How Stories Work, Part 3: Status

I’ve spent a long time reading about storytelling. My guiding questions are: “How do stories work?” and “What makes one story better than another?” This is the third in a series of essays about what I’ve learned.


In his book Impro, Keith Johnstone set out to write an account of his life in improvisational theater and how improvised comedy works. In the course of doing so, he ended up accidentally writing a fascinating piece of cultural anthropology on the subject of status. Johnstone was writing for aspiring actors, but his book deserves a far broader audience. As he writes:

I don’t myself see that an educated man in this culture necessarily has to understand the second law of thermodynamics, but he certainly should understand that we are pecking-order animals and that this affects the tiniest details of our behaviour.

Status, as Johnstone points out, inflects every social interaction. Indeed, most social activity consists of “status play” and little else.

Everyone should understand status — but this is doubly true for anyone interested in stories. Status is a fundamental element of storytelling. One can’t understand storytelling without understanding status.

What is Status?

I was preoccupied with this problem when I saw the Moscow Art’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Everyone on stage seemed to have chosen the strongest possible motives for each action — no doubt the production had been ‘improved’ in the decades since Stanislavsky directed it. The effect was ‘theatrical’ but not like life as I knew it. I asked myself for the first time what were the weakest possible motives, the motives that the characters I was watching might really have had. When I returned to the studio I set the first of my status exercises.
`Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic’, and actors seemed marvellously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuvrings were exposed. If someone asked a question we didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it. Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality status transactions continue all the time. In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not. — Keith Johnstone

Johnstone’s (slim) book is worth reading in its entirety, but let’s summarize his theory of status here:

  • In “status play,” every action (ie. thing said or done) raises or lowers yourself or others. Johnstone calls this a status transaction.
I ask a student to lower his status during a scene, and he enters and 
A: What are you reading? 
B: War and Peace. 
A : Ah! That’s my favourite book!
The class laugh and A stops in amazement. I had told him to lower his status during the scene, and he doesn’t see what’s gone wrong. I ask him to try it again and suggest a different line of dialogue. 
A : What are you reading?
B: War and Peace.
A : I’ve always wanted to read that.
A now experiences the difference, and realizes that he was originally claiming ‘cultural superiority’ by implying that he had read this immense work many times.
  • Status isn’t just expressed through what we say and how we say it, it is also what we do and how we do it, as well as everything we don’t say or do. When two people pass on the sidewalk and wordlessly negotiate who will get out of the other’s way, that is a status transaction.
  • Most status play involves lowering one party by raising another or vice versa.
Walk into a dressing-room and say ‘I got the part’ and everyone will congratulate you, but will feel lowered.
  • There is no escaping status. First, we compulsively engage in status play without realizing it. Second, there is no way to be neutral. An apparently harmless remark may be taken as a status play by its receiver. We are all “Mean Girls.
  • Johnstone draws a distinction between your social status and the status you play — his emphasis is on the latter. A weak king might play low status, cringing in front of his ministers, whereas a tramp might puff up his chest and stride down the sidewalk, forcing others to step aside.
  • People break down into three groups: low-status players, high-status players and status experts who can play both sides.
  • Status play is full of contradictions. It allows us to express hostility with apparently friendly remarks.
  • Humor, then, is the lowering of status of someone for whom we don’t have sympathy.
  • We are inhibited from thinking about status play and deliberately avert our eyes, so to speak. Yet that doesn’t hamper us from participating. It’s interesting how much of our status play is not conscious.
  • Johnstone discusses all sorts of ways to explore the subject. There are tricks to manipulating your status: holding (or not holding) eye contact, changing posture, staring sentences with the sound “er,” holding your head still (or moving it about), touching your head (or not), etc.
My belief (at this moment) is that people have a preferred status; that they like to be low, or high, and that they try to manoeuvre themselves into the preferred positions. A person who plays high status is saying ‘Don’t come near me, I bite.’ Someone who plays low status is saying ‘Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.’ In either case the status played is a defence, and it’ll usually work. It’s very likely that you will increasingly be conditioned into playing the status that you’ve found an effective defence. You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status, but not very happy or competent at playing the other. Asked to play the ‘wrong’ status, you’ll feel ‘undefended’.

Johnstone has much more to say, but I’ll leave things here.

Status vs. Story

First, let there be no doubt that status is a fundamental part of storytelling.

  • Humans are monkeys and monkeys are obsessed with hierarchy. I’d wager that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for monkeys would stop at “esteem.” Regardless, from literary fiction to comic books, our stories are saturated with status concerns.
  • Tragedy lowers the status of the protagonist; comedy (in the Aristotelian sense of fiction with a happy ending) raises the status of the protagonist.
  • Comedy (in the sense of humor) “safely” lowers status — every “doh!” of Homer marks another humiliation.
  • In the storylines of popular fiction, status tends to play out in the most obvious way possible. Star Wars, for example, follows a lowly farm boy who ends up being given a medal for saving the galaxy.
  • But status is also at work elsewhere in storytelling. Much of the fun in Star Wars comes from the wrangling for dominance between Han, Leia and Luke. C3P0’s comic relief is all based on his lower-than-low status.
  • In thinking about storytelling the challenge often lies in looking past the window dressing and seeing the bones. The concept of status helps us to see the deep commonalities between stories that are superficially quite different.

If you’re new to the topic of how stories work, I suggest starting with Story by Robert McKee. David Ball’s Backwards & Forwards is a useful discussion of how the elements of a play fit together.