story Grid Editor, for the Global Value infographic and for editing this post.
Author Rachelle Ramirez
Story Grid has helped thousands of authors tell better stories.
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