Are you writing a story that falls under the subgenre of dystopian romance? If you need some tips on how to write a dystopian romance novel, this is a post you need to read! Scroll down to get 10 top tips that will help you.
1. Create a believable dystopian premise
A dystopian world can happen in the near future – within the next century, or the far future – in more than a few hundred years or even a millennium from the present. To create a believable dystopian world, you must answer the question of why that dystopian world seems to work and function as a society.
What happened in the years between the present and the time period when your novel takes place? Did the totalitarian government come in power as a result of social collapse, environmental collapse, war, or all three? Answering these questions will lend credibility to the world you will create.
Additionally, what contemporary issues will you tackle with the creation of this world? Overpopulation? Global warming? Systemic racism? Misogyny? Femicide? The growing rate of government monitoring and lack of digital privacy? Human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights?
Choose the contemporary issues you care about the most, and create a premise where these issues have been exacerbated to such an extent that life as we know it today seems like a blessing in comparison.
2. Have a main romantic plot
In a dystopian romance novel, the romantic plot is central. You are writing a romance novel set in a dystopian world. This means that it is the romantic love between the protagonist and the love interest that pushes the story forward. In comparison, the plot in a dystopian novel with romantic elements will be more focused on the totalitarian government and the romance will take the backseat. It becomes a subplot, rather than the main focus of the novel.
As such, you need to choose the type of romance you will be portraying, and the type of relationship between the protagonist and their love interest – is it going to be friends to lovers, enemies to lovers, childhood or teenage sweethearts, or a relationship between two people who had no relationship prior to meeting each other and are trying to survive in an oppressive world.
3. Add a prohibition of love
One of the elements that must be present for your novel to become a dystopian romance novel is the prohibition of love in the world you’ve built. It can be a direct prohibition of love, like in Delirium by Lauren Oliver; or, your society might force people to marry, like in Matched by Ally Condie, preventing them from falling in love with whomever they choose.
The prohibition of love in your world can be direct, or it can be a result of the many other prohibitions and elements of oppression set in place by the government, such as the erasure of individualism in dystopian societies.
As a result of this prohibition, the protagonist and their love interest are automatically put into conflict with the oppressing government because by falling in love, they are breaking the society’s rules and showing resistance against the oppression. In essence, they become star-crossed lovers simply by falling in love in such a world, with their relationship being forbidden by default.
4. Slow burn romance vs. insta-love
One of the drawbacks when writing a dystopian romance is that you need to spend time to develop both the dystopian society and the romance. As a result of that split time, the romantic plot often suffers from insta-love between the protagonist and the love interest, although, romance novels in general suffer from the same issue.
It is better to avoid that and to create a slow burn romance instead. The protagonist and the love interest do not need to fall head over heels in love immediately. They can start by simply liking one another, and fall in love more slowly over the course of the novel. As such, the fact that they are rebelling against the oppressive society by falling in love makes more sense to the reader.
A slow burn romance gives you the time to develop the emotional connection between the protagonist and the love interest. Otherwise, you have two people willing to risk everything – most often, their very lives – for the sake of being in a relationship with a person whom they have just met or do not even know that well.
5. Spend time on worldbuilding
When it comes to building a dystopian world, you need to ensure that you create a cohesive one, where the rules and regulations make sense for what the oppressive government is trying to achieve.
The basic element of a dystopian world is oppression from the governing body over its people. This can be done through curfews, mandatory jobs, restriction of individuality, and other prohibitions. When you add these elements to the dystopian society, you must ensure that the people (and the readers) understand why the government is doing this.
For example, are the curfews in place because there is a poisonous mist falling down after 7 PM each evening? Are the mandatory jobs there to supposedly ensure the human race’s survival after a nuclear war, even if, behind the smokescreen, there are only a few powerful people trying to stay in power?
6. Show the rules and the exceptions
While the rules and regulations imposed by the oppressive government need to make sense, you must ensure that these rules are in place. For example, if there is a curfew in place, you cannot have the characters walking around past curfew very casually, with no patrols in sight.
Additionally, you need to show the exceptions to those rules. A dystopian society cannot function properly – or even seem to function properly – if absolutely everyone except the people in power is oppressed. There should be a group of people with enough privileges that they are in support of the oppressive regime, even if they are aware of the atrocities, because to be in opposition is to lose the privileges they already have.
A good example of this are the people of the Capitol in Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. These people are aware of what is happening and just how wrong it is, but to say anything or to rebel in any way is to die.
7. Make the punishments vivid
Basically, your novel should show three types of lives, or groups of people: the oppressed living by the rules, the privileged that help to impose those rules (though their actual privileges may vary), and then we have the group of people who have suffered the punishments.
The punishments can happen to the protagonist, but that should not happen so quickly in the novel. Initially, you should show what happens to the people who do not play by the rules, who have broken the rules and what they have suffered as punishment. For example, in the beginning of Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, Lena’s mother still felt love, despite the fact she had the procedure to erase love multiple times, and she killed herself as a result of still feeling love and grief over the death of her husband. Because of what happened to Lena’s mother, Lena never wants to feel love and is in fact, in agreement with the regime that love should not exist in her world.
Showing the punishment for breaking the rules can serve both as foreshadowing (what will happen to the protagonist) and will help to add tension in the novel and heighten the stakes for the protagonist and their love interest.
8. Have a resistance movement
Any and every dystopian novel has an oppressive regime in place that is running the society. That regime has to be brought down by the end of the story through the actions of the protagonist, with the protagonist’s actions first serving as the catalyst for a rebellion (like in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins), and then the protagonist getting directly involved with the rebellion, and maybe even becoming a leader of the new regime that gets put in place of the old one (like in Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi).
In other cases, the protagonist might be involved in the rebellion from the beginning of the novel because they are in a perfect position to spy for the rebel organization. An example of this occurs in Prism by Nina Walker. The novel is told by two points of view of the two protagonists, and one of them is the Prince and in perfect position to be a spy to help the rebellion dethrone his own father.
Please note, however, that the usual dystopian plot of overthrowing a government is a bit of a cliché, so you need to ensure to have your own interpretation of how this regime is going to be brought down as well as what kind of a regime will take its place.
Considering that at the end of the day, you are writing a romance novel set in a dystopian world, the protagonist and their love interest can always make a choice to leave the society, but note that in such a case, the consequences of said choice should also be very thoroughly explored, especially when it comes to the people they would leave behind, like their friends and loved ones.
9. Use technology wisely
Depending on the world you have created, be careful about how you use (or not use) advanced technology in the novel. For example, while advanced technology can be available exclusively to the regime and the people in power, you need to explain why this is the case, and why this technology exists, how it was developed, and how it has affected the world.
On the other hand, if there is no advanced technology available, you need to explain why it was lost, especially the technology we have available today and take for granted, like smartphones and electricity.
The use of technology needs to be in place or make logical sense for every aspect of the lives of the characters, from communication, to transportation, to the regime’s oppressive rules and the monitoring of the people. For example, if cameras exist in the world, surely they would be placed on the streets (like CCTV) to catch anyone who is out after curfew? If cameras exist but are not used in that manner, then why are they not being used that way?
Ask those questions for all of the technology you will have in your novel and make sure to answer them in the course of the story and the worldbuilding.
10. Ensure the development of the characters
It goes without saying that the protagonist and the love interest need to be well developed. They need to start with a certain set of beliefs and personality traits that will change by the end of the story – as a result of their experiences as well as a result of them falling in love with one another.
They both need to have a certain attitude and opinion for the regime in place as well – they could think it’s oppressive from the beginning, like Katniss does in The Hunger Games, or they can believe in the regime, like Lena does in Delirium.
Their character development being a result of both their experiences during the novel and them falling in love facilitates the intertwining of the romantic plot and the dystopian premise. Otherwise, the romance you have written could have happened in any world (contemporary, historical), and the dystopian premise becomes an irrelevant backdrop.