How to Write Dystopian Fiction: The Ultimate Guide
Welcome to Writing Tips Oasis and the newest installment in our series of writing guides. In this guide, we will be tackling the task of writing Dystopian Fiction.
Before we proceed, let’s take a look at the definition: what is dystopian fiction, precisely? Dystopian fiction is a catch-all term for all short stories, novellas, novels, and films that take place in a futuristic world that is the opposite of ideal. An ideal world, where there is no hunger, no poverty, no crime, and every person living in it is equal and happy, is called a utopia. Therefore, when the world is oppressive, riddled with hunger, crime, totalitarian governments, and where no character lives a happy life, you have a dystopia.
In essence, due to the futuristic setting (unless you’re going for an alternate Earth type of story where the year is the same as the present, but the world is vastly different), dystopian fiction is considered a sub-genre of science fiction. This means that writing dystopian fiction by the book – by the rules of the genre – means creating a blend of futuristic science and a dystopian society.
In the first part of the guide, we will be taking a look at the different ways of creating a dystopian world. In the second part, we will be looking at the futuristic side of things. Nothing will take your readers out of the story faster than the lack of futuristic technology in your story, especially if the story takes place in the near or far future. Finally, to wrap things up, we will be taking a look at the plot, the story, and the characters, as well as the lure and dangers of social commentary: how to avoid sounding preachy, but still say everything that’s on your mind.
Every advice you will read in this guide – or any other online guides or books – should be taken with a grain of salt and modified until it works for you. Every writer is unique, and each writer writes differently and writes different stories. If a tip worked for us in creating a dystopian fiction story, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work for you. Hence why modifying everything is important. With enough modifications, you can mold any tip into a tool that works for you.
So, without further ado, let us proceed to the guide. Good luck!
Table of Contents
- Part 1: Creation of a Dystopian World
- Types of dystopian societies
- Part 2: Creation of a Futuristic World
- 1. Technology
- 2. People
- 3. Everyday life
- 4. Geography
- 5. Language/languages
- 6. Medicine and other miscellaneous
- Part 3: The Dystopian Fiction
- 1. Developing the story
- 2. Developing characters in a dystopian world
- 3. Dystopian story clichés to avoid
- 4. Addressing contemporary issues
- 5. Potential problems and social commentary
Part 1: Creation of a Dystopian World
In order to create a dystopian world, you need to create a dystopian society. Even in the worst post-apocalyptic world that you can imagine, if there is no dystopian society, you don’t have a dystopian world.
However, before you get to the dystopian society, you need a reason for its existence. For example, you cannot have a world where everyone lives with a master (slave society) unless you can show that, for whatever reason, this social arrangement works for at least one group of people (who, in this particular example, would be at the top). The reason can stem from two things:
- A natural disaster (or a man-made disaster) plunged the world into chaos and destruction – an Apocalypse – and from that, rose the dystopian society (as seen in The Hunger Games);
- A natural progression of our world.
Let’s talk a bit more about the second example. Our world has a lot of problems. Take any of them, exaggerate it to (seemingly) abnormal proportions, and you can create a dystopian society that can hit home for many readers. In a way, even if you use the natural disaster example, the dystopian society will still stem from the world’s current issues.
Types of dystopian societies
One of the best pieces of advice we can give you here is to read a lot of dystopian books. The classics, like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, A Brave New World, to modern examples like The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and so on. The biggest reason why you should read every possible book in the dystopian genre is to get a feel of all the types of dystopian worlds that have already been created. We will take a deeper look at some of these types, and explain how these types of societies came to be. What you can glean from them is not only how to make them – some of them have actually already become clichés, as far as creativity goes – but how to make them original as well. As the saying goes, nothing in this world is new, and when it comes to fiction, the only thing that’s new is your interpretation.
1) The disease world
The easiest way to create a disease dystopian world is to have a major natural (or manmade) disaster that releases a virus into the air/water/etc. After the initial apocalyptic disaster and the chaos, the world will create a new pecking order. People may be forbidden to visit special areas; they might live underground or under domes made specifically to protect them from this disease. The people who built these will be the ones who are in charge. The ordinary people need to live under a strict code of conduct. They will have many things chosen for them, from who they live with to who they will date, marry, and procreate with.
They will also be the ones who try to help the people who do fall ill. You cannot have a dystopian world riddled with disease and not have at least one character get infected – and either succumb to the disease and die or survive.
Where does the dystopia come in? It comes through control. In every type of dystopian world, the dystopia comes from control. There are always things beneath the surface:
– In a disease world, the government might not be trying to help those who are sick;
– There must be regular checks to see if anyone has gotten sick;
– The sick people usually disappear from the face of the earth, and their families never see them again.
And then, you have things that happen in the world as a result of someone in the family being sick (and maybe even having died from it). For example:
- A girl might not be allowed to date or marry the one she loves because her dad had succumbed to the disease. She is labelled as unfit to procreate because her genes are susceptible to the disease;
- A person might be alienated from society due to the sickness;
And so on.
2) The military world
The military world is easy enough to create: all you need is a military in charge of everything. Again, this world can be the result of a catastrophic disaster, or it can come by as a natural progression of our world.
What you need is a reason for the military to be in charge. This means that war is unavoidable – either civil war or a world war – and the military has taken charge of governing the people. As a result, the military will be:
– Controlling the channels of communication;
– Controlling the flow of information;
– Keeping the people in line by forbidding individual progress.
As a result, the people will be living in a constant state of military raids. When the military controls information, there will be a lot of contraband running around: music, books, illustrations, paintings, philosophy. Uttering the wrong word in the wrong crowd can be deadly. Not obeying the military means never seeing your family again. Again, it all comes back to control – in a military dystopian world, the military controls everything, and your life and well-being depend on how obedient you are.
3) Police states
A police state is very similar to a military state. However, instead of the military, you have a government that controls the population through the police. In this world, you don’t need a war for the police to be in control. The police state means strict curfew, strict manners of behavior, and again, uttering the wrong word in the earshot of the wrong people can get you imprisoned – and it can even get your family imprisoned as well.
One of the best examples in fiction of a police state is, of course, George Orwell’s 1984. When you read it, you can feel the oppression as if you’re really there. For that reason, when you’re creating a police state, you need to put your character in situation where he will get into trouble, due to recklessness or rebellious behavior.
In the police state world, and in almost every dystopian world, you have two types of ordinary people. The first type is the openly oppressed: they live in poverty, survive by any means possible, and are forced to obey because they have no other choice. The other type is the type of people who work with the police and government, or work for them. They are just as equally oppressed – even though they probably are not in immediate danger of going hungry or broke – because they are asked to do atrocious things in the name of the country. This world offers you the opportunity to explore both sides of the coin. On one side, you have characters who live the oppression, and on the other side, you have characters who need to help the oppression against their will.
The previous examples were, essentially, dictatorships in different forms. Anarchy is the opposite. No one is being oppressed by the government, however, there is still oppression. The oppression comes from the people themselves.
The thing is, in any type of society, someone has to be in charge of things. It’s in our nature to look for leadership, for someone to guide us. In a society without a government, where anyone can seemingly do anything, you will have the creations of groups: factions, tribes, covens, communities. Again, even their rule will be hard won and easily lost – hence the constant state of struggles for power.
Also, imagine being an ordinary man or a woman in a world where you cannot really call 911 (or another emergency number) when you’re in trouble. Someone is cornering you on the street with a knife, asking you for everything you have and own at the moment. No one will stop to help you in a world of anarchy. Good Samaritans in such a world are rare. Even today, if you’re in trouble, there is a 50% chance that you will not get any help from passersby, especially if you’re in a big and busy city. But, imagine a world where you know, with absolute certainty, that no help is coming.
In a way, the anarchy world is even more difficult and stressful than the police state or military world. The other two strive on order and keeping the status quo, there is no status quo in an anarchy world and there is no order.
What does the ordinary man do in such a world? How do women survive in it? Can you buy off an attacker who is unafraid of any sort of retaliation? How do you protect yourself on a daily basis?
This means that the characters in such a world will need to be physically powerful. They will keep any sort of weapon on themselves to be prepared for any attack. Romance (romance can be present in almost every genre) will be rare and dangerous. And the best paid job will probably be that of a bodyguard. Because everyone will need one.
How does anarchy come to be?
The easiest answer is financial crisis. When money becomes worthless and what you can take with your hands is what you will eat and have, when governments are unable to control the population – nor the police – you have a state of anarchy. However, you can use any kind of cause for an anarchy state. A wave of disease can kill millions of people, and you can have anarchy in the aftermath.
As we previously said, people flock to leadership. We want someone to be in charge so that we don’t have to worry about streetlights and clearing the snow in winter. We like having electricity, TV, and internet. As a result, your story needs to have the seeds of a new civilization.
5) Alien invasion
This is the easiest dystopian world. The alien invasion gave us our alien overlords. Now we live under their rule. They are in charge of how we speak, the jobs we have (all paying minimum wage that barely allow us to survive). The aliens can take children to raise them and brainwash them with their propaganda.
But, like we previously mentioned, it’s all about the interpretation. Remember, your story is not about the invasion itself – in your story, humanity got invaded some years ago (give or take a century, in order to establish the new society). For example, if the aliens invaded 50 years ago, you will still have remnants of the previous world. People will still have memories of how it used to be before the new regime. The story of the alien invasion itself will belong in a different genre – science fiction, or apocalyptic fiction, maybe even post-apocalyptic fiction, which would encompass the time period after the invasion, but before the new civilization has been set.
The aliens themselves can be benevolent or malevolent. A very common example are the benevolent aliens who took over our planet because we were ruining it. They would still be oppressing us, but their cause would be “for the greater good.”
Malevolent aliens, on the other hand, will be oppressing humanity for their own gain. They can have advanced technology we can only dream of developing, and use that to control all of humanity. In a way, this world is very similar to military world and police state, with the difference that the dictators in this case do not come from our world.
6) Inhospitable environment
Similar to the disease ridden dystopian world, the dystopian world with an inhospitable environment can be a dictatorship – where the government controls the population because the outside world is unsafe (as seen in Inside Out – the novel, not the film, as well as Divergent – where the fence keeps the monsters at bay). This world can also be an anarchy world, where every person has to fend for themselves.
What you need here is the reason for the inhospitable environment. The easiest example is radiation. If there are places you cannot go without getting severe radiation burns, then you have places with an inhospitable environment. Another example is the earth itself. Let’s say that global warming gets exponentially progressive, then what will be the result? Will the people be able to live in areas where it’s too hot? And the other extreme, will the people be able to live north of the equator? What would be the result of a nuclear war? How would humans survive in a nuclear winter?
Again, here you need to think not only about how the people would survive and what their daily lives would look like – but also about their society, how and why is it oppressive, because that is what will change the genre from post-apocalyptic science fiction to a dystopia.
7) Constant war
Constant war can be one of the subtlest types of a dystopian world. In Orwell’s 1984, they even have the slogan “war is peace.” In a world like that, war becomes the driver of the economy, and the people succumbed to it face the police or the military as its face. For that reason, the world with constant war is often a military or a police state.
As previously mentioned, you can have a constant world war, or a constant civil war. In constant world war, the actual war can be fought in a different place in your world, far away from your protagonist, serving only as a social background to the story. In this case, the ordinary people will be away from it, but feel the effects. An oppressive dictatorship can easily take control over the population if said dictatorship’s military is the only thing standing between the population and the foreign invaders. In a way, you would be creating a military world and a police state where war is the reason behind everything. As such, war will also dictate the everyday life of the population.
On the other hand, a constant civil war world is completely different. Here, your characters will be placed in the middle of the conflict between the two factions. Who is your true friend and who is working for the other side? Friends turn against friends, while enemies might need to band together to survive. Moreover, this world offers you the opportunity to have the world itself as a vital plot element, rather than only having it as a background to a different story.
Whichever way you choose to go, keep in mind that you need to show the war in your world. In a constant world war, your characters will have to be aware of it. Whether they actively try to get involved, or get more information about it is not relevant, as long as they are aware of it. When it comes to constant civil war, your characters will not be able to escape from it – unless they go to a different country.
8) Controlled breeding in population
There is something uniquely oppressive about living in a world where someone else gets to decide who you will have children with, when you will do it, how, and so on. In order to create a society where this is the norm, you need to give a good reason for it. There must be a reason why breeding has to be rigidly controlled by the government.
A very easy example is damaged genes – where the government has the right to deem your genes unfit for procreation and forbid you from creating a family. In fact, the world itself can be perfect, the people might never go hungry and they may live in a utopia – however, when you don’t have control over your own family, what is the point of it all?
Another example is sterility. The government may be controlling the population through forced sterilization. It’s not too difficult to find a reason for it: even today, the world is facing overpopulation problems. What happens when there are over 20, 30, 40 billion people in the world? That’s right, the government needs to find a way to curb and corral breeding, as crude as it may sound. And as a result, you can have a world where you don’t choose if you’re going to have children or not, but the government will do it for you.
As with the constant civil war example, in this world, your characters will be in the nick of things. Using controlled breeding simply as a background to your story set in a dystopian society poses the question as to why your story is happening in such a world. Many readers will probably ask themselves if the story is related to the world in any way. If the answer they come up with is no, they will lose the will to suspend their disbelief (the process where the reader accepts everything you present in a book as real) and you will not get loyal fans and readers.
Of course you can combine different elements to create a unique dystopian world that has not been seen before. However, as with any other genre that allows for experimenting in worldbuilding (epic fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction and all their subgenres), you cannot simply throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
In other words, your combinations should make sense.
For example: in an inhospitable world, it’s easy to imagine that the people will flock to form groups rather than succumb to a centralized government. However, if you add problems with procreation to that world, a centralized government will provide the people the resources they need in order to survive and bring forth a next generation.
As previously mentioned, in police and military states, constant war can come as both the cause for their formation – or as a result of it.
Another thing that you must decide is what happens with the dystopian society by the end of the book. In The Hunger Games, the government, such as it was, got toppled. That, however, is not the case in Orwell’s 1984. In other words, your story can either be the story of how a dystopian society comes to an end – or it can be an individual story within a dystopian society where the society itself remains relatively unchanged. Most often, the society gets trampled and a new hope is on the horizon for all of its citizens. If you choose to go the other way, make sure that the story itself doesn’t require that. Or, do not have your characters start a revolution just to go out in a blaze of glory without changing anything.
Part 2: Creation of a Futuristic World
The futuristic world needs to be a part of your dystopian world, unless you’re writing about an alternate earth. And even then, the alternate earth needs to be different than our earth, and that is done through several elements:
Technology: you need ultra-modern technology to make your world believable.
People: cultures, groups, tribes, families. How will the people behave in your world, and how the world affects their behavior is an important worldbuilding element in a dystopian society.
Everyday life: what does your character do for a living? How and why? What kind of jobs have opened up as a result of your world? What do people do for fun? And are they allowed to do anything for fun? and more.
Geography: has the face and appearance of the world changed in any way? Are the continents still the same, or have they moved? Is there any new flora and fauna hiding in the ocean’s depths and the safari’s wilderness?
Language/languages: this is an interesting one – how many languages do you have in the world?
Medicine: do people have access to modern medicine?
These are the basic elements. Let’s take a deeper look at each of them.
We talked a bit about suspension of disbelief – and when it comes to a dystopian society that takes place in the future, nothing kills suspension of disbelief faster than a lack of modern – ultra modern, in fact – technology.
We’re not saying that you need to create a teleportation device for your dystopian society to be believable. However, you must change the everyday life of the characters – make it vastly different from what we have today in order to make the society believable. In fact, you can even create a whole dystopian society around access to modern technology.
To keep in line with our combinations and examples, this is easily seen in The Hunger Games, where the people from the Capitol have access to modern medicine and technology, while the people in the districts struggle and starve. Another example of this can be seen in Uglies by Scott Westerfield. In the world of the Uglies, you undergo a plastic surgery at the age of 16. This surgery makes you beautiful and enables you to access all the benefits from society. There is only one catch: the plastic surgery also erases your previous memories and enables the government to control you. There is no family, no unity, only pleasures and benefits. On the other side of the coin lay the Uglies – the people who have not gone under the knife. They live on technological remains, and their life is difficult, but they have managed to keep their own personality, identity, and individualism.
Modern technology can change everything. From transport to medicine, to jobs and education, and for that reason, technology needs to be a vital part of the world.
We will talk more about creating characters in the third part of the guide. Here, we will be taking a look at the people in your dystopian fiction story. In your novel, you will have characters who will need to be fleshed out well and appear real. However, you will also need characters who will easily fade into the background. These people are a part of your world.
What groups have these people formed? What is the norm? Do they band together in families or live as loners?
The nature of your world will have a big say in this. For example, you cannot live in an inhospitable environment completely alone. On the other hand, a world where the state police rules, will banding together in groups or families be encouraged or discouraged?
Moreover, how do these people act? What is the norm, and what is considered bad in your dystopian society? The easiest course of action is to keep the social norms close to what we are familiar with in our everyday lives. However, keep in mind that your story happens years, maybe even centuries into the future. How have the social norms changed, and what kinds of social norms have been built in the meantime?
Answering these questions will help you flesh out your world. For example, you need to know your characters’ backgrounds, even if those backgrounds never actually come up in the story. You are the one who needs to know them in order to flesh out your characters. When it comes to the people, and all the other worldbuilding elements, you need to know these things for the same reason. They might not come up directly into the story, but it will help you show, rather than just tell about, your world better.
3. Everyday life
Before your story begins, your protagonist and all the other characters that will be involved in the story have everyday lives. In order to flesh out your world, imagine one day in your protagonist’s life, a day that happened before the story started, a day that can be considered normal, where nothing out of the ordinary happened. Imagine your protagonist waking up, having breakfast, going to work, what happens there, where he or she has lunch, what he or she eats, what he or she does for fun after work (if possible). Which friends does he or she see, and where? Is going to a bar for a drink a normal thing, or is it just not done?
What does your character use for transport? Do cars work in your world? Is there a tube, an underground railway, or do people go to work in flying zeppelins? What are the jobs of the future? What games have been invented? In an oppressive society, how do people have fun, why, and when?
Again, the chances that you will be able to show the ordinary world directly into the story are slim. However, you need to know what the ordinary world and everyday life of your characters and other people are like, so that you can build your story on top of that foundation.
We mentioned previously that due to the fact that the story happens in a world of the future, you need to know what that world looks like. Again, the easiest course of action is to just keep the landscape and overall geography the same. However, depending on how many years into the future you go, you might need to make some drastic changes.
For example, one thousand years from now, the face of the earth will be changed. Look back into history, and note how fast these changes have happened, and you can be creative and come up with a new landscape that will make sense and make your world more realistic.
If your story happens three hundred years from now, instead of one thousand and more, you don’t need to change the face of the earth. However, you do need to think about how the landscape will change. New towns and cities might have sprung up in the meantime, especially if these cities and towns are necessary for your story. In fact, the more you change the everyday world of today, the better, because you want to convince your readers that this is what the earth will be like in three hundred years.
Transport also depends on geography. In an inhospitable environment, how are roads built and why? Do roads get domes overhead for protection, or are they just built underground? What kind of technology is being used to cover long distances? Again, it doesn’t have to be a teleportation device, but, what do planes and ships look like, and are they able to work and function the same as today?
Also, do you need to use any of those in your story? If you do, make sure that these things are presented in your story in a way that ensures that they are a part of the world, not just things you invented to move your story forward. In other words, if people use oversized zeppelins to get from one place to another, make sure that the readers understand that this is normal. In that case, if your characters have another form of transport, make sure to explain that this is outside of the norm and why.
Languages can really make a difference in a world. Considering that the story happens in the future, you can go two different ways:
– Have a universal language that everyone understands;
– Have a multitude of languages appear in your story.
This doesn’t mean that you need to invent a new language. A lot of novels feature people speaking in different languages without having said language make an appearance in actual words. Sometimes you can just describe it: staccato words, guttural tones, etc. Other times you can have a character understand it and translate for the protagonist. Other times the protagonist can be in a situation where he or she doesn’t understand the speakers – it makes for a good dramatic situation and calls for solutions that solely depend on body language and mimics. And yes, of course, if inventing languages is something that you enjoy, showing it in your novel will flesh your world out even more.
6. Medicine and other miscellaneous
Access to medicine is a big part of any world, especially a dystopian one. If one or more of your characters get injured, where and how do they get help?
Moreover, what new diseases ail humanity in the future, and how curable are they? If you have a disease ridden dystopian world, medicine becomes even more important, especially if it’s the oppressive government that controls the cure.
If ordinary people cannot get easy access to medicine, do they turn to herbs? Is there a black market where the medicine you get is half a cure and half a curse? Who would manage it and why, and how did that come to be? What is the connection that your characters have with it?
When it comes to other miscellaneous, that depends solely on you and your imagination. The world is not just made of jobs, transport, family, fun, medicine, and landscape. There will be trinkets, gadgets, futuristic looking houses and buildings. Locks, keys, advertisements, means of communication and communication devices. And more. The way that you imagine these things and their role in the everyday life of your characters must be present in the story, again, as the foundation upon which you can weave your plot and story.
Part 3: The Dystopian Fiction
Once you combine the dystopian society with a futuristic setting, you will have a dystopian fiction world that presents a good foundation upon which your story can be built, brick by brick. What you’re still missing, in this case, is the story itself.
A good story has a well-developed world, characters and plot, the unity of time and space – as in, the readers will get to learn what happened, when, and where – told through the eyes of a narrator. The narrator can tell the story through first person point of view, third person limited point of view, third person omnipresent point of view, or second person point of view (which is probably the rarest type of point of view in fiction).
So, let’s take a look at how to better develop your story and characters and keep it free of clichés.
1. Developing the story
As we previously mentioned, in a dystopian world, your story is either connected to the dystopian society, and at the end of it, either the society is beginning to change, or it has been toppled like a house of cards. If your story is not connected to the dystopian society, then the dystopian society becomes just a background for it.
Of the two options, the first one offers a better opportunity for a cohesive story. Utopian societies are a myth because the task of making everyone in the world happy and content is too difficult for a society to manage – and even when it does, there is always something lurking under the surface, like in Brave New World, and the utopian society easily turns into a dystopia. On the other hand, dystopian societies beg to be toppled down. For that reason, most dystopian stories either have the main character escape said dystopia, or the society itself is toppled.
However, that doesn’t mean that you cannot develop a story in a dystopian world where the society itself is left completely unchanged and unscathed at the end of the story. What you should not do is touch upon the topic of rebellion and changing the world without delivering at the end. So, how can you develop the story?
A good story has a tightly woven plot and fleshed out characters. The tightly woven plot depends solely on your protagonist: unless you have an ensemble of protagonists with their own point of view chapters, you are telling the story of one person among many. That means the following:
– Your protagonist needs to get a goal very early in the story;
– Your protagonist needs to decide to pursue that goal, and have his or her backstory, together with his or her personality, support that decision;
– Your protagonist needs to embark upon a journey that will change him by the end of the story.
The easiest way to imagine each step is the following:
– The ordinary world, where your protagonist resides;
– Receiving the call to adventure: the setup of the protagonist’s goal;
– Refusing the call, then accepting the call to adventure, the call to the journey;
– Embarking on the journey, and starting to work on achieving the goal;
– Encountering different things along the journey that incited the change within him or her;
– Making mistakes and learning from them;
– After going through both the physical and emotional grinder, the protagonist comes out stronger and better, defeats the enemy, achieves his or her goal, and takes the cake. Cue going back to the ordinary world – or staying in the new world.
2. Developing characters in a dystopian world
Previously, we talked about the people in general in a dystopian world, the creation of groups, tribes, families, their values and cultures and languages. When it comes to creating characters, you can play with some of the following tools:
– Combine the backstory of a character with his or her personality to give him or her a unique, personal goal within the story;
– This will enable you to give the characters a character’s arc, i.e. have the characters learn something by the end of the book and change in a significant way;
– With the combination of background (group in the society, language, culture, family) and personality, you can develop a unique voice for each character.
What’s more important is that each character needs to be important to the story and the protagonist. If the character is not important, then there is no reason for his or her appearance in the story, other than the fact that you want him or her to be there.
On the other hand, avoid using clichéd characters to fulfill a role. For example, if you need someone to be knowledgeable of all things technology, do not have him be a tall, skinny male, with messy hair and glasses, who speaks only in long, explanatory paragraphs and lives and breathes the knowledge. He or she would also have a background. Maybe it’s a girl who dances in her free time. Maybe she delivers the best results when she listens to hard core heavy metal music.
The list goes on. It’s very good to take a look at archetypes, however, it’s the combination of multiple archetypes, often in a contradictory way, that creates the layers of a character.
3. Dystopian story clichés to avoid
We all know what clichés are, so let’s jump right into the most common clichés in dystopian fiction:
– Oppressive government that gets toppled;
– Beasts on the outside of a community fence;
– Limitation of knowledge and information;
– Controlling communications;
– The hero who is genetically engineered to be so;
– An extreme divide between the rich and the poor;
– The hero who topples the government was pursued by that very same government.
There are more clichés, of course. From government issued jobs, where you don’t have a say in your profession, to tattoos that denote your status, and many other examples.
Does this mean that you’re not supposed to use any of the clichés?
Of course not. In fiction, things and scenarios and settings become a cliché because they are overused. However, as long as you’re able to add an original spin to a cliché, your story will remain interesting and cohesive. If tattoos denote the status of the citizens, make sure that there is an original idea behind it, and that you will do something original with them. Again, avoid throwing everything at the blank page to see what sticks. Think things through carefully before adding anything that might be considered a cliché in your story. Moreover, make sure to have another pair of eyes on it – often, we writers use clichés in our stories without being aware of it.
4. Addressing contemporary issues
A lot of dystopian novels tackle contemporary issues. The level of success in this depends both on the specific issue and the story that the writer has told. The problem here is that often; writers attempt to tackle contemporary issues unsuccessfully.
If you decide to do this, make sure that you know what you want to want to say. For example, if you decide to take on world hunger, increase it to unimaginable levels, and use it as a setting in your story. Also, make sure that there is a point to it.
The reason why writers address issues in their novels, regardless of genre, is because they have something to say about it, and because they want to make their readers think about it. However, most often, writers do it for the first reason and often, without a clear message. It’s what happens when readers say in their reviews that they liked the theme, they liked the idea, but the execution of said idea fell short for them.
In other words, when tackling contemporary issues, know what you’re trying to say. Do not be too convincing in it either – because it’s better to entice the readers to think about it, rather than pound down your opinion with a club.
As we said in the previous section, tackling issues is difficult. However, social commentary presents an even bigger challenge. Not only do you have to do it in a sensitive manner, you have to be careful – sounding too preachy can alienate most of your readers.
The potential problems here are many. It’s enough to offend one reader who has a lot of online followers. Said reader makes a statement about your novel and then you will have a lot of eyes on your story – and not in a good way.
This doesn’t mean that you need to keep a lid on social commentary, though. As we previously said, the best thing that you can do with a dystopian novel is to make your readers think. There is a lot of philosophy in A Brave New World. There are many things to think about in The Hunger Games.
So, how can you do it while avoiding any negative backslash?
First, you must choose your words carefully. Second, the social commentary needs to be relevant to the story or the history of the world. Often, you can use it as a contrast – what used to be compared to what it is now. However, it would sound odd if a 15-year-old started spouting off about everything that’s wrong with society. Even your readers will probably not take those words seriously. In other words, do not put in social commentary just for the sake of it. Make sure that it happens naturally within your novel, at the right place, the right time, and that the characters who are actually involved in the scene have a reason to do so.
Out of all genres, the dystopian fiction offers a lot of leeway for creativity and imagination. You can imagine white towers of glass and steel supported by the sweat and work of the impoverished and imprisoned. You can imagine that and give a solid reason for its existence. In addition, you’re not limited to science – years and years into the future, who’s to say that humanity wouldn’t develop magical powers? Who’s to say that there will not be technology that is nothing more than magic?
The traps here are holes: holes in the background, holes in your plot, continuity errors with your character’s background and errors in your worldbuilding (a city used to be in the West, then, a few pages later, it’s in the East). But, the biggest trap is the society itself. You need a solid reason for its existence.
For example, let’s say that in the future, every person lives with a master. The masters are the rich people, the slaves are the poor people, and neither one of them gets a choice in the matter. They need to live as master and slave. However, at the end of a four-year tenure, the slave gets to choose a new master.
The above described is a premise. Without a solid background reason for the existence of such a society, any story built in that world will topple like a house of cards. Why? Because the prisoner/slave can just escape and live out his life in the wild. There is nothing to gain from choosing a new master. And there is nothing that supports this society, because it doesn’t even seem like the master has any choice or benefit from the arrangement.
In conclusion, make sure that your premise makes logical sense and that you can support it through the history of the world. Then, make sure that, at all times, you know where your story is going, and do not begin story threads and side plots that you cannot finish. Let your imagination soar, but keep it in check, and keep away from preaching your opinions of the world.
How to Write Dystopian Fiction: The Ultimate Guide is an article from Writing Tips Oasis.
Copyright © 2014-2017 Writing Tips Oasis All Rights Reserved