High Society

by giroliddy

I was asked today what I thought would be the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes for a “Society” genre story. It was something of an epiphany to me to learn that every story (even the vaguest, noodliest, high-falutin’-est literary work) can be fitted, more or less accurately into a genre. And that each genre has elements that need to be present, or the story won’t work. You’d have to be some writer to pull off a Western that doesn’t have any cowboys. That’s a sledgehammer of an example, but it illustrates my point. (I learnt this genre stuff from Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid, by the way. But any decent text about writing will probably give you much the same sort of information.)

So I sat down and had a think and this is what I came up with:


– the hero has to be in a well-defined, even rigid place in society. That’s why it’s often a woman, men are generally allowed more freedom of movement. But it absolutely doesn’t have to be.

– they don’t like their place in this society or even the society itself. Maybe it’s frivolous or hypocritical or excludes outsiders on stupid grounds or it makes you marry the richest man and not the one you actually want.

– they endeavour to change their place in society and..

– ..they have a specific goal in mind –  a career, a “proper” marriage, a place in a better part of society. I think this counts as the MacGuffin of the story, the prize.

– society absolutely does not want change, either of the hero or of itself.

– the hero has enough intellect and drive to make a credible attempt to change their place..

– ..but they also have a Fatal Flaw that will scupper their attempt to change, unless they overcome it. Perhaps a desire for respectability or acceptance that is too strong to ignore. Or a need always to be in the right.

– there’s a friend and/or a mentor to talk to (who often turns out to have feet of clay)

– obviously, they have to come up against multiple resistances to their attempt to change (this is a great genre for piling up the complications).

– the prize may turn out to be just what they were always hoping for..or it may not, e.g. our heroine eventually marries the free-thinking Bohemian and runs off to Paris where she discovers he expects her to skivvy for him while he paints his masterpieces OR the idealistic young man defies his parents’ orders to go into the family business and strives to get into politics instead. Whereupon he discovers that you have to be a crook to succeed. It depends what sort of ending you’re gunning for. Personally, I have a real problem writing unequivocally happy endings.

OBLIGATORY SCENES (these often seem to be much the same for all genres, just adapted to fit)

– a convincing portrayal of the society involved, showing the issues the hero is railing against.

– an equally-convincing portrayal of the ideal the hero is trying to attain.

– (if appropriate) scenes that show why that ideal is tarnished.

– a hero-at-mercy-of-villain scene (there may be a specific villain or Society itself may be the villain).

– an all-is-lost scene.

– definitely betrayal at some point by somebody important, possibly the sidekick.

– a lose-to-win scene. I find these tricky. I think it means you have to give up something (or someone) really important. But later, it turns out that the very act of giving up has consequences that leads on to the prize – or even a better prize.

In addition to all this, you do, as usual have to be acutely aware of the “Wants vs Need” conflict of your hero. For instance, our heroine thinks she wants to marry for love but when she does, she finds its not all hearts and flowers after all. Then, it becomes obvious that what she really needed was a degree of financial and personal autonomy, not just wedlock to the first handsome buck who made her ovaries quiver.

Does this generally make sense? When I hear “society”, I immediately think of High Society stuff like Edith Wharton or Thackeray. But of course, society applies to any time and any level.  Every era has its own society, its own strata and its own pricks to kick against.

Is there anything I’ve left out or, indeed, anything here that you flatly disagree with? Do tell..