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It's a Bad, Bad World: Writing Dystopia
becausewrongisinteresting asked: Hi, I love your blog! I’m so glad to have come across it :D So, question! Any tips for writing a dystopian novel?
Well, thanks so much for those kind words! Luckily, we live in a world where we can share information about literature in an open forum such as the Internet. There are, however, the sad fictional universes (and some real places) in which such exchanges are not possible, which brings us to dystopian fiction.
Dystopia (n): a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia.
Dystopian writing can be difficult because you have the task of designing a new society, and the decisions that you make will govern the rest of the story. This requires a good deal of creative energy, so let’s get cracking.
- World-Build. Develop your world just like you would develop a fantasy world, or an alien planet in science fiction. It’s best to consider your dystopia as a different world entirely, as opposed to thinking of it as our world with a couple of changes. Here’s a few things to think of when working on that:
- Follow chain reactions. Let’s say the main facet of your dystopia is that everyone is assigned a person to spy on and report revolutionary behavior and thought. From that premise, you can determine that people probably don’t trust each other. From there, you might consider how that paradigm works in relation to families, co-workers, classrooms, etc. Asking questions about your world and working through the ramifications of your answers will start to give you a complete vision of your society.
- Make choices early. In other words, plan. It’s possible to write a dystopia with little or loose planning, but getting the bulk of it out in advance will be exceptionally helpful. By making choices early, you won’t run into horribly messy editing storms later on once you really know what’s going on. You might find it helpful to build your world first, then build your story.
- Who knows it’s a dystopia? Another way to think of this is “How did we get from where society is now to this made up place?” Or even more basically, “What’s the history of this place?” Of course, your world does not have to be derivative of ours or take place in our universe. Developing a firm grasp on your society’s history clues you more into the values of the establishment, and also begins to demonstrate your character’s relationship with society. If your character is aware of our historical period and the lifestyle that the story’s readers enjoy, that character will treat the government and society very differently than a character who only knows the dystopian world. Of course, some, all, or none of that history can go into the draft itself, but creating it for your own purposes will be helpful.
- Know your implications. The choices you make will determine the overall message that is coming across through your story. If your characters are overly reliant on technology to the point where it is a fault in that society, that will become an important theme in your story, whether you like it or not. A reader might examine this facet of your story and consider the dystopian atmosphere and blame technology, at least in part, for its existence. For this reason, it’s best to make deliberate choices that you’re comfortable with, or find ways to convince readers of the message you want to show them. At the same time…
- Not everything has to be social commentary. You may just want to write a dystopian story because the idea attracts you, not because you have noticed some ill in our society that needs to be addressed. That’s fantastic. Dystopian fiction is a great way to test characters and create excellent stories. Your story might be more character-centered than thematically-centered, which definitely works. Take The Hunger Games, for example, which is primarily about Katniss’ struggles in the Games, but also has undercurrents about our obsession with violence and reality television. Be aware of the social ramifications coming through your story, but don’t feel obligated to make them the point of the story.
- Focus on your story. Even though you have this really groovy dystopian setting, your story requires all of the other traditional elements that readers look for. You can’t afford to slight your characters or your plot because of the strength and popularity of the dystopian genre. Having conflict between the character and the government is good, but rounding it out with the characters in relationship to each other will help complete that vision and the story in general.
- What can go wrong here? Presumably, in dystopian fiction, pretty much everything is going wrong. How, then, could you create meaningful conflict in such a completely terrible place? Essentially, what events would interrupt the day to day flow of things and make a story out of this terrible place? What would be news there? This line of thinking will help develop your plot. Knowing the day-to-day life of a character in your story is important for background and world-building, but your story probably exists outside of that norm.
- Make sure your reader knows the rules. It would be a remarkably sad thing if you developed all of these brilliant aspects of a dystopian story that delivered a worthwhile theme, an interesting setting, and a captivating story, but you did not get the essence of your story across to your reader. It is one thing to plan for yourself, but another thing entirely to show your reader what you’ve planned and pull them into the world. A dystopian setting (in most cases) requires that you express the rules of the world to your reader. These rules express the differences between our world and the world of the story and why those differences MUST BE according to the people in charge in the story. If these rules, clearly defined and uniquely exemplified (and necessarily broken) are missing from the story, you will lose the purpose of it being dystopian. Of course, you can keep secrets as your story requires them, but your reader should know which fears torment your characters. World-building is nothing if it doesn’t help you demonstrate your world to the reader.
- Read! This is the best advice we can give anyone about anything. Pick up some dystopian novels. See what you think works and what you think doesn’t, and make your choices based on your taste and your style.
All things considered, writing dystopia requires all of the skills you would need in writing any other genre. The only difference is that you are required to build a world that both convinces and terrifies. Make conscious choices in your setting, be aware of your themes, and treat your characters like characters, and you should be on your way.
- Dystopian Novels for Adults
- How to Write Dystopian Novels
- Teens and Dystopias
- Prompts-And-Pointers’ on Dystopian Fiction
- Is it Dystopia?
- TVTropes - Dystopia
Thanks for your question! If you have any comments on this post or other questions about writing, shoot us a message.
Teens and Dystopias
Literary dystopias flourish at the extremes of social control: the tyranny of too much government, the chaos of too little. Every 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 is balanced by a Mad Max or A Clockwork Orange. Or to put it simply, dystopian literature is just like high school: an oscillation between extremes of restraint.
Teenagers, of course, read dystopian novels in vast numbers. (As I write, Suzanne Collins’ post apocalyptic dictatorship novel, Hunger Games, has entered its eighty-first week atop the NY Times Chapter Book list.) This should surprise no one. Within school walls, students have reduced expectations of privacy (New Kersey v. TLO, 1980), no freedom of the press (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 1983), and their daily reality includes clothing restrictions, rising and sitting at the command of ringing bells, and an ever-increasing amount of electronic surveillance. But a few footsteps away from these 1984-like subjugations, the teenage world becomes Mad Max—warring tribes, dangerous driving, and unfortunate haircuts.
Teenagers’ lives are defined by rules, and in response they construct their identities through confrontations with authority, large and small. All this leaves teens highly interested in issues of control.
When I sat down to write the Uglies series in 2003, I didn’t intend to address these matters directly. I thought I was writing a somewhat nostalgic science fiction trilogy about body image and hoverboards. But a few million copies and roughly ten thousand pieces of fan mail later, I feel qualified to speak about teenagers and dystopias.
First a quick synopsis: Uglies is set three centuries after an “oil bug” has destroyed our present-day economy and all but erased our species. The descendants of the survivors live in isolated city states, ambiguous utopias whose citizens enjoy post-scarcity technologies and rigid government control. The title derives from this society’s coming-of-age tradition, in which teenage “uglies” undergo full-body plastic surgery to become “pretties,” simultaneously adult and beautiful. (And yes, there is a Twilight Zone episode along these lines, and about two dozen novels and short stories as well. As I said, this series was meant to be nostalgic.)
The protagonist of the trilogy, Tally Youngblood, is most notable for her shifting identities. By turns she takes the roles of vandal, government informer, outcast, runaway, prisoner, hedonist, enforcer, self-mutilator, and full-throated revolutionary. Her personality is reprogrammed several times, her memories frequently erased, her allegiances always suspect.
And yet the most common line in my fan mail is simply, “I am Tally.”
I think this is because teens recognize all the roles that Tally takes on. Schizophrenia, switching sides, and even betrayal (both of allies and of self) are natural responses to being bounced between extremes of control.
During my last book tour in the UK, the big tabloid story was a grandmother barred from a shopping arcade for wearing a hoodie. The management sheepishly explained that it was just a policy, and clearly not one aimed at grandmas. They didn’t have to say at whom it was aimed. After all, five little kids in a shop is cute. Five adults, good business. But when five teenagers gather, it’s time to make an arbitrary rule, or better yet to install a high-frequency sound device to drive them out.
Whatever teens embrace—whether it’s black hoodies, rap, texting, file-sharing, hoverboards, or fictional vampire boyfriends—is soon decried as a threat to civilization. And trust me, teenagers notice this adult discourse going on around them. They know they live in occupied territory.
They also realize that these social panics and excesses of control do little to protect them from their real problems. Censoring the school paper (or internet feed) doesn’t protect anyone from bullying, or agonizing over every physical imperfection, or from sexual predators (who overwhelmingly come not from the internet but from within teens’ own families). Like Tally’s world, ours is primarily concerned with surfaces, using plastic surgeries for real diseases. Being relative newcomers, teenagers see through this chicanery better than their elders, but at the same time possess fewer skills and resources to escape its power.
So they wind up with the worst of both worlds—too much government and not enough. Is it any wonder, then, that dystopian novels appeal to teens, as do vandalism, cutting, fast cars, shifting identities, unfortunate haircuts, and black hoodies? Next time you read a dystopia that strains belief, just think back to high school, and it won’t seem so far fetched.