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Society in Decline: Your Guide To Writing a Dystopian Story


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Dystopian fiction, considered to be a subgenre of science fiction, covers all novels, novellas, and films that are set in a sometimes-futuristic, always-unjust world in which the average man or woman has little say over their respective lives.

Common threats to humanity that occur in dystopian fiction are loss of freedoms, food and resource insecurity, general suffering amidst injustice, etc. If you base your protagonist in a setting in which they continually suffer at the hands of an oppressor and few citizens live securely, you're writing a dystopian novel.

Ask "what if?" to prompt a sharp storyline

If you're set on writing a dystopian novel but can't settle on the type, then ask your "what if?" Think of our current world and ask what it would look like if we lost certain rights, freedoms, advantages, etc.

For example, what if religious zealots accrued enough power to take over and rule your country? What if half the sea life was wiped out across the world's oceans? What if time travel was mastered by the wrong people who chose to go back through history and alter the planet's most life-changing events?

Know the law of the land

Now that you have an idea of what type of dystopian story you want to write, it's time to establish its laws, or lack thereof in some cases.

No matter what type of dystopian world you choose, rules will inevitably play a major role. While it might be tempting to jump in and begin writing, it's best to create the appropriate rules for your story and setting so you can refer to them as you write and edit.

Novels set in dystopian worlds tend to revolve around a detailed plot and intricate setting, so with a set system of laws and guidelines on hand, you can avoid the literary faux pas of inconsistency and ensure continuity for your reader.

If you're having trouble coming up with a defined set of rules, you can try to answer the following questions:

  • Who, if any, is the governing body within your world? E.g., is it the government, police, military, civilians who have attained power post-coup, etc.
  • How are the rules and regulations enforced by this body?
  • How are transgressors punished when they break the rules?

Know your world's history

Whether you choose to reveal the cause of your world's dystopian elements or keep it to yourself, it's a good idea to know just how your characters' current way of life came to be. In The Hunger Games it's revealed relatively early that the games were established as a penalty for a past rebellion aimed at the Capitol.

However, The Walked Dead series creator refuses to explain the cause of the outbreak that led to the zombie apocalypse. Spell it out for the reader or keep the answers in the background to maintain a little mystery surrounding the inception of a world gone wrong.

Compare then vs. now through your characters

Whether you have an ensemble protagonist cast or a solo main character, it's informative and entertaining for the reader to be provided a comparison of the old, yet superior way of life to the newer, no-so-improved status quo.

A character born into a dystopian world will view the constraints of their time far differently to someone who has tasted freedom and lost it. This latter type character, even in taking a minimal role in your story, might light the spark that sets a younger, more determined team along the path to rebellion.

Establish strong motivations

A character's — or overall society's — actions don't occur in a vacuum: each need strong motivations to either, for example, undertake a coup or survive a totalitarian regime. The innocent party in a dystopian story may be motivated to regain control by enduring or witnessing the suffering of the downtrodden, whereas the guilty party is likely motivated by their warped ideology, extreme greed, and desire for power.

A strong and established motivation for a character's actions is a necessity across every literary genre, but writers can at times get caught up in the action of a dystopia and forget to share the reason behind those actions.

If you're unsure of what exactly is motivating your protagonist to act, ask yourself:

  • How does my character benefit or lose from continued compliance within their status quo?
  • Will life improve for my protagonist — and society overall — if they rebel against their oppressors?

Setting your story

Considering the suffering endured by those living in a dystopian world, it's no surprise that the typical dystopian setting is bleak and desolate. In some cases, the land is ravaged following a natural disaster, in which resources are scarce and venturing outside can be fatal. Here, pay attention to detail and retain some aspects of the old world order, like buildings or landmarks.

In other cases, the physical nature of a setting is undisturbed, but the overall nature is foreboding and hopeless due to a lack of autonomy. Certain settings are typically found in dystopian stories, and while clichés should be avoided at all costs, remember that adding your own spin and exhibiting a flair of imagination will add nuance to your setting.

Popular types of dystopian settings

While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing, if you plan to write a dystopian story, you should be more than familiar with the general types of dystopian fiction. Think of your favorite dystopian stories and see if they fit into one of the following categories.

Disease-ridden world

Person wearing a gas mask
Rampant disease can rip a society apart, causing worldwide upheaval. Photo by Dmitriy.

With this type, you have two main choices: Set your novel in the midst of a major disaster that spreads a deadly virus, or place your characters in a somewhat inhospitable world post-virus, still living with the consequences. Perhaps only the affluent have access to medical care and the powerful now call the shots, and your protagonist is neither, simply trying to survive an in increasingly unjust world.

Permanent military control

Police in riot gear
An oppressive government brutalizing its citizenry is another common dystopian setting. Photo by Markus Spiske.

To survive a military or police controlled world, your character must obey what rules have been implemented, at least for the time being. But before you place any military in control, you first must establish exactly why they're in power. Was your country's government intent on avoiding international conflict, bowing to the whims of other country's so often that its military decided to take control? Or was the military industrial complex so profitable that a military was permanently installed to keep funds rolling in?

Invasion of aliens

Aliens intent on controlling humanity will use their advanced technology to subjugate the population. Photo by boscorelli.

Remember that it's best to place your characters under alien control years after their conquest. If you choose to start your novel with the invasion and feature your characters as they maneuver this new way of life, you're crossing the border of dystopian fiction and entering sci-fi territory. Perhaps your protagonist is living somewhere still unknown to the aliens, plotting with their cohorts to regain control? Or maybe the aliens in question are acting with our best interests in mind, so your protagonist attempts to reason with the alien overlords rather than launch an attack.

Anarchy in a power vacuum

Abject violence overtakes the population as politics gives way to bloodshed. Photo by Анри Гор.

This type is less about control and more about the daily struggle of man to exist in a chaotic and dangerous world. Nobody is benefiting from oppression, but suffering is prevalent. Perhaps your characters' government was disbanded or removed in favor of citizens running the show and failing to provide the necessary resources. Or a civil war waged in the past has left a government destroyed, with rival factions infighting to take over, and your protagonist fills a leadership role to inspire like-minded people.

Your dystopian novel doesn't have to fit neatly into one category: feel free to combine the different types to give yourself the literary space you need to tell your story. For example, following a global pandemic, a previously reviled political group or party is the only one to provide the resources people need to rebuild their lives. Stirred by this apparent benevolence, the people appoint them as their governing body, only to be controlled after those in power install a police state to dominate the proletariat.

Be vigilant when writing

Your options for creating a dystopian world in which your protagonist can merely survive or eventually thrive are limitless. With the space to flex your literary prowess, you can establish any kind of world that falls in line with the above guidelines that form a dystopian story.

But with this space for creativity comes risk: writers can find this space to be imaginative somewhat too freeing, and this is where plot holes, inconsistencies, and failures of clarity tend to occur. As mentioned, have an exhaustive list of rules and details on hand as you write, and, unless you're intentionally aiming for mystery surrounding the cause of the status quo, ensure that you've established for the reader the reason your dystopia currently exists.

Header photo by Dmitriy.

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