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What Are the Rules?

There are unwritten rules.  We all know them.  Be nice.  Chew with your mouth closed.  Let others off the elevator first.  Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.  Keep your voice down.  Replace toilet paper when the roll runs out.  Put things back where you found them, especially if they are refrigerated items in a grocery store.

There are unwritten rules for various situations.  At work, don’t leave before the boss.   Don’t check your e-mail at midnight (unless everyone else does).  In New York City, no eye contact on the subway.  Don’t fumble for your Metrocard at the turnstile.  If you see rats, be cool.  Leave celebrities alone.  Do not disturb cats in delis, even if they are lying on the item you want to buy.

Bro code: Never take the last beer.  Shotgun means co-pilot, which means map reading and lookout.  When greeting another guy, if you know him already nod up; if you don’t know him already nod down.  Women and dating: Your happiness isn’t men’s responsibility.  Give him space.  It’s okay to keep dating other guys longer than you think.  (See prior two rules.)

Specific social situations have specific rules.  Church: If you’re new, you are expected to join a committee.  If you’re a longtime member, you become a deacon.  Tattoos are an ungodly topic.  Whether or not your hands go in the air depends.  Law firms: No cufflinks until you make partner.  Military: If you want to be First Sergeant, don’t part your hair in the middle.  Southern Belles: Pearls and silver must be real, no cleavage until evening, dance the Shag, join the Junior League.

You get the idea.  Unwritten rules pervade our lives.  Why, then, do I so rarely encounter them in fiction?  They are a lost opportunity for drama.

The most powerful unwritten rules, in story terms, are the rules governing social classes.  Many classic novels been built around social struggle and conflict: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, Rebecca, Cry the Beloved Country, The Notebook, The Help.  Of course, those stories portray bygone times.  In contemporary America, our society is fluid and class conflict is no longer much of an issue, right?

I disagree.  We humans sort ourselves.  We associate, live, eat, celebrate, think, believe and talk according to the customs of our tribe.  If nothing else, as long as there are economic strata, there will be class distinctions.  In her ground-breaking book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Dr. Ruby K. Payne revealed the hidden rules of economic class, which help explain in part what impairs social mobility.  If you are a low-wage worker, middle class or wealthy, you will be different in your lifestyle, values, and relationships to many things.

People with concrete poverty knowledge know that cars are not dependable.  They live in isolated urban or rural areas, live in crowded homes, sleep on couches, repair things themselves.  They work multiple jobs.  If they have money, they spend it.  Their main concern about food is quantity—is there enough?  They tend their own sick.  Laws don’t protect them.  Families are matriarchal.  Men are often absent.  Their dearest possessions are friends.  They relax with music, cable TV, drugs, bars.  They joke about sex.  Their world is local.  They live in the present.  Their time is taken up with survival.  They believe in fate.

Middle class people value education, invest in homes, pursue hobbies, manage their money, buy insurance, vacation at Disneyworld, join the PTA, plan for the future.  Their concern about food is quality—did you like it?  They listen to doctors.  They respect the law.  Their possessions are things.  Friends can take a bake seat to work.  They joke about situations.  Their world is notional.  They have choices, and believe that ambition will get them ahead.  They have goals.

The wealthy believe that money should be conserved and invested.  Friendship is knowing the right people.  Education is about making and maintaining connections.  The wealthy marry their own kind and exclude others.  Their possessions are one-of-a-kind, objects with pedigrees.  They judge food by its presentation.  They have better health.  They don’t obey laws; they make laws.  They joke about social faux pas.  Their world is international.  They value the past more than the future, maintaining traditions and decorum.  They feel a sense of noblesse oblige.

The differences in social classes are opportunities for us.  For instance, there are three ways of exerting power: with muscle, by asserting principle, by wielding authority.  Can you guess which economic strata favors each?  What, then, happens when a prep school boy beats someone bloody, or an undocumented field hand takes a landowner to court?  The social order is disturbed.  That is good story.

Love and marriage above or below one’s class is an age-old source of story conflict.  Nicholas Sparks and Charles Martin still exploit that, as do others.  There are many ways, big and small, to cross lines and violate unwritten rules.

Some questions:

Class conflict is a durable basis for story because it raises questions of destiny versus free will.  To what degree are our lives ordained by birth, where we grew up, how we were raised, the patterns imprinted in us?  To what degree do we truly have freedom?  We all wonder such things.  Why not play out the questions in your fiction?

Meanwhile, be nice…just not in your novel.

What are the unique social strata in your WIP?  How do they come into conflict?

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About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].