Writing Dystopian Fiction: 7 Tips

I’ve been told to chill. “Don’t worry. Be happy,” they say. “It’s all good.”

I appreciate the cool, laissez-faire attitude, but I grew up alongside apathetic Gen Xers who were the first Internet trolls, the first gamers, the first Goths, and the first speed-metal heads who blasted Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Now, Gen Xers might be considered dystopian downer dudes as we creep into middle age, but perhaps that sentiment will change when the government starts cutting up EBT cards and kicks us off the free, bitchin’ Santa Monica debt wave we’ve been riding for the last couple of fun-filled decades where “money for nothing, growth for free” pervaded. Like Jeff Spicoli (played by Sean Penn) saying, “I can fix it” when he smashes up Jefferson’s Trans-Am in the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, governments often give us the same line with foreign and economic policy as they wander through the turnstiles of Congress passing the baton to the next set of anointed who continue making syrupy promises about our future. As the middleclass lives out the tale spun by Stephen King’s Thinner, we might find ourselves picking up a dystopian novel to relive our despondent youths. In other words, if you feel angry about the current political milieu, then you just might be a dystopian author.


TheCause RVincent

This guest post is by Roderick Vincent, author of the upcoming Minutemen series about a dystopian America. The first novel, titled The Cause, was just published by Roundfire Books on November 28th 2014. A globetrotter, he has lived in the United States, England, and the Marshall Islands, and now resides in Geneva, Switzerland. His reviews and short stories have been published in Ploughshares, Straylight (University of Wisconsin, Parkside) and Offshoots (a Geneva publication). For more information, visit: www.roderickvincent.com.


In most cases, the dystopian genre explores a fictional future, tapping into present fears about the path society currently travels.   The art is in imagery of the not yet invented but easily imagined. It’s not a surprise the dystopian genre is often lumped together with science fiction (check out Amazon’s browse categories) where technology plays a crucial role. Robotics, nanotechnology, advanced artificial intelligence, cloning, and all other derivatives of advanced, imaginable technology are often used as colors on the canvass painted into a reader’s mind. In George Orwell’s 1984, the all-seeing Big Brother uses the telescreen. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, reproductive factories of the future are used to produce a limited number of citizens preordained to a caste-world void of pain.

1. As you’re writing dystopian fiction, think about how to take current technologies and extrapolate. When you have a vision of what that might look like, ask yourself how it changes the society that does not yet exist.

Other dystopian novels avoid the technological aspect, but drive one forward with a central theme (book burning with Fahrenheit 451, ultraviolence with A Clockwork Orange, and the cycle of revolution to despotism in Animal Farm).

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2. Discover what the central theme is and then explore it with indefatigable passion.

Better dystopian novels have two things in common:

3. The narrative pushes internal events to an extreme. Drive the plot forward so that at the climax, there is a big sense of doom. How are the characters taking us there? In dystopian, a lot of times resolution of the central conflict comes in death (The Road, 1984), but before that a force exists inside the story driving the reader towards the second crucial element:

4. The inherent message within closely associated with a burning fire inside the author’s stomach. In Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, corporate domination led by biotech companies pushing the envelope of manufactured microorganisms (the theme) causes the inevitable collapse of mankind. The message: man is too smart for his own good; unfettered technological advancement without ethical consideration will have disastrous consequences. In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, reality TV is pushed to a violent extreme (the theme). The message: gladiator games appealing to the masses distract from the true nature of the world within the thirteen districts. The Surveillance State in George Orwell’s 1984 is all pervasive (the theme). History is rewritten to suite Big Brother’s needs, and the nation is in a perpetual state of war (any of that sound familiar). The whole book is one big message warning us about the nature of totalitarianism.

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Why do readers latch on to such pessimistic, futuristic novels instead of utopian works? Why are we dystopian downer dudes/dudettes? Perhaps the reason lies in what Nietzsche said, “If you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.”

5. Dystopia seeks to uncover truth in the morass of the present by projecting the problems of today into the future and amplifying them. When the author is successful at doing this, the writing immediately becomes more relevant.

Let’s face it, utopia is a bore. As readers, we sense utopia as innately unachievable. Humans aren’t wired for stories without conflict, and perfect-world scenarios are a bigger lie than the leap of faith it takes to jump us into dystopian futures. Likewise, we’ve lived the horrors of dystopia through two world wars. We’ve seen the gas chambers smoking, the walking skeletons griping barbed wire fences clinging for their lives, the groupthink and fascism, the thought control.

6. When writing in a dystopian genre where the future usually isn’t so bright, one can draw on horrific examples of the past for macabre imagery. Keep in mind, almost all dystopian fiction uses stark, depressing imagery within the prose. What is crucial is to create something unique that will stick in reader’s minds.

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Much more based in the reality we know and understand, dystopia magnetizes a reader’s sense of fatalism when we speak of hopelessly deadlocked politics and looming social and economic problems we all see habitually. The battlefield spreads itself wide and far in dystopian novels, where the imagination can dive into futuristic minefields. Considering the current political landscape and where we seem to be headed, a resurgence of the adult dystopian theme is inevitable (young adult seems to be already saturated and lacks a certain tie to the present in most cases).

7. The key to writing great dystopian fiction is to entrench yourself in current affairs. Does it piss you off? If so, then the fire in the belly will help you create great prose. Can you transfer it to paper? After each passing day, the narrative lie becomes the inkling of truth. Militarization of the police force, Ferguson, Edward Snowden and his NSA revelations, BigDogs, Petman and advanced robotics, crony capitalism and a ballooning kleptocracy in a perpetual state of war are all spicy ingredients for the next dystopian stew. Will you be the one to write it? I don’t know, but you as the author have a chance to say something, to slam home a point, so don’t let the opportunity slip away. How do you see the world differently and how can you express that through your characters without writing a diatribe on your beliefs? Therein lies the art of dystopian fiction.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog (The Writer’s Dig), the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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6 thoughts on “Writing Dystopian Fiction: 7 Tips

  1. wa4otj

    I am rather an optimist, and have no plans to write dystopian fiction any time soon. That said, there is still some good advice to be had in the above. Thanks for the food for thought. I will try and incorporate some of the above into my ‘Chromosome Quest’ sequel. http://www.ChromosomeQuest.com

  2. atwhatcost

    Funny. My dystopian is set in 2011, the whole country isn’t going to hell in a hand-basket, just some, no worse case scenario, just for some, it can’t end in the downfall of the protagonist, and it wasn’t caused by the worst of mankind, just the PCism of the present.

    I’m glad I grew up in the original “apathetic generation.” Our horizon included a multitude of choices. We had everything to draw from, from A Clockwork Orange to Billy Jack to Animal Farm to the Day the Earth Stood Still to Watership Down. My form of dystopia is closest to Watership Down meets Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s also for Middle Graders, so, although there is some violence, nothing my readers haven’t already handled. I didn’t grow up with You Shoulds and You Shouldn’ts. I grew up knowing we aren’t living on a coin with only two sides. It’s more like a multifaceted diamond with many, many sides.

  3. jotokai

    There’s no such thing as true Utopia or Dystopia… it’s all relative.

    A story about a rich man would rarely involve him worrying about finding a place to sleep or pay his electric bill. Similarly, a man living in a utopia will hardly notice the problems of society enough to fill out a ballot. If you want a man to worry about small problems, give him a nice world to live in. If you want him to take on the Great Beast of society, you’d better convince him that he’s living in a dystopia that’s about to eat him alive. If everybody else thinks it’s the best of all possible worlds, then, well… so much the worse for him! (And better for the reader, no?)

    A lot of information on a genre I’m none too familiar with. I’d say that the events of my fantasy piece have a strong dystopian flavor. Excellent information! Thank you.

  4. JanelleFila

    How much of the big picture do you need to know when writing dystopian? For example, did Suzanne Collins know that Pan Am would erupt into civil war when she wrote The Hunger Games? Or was she just focused on the one, smaller story? I have a dystopian idea but I worry it isn’t “grand” enough. It definitely isn’t a trilogy. Is that allowed? Or does there need to be an overarching, larger story that pulls the smaller plot together?

    1. jotokai

      Write the story you’ve got. Worry about genre later, just make the best story you’ve got. Who cares if it’s dystopian if nobody wants to read it? Who cares if you got the genre wrong if everybody buys and reads it over and over?

      Surely some writers start top down, with a societal problem, but I doubt that’s the recommended thing. Find somebody who’s got a problem, and work outward as far as your story needs. We need a character we care about, fighting a problem she cares about. Genre’s a dress size; if it doesn’t fit Jane it will fit somebody else. Just make the dress sturdy and pretty.

  5. dymphna st james

    The last 2 dystopian novels I read were The Road, Cormac McCarthy and the Wool (Omnibus) trilogy by Hugh Howey. I thought they were superb and the books resonated with me long after I read them. Good luck with your books and you seem to have the dystopian philosophy down pat which you articulated very well in the above essay.

    Dymphna

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