This is an excerpt from my book, Raindance Writers Lab
Social stage is the point at which the society of your hero has developed. All societies evolve through distinct social stages. Choosing a specific social stage allows you to communicate a great deal without resorting to dialogue.
Civilizations tend to develop over time. There are four key stages. Allow me to use the example of the Roman Empire. In the beginning the people were nomads, traveling alone or in small bands. Then, they discovered agriculture and settled down into villages. Some of the villages became so large that they turned into cities, and after time, city life became corrupted to the point where the rules for living were altered out of all recognition in a state called the oppressive city. The inhabitants then suffered a series of attacks by barbarians and the civilization sank into the Dark Ages.
Without turning this page into a dissertation of cultural development over the millennia, let’s simply put the social stages into four unique areas – each with a particular type of hero, a unique breed of opponent, special concerns and particular values.
Wilderness and the super-hero
There are no buildings in the wilderness, and the hero travels alone or with a band of disciples. Nature is vast and all-powerful, threatening the existence of everyone. The hero is a super-hero because he is the only character capable of fighting the forces of nature and surviving. Death comes early and quickly to the weak. Roving bands of barbarians circle the group as they travel in search of after and food. The people’s main concern is to survive, to reproduce and be in harmony with nature, using the knowledge and strength of the super-hero.
At the end of wilderness stories, the super-hero leaves his group (sometimes called disciples) at the foot of a steep cliff or mountain, and climbs up into he clouds where he (super-heroes are always male) receives divine inspiration – which he writes down. Upon his descent he shows these words to his disciples and they become new rules for living that change forever the way men live. For example, Moses and the Ten Commandments. Most religious stories fall into this category.
Village and the classic hero
I define a village a small settlement. You can stand on one end of the village and see all the way to the end. Perhaps there is one traffic light. The buildings are single story, and there isn’t a great deal of difference between the structures. The general store, courthouse and a private dwelling aren’t that different and usually they are built with the same materials. In the back gardens there is a wooden fence, generally under construction, or falling into disrepair – symbolizing the barrier between civilization and barbarianism. As the building are single level, so too the villagers. They are all roughly of the same social status, although if a stranger arrives into the village, one of the villagers will speak on behalf of the villagers: the priest, the sheriff, the schoolteacher or the judge.
Society has evolved to the point where man has created basic shelter that will survive the seasons. The social structures of the village are young and developing. The village is surrounded by wilderness is exposed to the forces of nature (although no where nearly as strong as in the wilderness), and the villagers are prone to attack by roving bands of barbarians. The villagers mistrust anything from the wilderness, to the point that anyone they do not understand, or who is different from them, is considered to be a barbarian too. The barbarians want the village destroyed because the village represents the new, and it encroaches on their freedom to roam. The barbarians do not understand the change in the society that has created the village.
Into the world of the village comes the `classic hero’. Almost exclusively male, the classic hero does not come from the village, but arrives and one of two things happens. Larger and physically stronger than the villagers, almost barbarian-like, the classic hero relies on martial arts to survive. Sometimes the villagers mistake the classic hero as a barbarian. In other stories, the villagers see in the classic hero their only person capable of defeating the barbarians.
The classic hero will use his talents as a warrior to help the fragile community deal with the savage forces they cannot physically or morally handle themselves. Society has not reached the point where discussion and verbal are tools for dissipating problems. The village does not have a courthouse and the jail is generally a very simple one.
Village stories share a sense of good and evil, black and white. Although the values of the villagers and the classic hero may not be correct, according to our principles, basically everyone inside the town is good, and everyone outside of this village is a barbarian or savage for whom destruction is the only option.
By warring with other characters from his own social stage, the classic hero is a doomed figure. He (classic heroes are predominantly male) is used by the villagers to destroy barbarians in order to allow the village to grow and prosper. The classic hero has no place in the village and once his task is done, leaves, or is forced to leave. Many screenwriting books talk of the need for a character to grow and develop. In village a story, the hero does not change He ‘rides off into the sunset’ unchanged. What has changed are the villagers, who are at a higher level, because he has saved them from the roving bands of barbarians, or, they are at a lower level, having been exposed of their wickedness and corruption. And excellent example of this is John Dahl’s Red Rock West starring Nicholas Cage and Dennis Hopper.
Examples of the classic hero include the pioneer, the samurai and the westerner. In other social stages the qualities of a classic hero can be incorporated into this hero in a different stage For example, super-cop – who lives in a city filled with barbarians – is discarded once his task has been fulfilled.
City and the average hero
As the village grows and spreads out, at some point it reaches a physical boundary, and can no longer spread horizontally. It must now spread vertically. The village develops into the city. Contrasting with the social stage of the village, the city is a place of hierarchy, rank, privilege, vast differences of wealth and power.
This is the world of the average hero, of everyman and everywoman who is ordinary in every way – no stronger, brighter, dumber, or wealthier than anyone else in the city.
The average hero is concerned with the nesting instinct (creating a place in society, providing a home, raising a family). He or she is concerned with equality and justice (making sure that everyone follows the same rules for living). He or she is probably also concerned with avoiding the slavery of bureaucracy and government.
Some examples of the average hero can be found in Michael Dorsey in Tootsie, Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, Frank Galvin in The Verdict and Dorothy in Wizard of Oz.
Oppressive city and the anti-hero
When the city grows so dense, so tight, so technological and bureaucratic, it becomes a place of enslavement. Where it once was intended as a place of nourishment, where it’s citizens could expect to have a decent job and a decent life. Once the city was a place where the arts flourished hand in hand with commerce, making a dynamic community. Now, however, the city has knotted together so tightly that it can no longer help its citizens. Instead it uses its citizens to further itself, devouring in its thirst to sustain its bulk. Often, the controls of the machinery driving the city are held in the hands of the powerful and mighty few.
Stories set in this stage feature the anti-hero. The anti-hero can have two distinct traits.
He could be the person who will not be beaten down by the oppressive city and who is there fore sent into exile. A variation on this is the citizen who discovers by accident, or witnesses a crime and holds the key to keeping someone in power – meaning that they are hunted and pursued, often to the death. (thriller) Blade Runner, Cool Hand Luke, Shawn of the Dead
Or, he could be the person who stays and is beaten down – the incompetent, the bumbler, and a character who is unsocial or anti-social.
Examples of the anti –hero include Chouncey Gardner in Being There, early Woody Allen characters, Ratzo Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, as well as Jim Carrey in Pet Detective and Me, Myself and Irene.
The next development of society is for it to crumble under it’s own weight, and (the citizens who survive) are returned to the wilderness – for example Lord of the Rings.
Using The Social Stage
A huge challenge huge challenge of screenwriters is to explain how it is possible for nature, society, and the individual to coexist and prevent the evolutionary cycle from repeating.
Usually the most effective way of marking time and placing the hero within a society is to place him/her in a particular social stage. People living in the wilderness tend to create main characters that are gods or super-heroes. In the village world, the hero is the ‘classic’ hero. Stories set in the city world feature the average hero, the everyman or everywoman. Thee main character in stories set in the oppressive city is the anti-hero.
The option of where you set your story will to a large extent what your hero will do and how they will react. Here are some interesting options
Taking a character fro0m one social stage and plunking them into another social stage can create a dynamic story almost instantly. For example, what if the stereotypical city character, like Woody Allen, is plopped into the village stage, but a century and a half ago. Suppose our hapless Woody rides into a western village, ties his horse up to the hitching post and accidentally feeds his horse the oats and water belonging to John Wayne. John Wayne bursts out of the saloon hollering. How would Woody Allen try o resolve this misunderstanding in the crude setting of the village? Would he succeed against John Wayne’s ‘fastest draw in the west?’ Similarly, should John Wayne be in the city, parking his car illegally while he runs into a corner store for one of those famous cigarettes when he gets an undeserved parking ticket. Would John Wayne be able to resolve his disagreement with the parking attendant using the pistol-brute-force of the village?
Look again at Crocodile Dundee and you will see that is exactly what they did: village hero not the city. And with great effect.
On the cusp
Setting your story on the cusp between two social stages is a great way to add dimension to your story and give your self a platform to put your own personal view of what is right and wrong in the world to your audience. Nothing is more fascinating to an audience than a transition between social stages, particularly our own – as this affects our health, prosperity, and comfort – not only of ourselves, but that of our children.
My favorite example of a movie set in transition is Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. At the start of the movie, Butch and Sundance are robbing banks in the village social stage. The reason they can get away with, basically, highway robbery, is they scope a village, and then set fresh horses every two hours away from the village, allowing them to out run the sheriff and his posse. Then one day, they rob a bank, not realizing that the railroad (from the city social stage) has been laid. The soldiers can now keep up with them, and they realize that their old livelihood has become unsustainable. At this point they should have taken a decision: give up and spend some time in prison, and then move to the city to take up white-collar crime. With their skills and imagination I am certain they would have been very good at this. But they were unable to see to the next social stage, and were destroyed.
Find a present day parallel
We have just discussed Butch Cassidy. How about our life? There can be valuable lessons learned from everyday occurrences in our own lives. Large and small.
At the time of writing this chapter the British public was transfixed by story after story of the failing health care system and a particular incident where hospitals stock-piled organs from still born babies for medical research without the permission of the parents. One couple was shown leaving the hospital with the internal organs of their child, pickled in several lab jars in stomach turning scene straight from the oppressive city.
How about the terrible events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? At what point are we in the civilization wheel? City? Oppressive city?
I am pretty negative by nature even though I am constantly congratulated for PMA (Positive Mental Attitude). I believe that the terrible attacks of 9/11 were the first attacks by barbarians on our tightly woven and overcrowded oppressive cities. Do you remember George Bush on CNN that night, and on every other station around the world saying “We are fighting a new kind of war with a new kind of enemy. We do not know who they are, but we will find and destroy them.” Of course, Bush and mis-guided politicians and military strategists decided, like Butch and Sundance, to use the forces of the current social stage in order to fight the forces of the next social stage.
Find a Historical precedent
If you can tie your story into an ancient story that proves your point about the plot point our civilization is at on the social-stage wheel you will probably be able to set up some critical, if not commercial acclaim.
A friend of mine in London claims that the fall of the Soviet Union was caused by Jerry Seinfeld, and not by enlightened politicians of the era. In the late 1970’s, the first satellite broadcasting TV was launched over Europe. Geo-blocking, the computer software that controls where you and watch programs is an expensive but necessary part of the rights management of expensive programming like the Jerry Seinfeld Show. However, at that time there were so few televisions in the Soviet Union that it was agreed that it was pointless to geo-block this territory on commercial grounds. Imagine now, yourself as a Soviet citizen of the time, being told that Westerners were evil. There was, coincidentally a terrible economic recession and food was at a premium. You hear that your neighbor ten blocks away has just finessed a television, and you rush over after work, just as Kramer is skidding into Jerry’s kitchen, opening the fridge and guess what? It’s full of food. Perhaps being an evil Westerner isn’t so bad after all – at least they have food.
In the last eighty years leading up to the fall of the Roman Empire, were not the spectacles in the Coliseum – the feeding of Christians to lions, the equivalent to reality television today?