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3 Rules for Writing a Better Dystopian Novel

Science fiction author Marissa Levien discusses what makes a dystopian novel great—and what mistakes writers should avoid making in their work.

Dystopian stories are fun to write, fun to read, a chance for us to consider our own society’s shortcomings, and get a dose of good old-fashioned catharsis when the political news gets to be too much.

(Marissa Levien: On Pinning Down Your Novel's Middle)

But how do you write a good one? It’s a popular genre with some incredible highs and some very derivative lows. As an author about to publish a book featuring a seriously messed-up system of governance, I can tell you what worked for me.

3 Rules for Writing a Better Dystopian Novel

1. Prioritize Story, Not Concept

Confession: In my dystopian novel, I didn’t start out writing a dystopia at all. I was fascinated by a character learning, ahead of the rest of the world, about an oncoming catastrophe. That lead me to ask: Who is first to know that a major catastrophe is coming? Answer: those at the very top and very bottom of the societal chain. So, I decided to write a character who was a servant. From there, I concentrated more on what my character was after, and as I did, the world grew on its own. The nature of the catastrophe demanded a certain kind of setting. The character and story demanded a flawed class system. I didn’t start the writing process thinking, “I want to tell a story about the evils of class systems.” I thought, “I want to tell a story about this character and how she fights to get what she wants.”

In some ways, you’re already going to have some world-building on the brain when you start out. You’ll probably have a pitch of some sort, like “What if, in the future, a religious totalitarian regime is treating women like livestock?” or—gasp—“What if we lived in a world where disco music was outlawed?” These are all great starting points, but you have to follow it up with a story.

When people describe their favorite dystopian story, they often describe it using the setting. For “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler, someone is likely to say, “It’s about a world where no one can speak or understand each other,” and in doing that, they’re mostly describing the circumstances rather than the story. The story is: a lonely, isolated woman leaves her house and risks the dangers of the outside world to search for human connection. It’s a dystopia in setting, but it’s an odyssey in story. And you need that story, that want, that connection to rope people in if you want them to keep reading.

The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien

The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien

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2. Have your Heroes Care About Something Besides the Broken System

Speaking of wants. Your character needs them, and it’s going to help readers empathize if your character has needs that are personal as well as political.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred would undoubtedly like to see the extremist regime of Gilead overthrown, but if that were the sum of her as a character, the book would feel shallower than it does. Atwood gives her more personal wants as well: Offred has been separated from her husband and daughter and spends a good amount of the novel wanting to know what has happened to them. She even has minor, seemingly petty wants, like the way she misses having hand lotion, and tries to use butter as a substitute.

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police goes further—the citizens of Ogawa’s unnamed island have completely accepted their amnesia-inducing oppressors. The (also unnamed) narrator doesn’t question her circumstances, but she does worry about the welfare of her friend, who she hides under her floor once he becomes a fugitive. The system isn’t her main concern; her personal relationships are.

Love bests politics every time.

3 Rules for Writing a Better Dystopian Novel

3. Draw from the Real World

Sometimes I read a dystopian story and the logic of what’s happening completely eludes me. Why are these arbitrary rules in place? What is the significance surrounding this ceremony (there’s always a ceremony), and why are we following these traditions? How does this system hang together, and how can it possibly govern effectively? Totalitarian regimes may be inhumane, but they’re usually ruthlessly efficient. In some of the stories I read, I can’t fathom how these villainous governments function at all, let alone how they hold power long enough to subjugate their citizenry.

Luckily, there’s a way for us writers to come up with truly terrifying societies and still make sure they have a foothold in logic: the world around us. There are countless examples of flawed societies, current and historical, large-scale and small, for us to study. Of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood said, “I didn't put in anything that we haven't already done, we're not already doing, we're seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress... So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil." You really want a ceremony in your story? Look to Shirley Jackson for guidance. In “The Lottery,” the annual rite that she depicts is pulled directly from the tradition of ancient harvest sacrifices, just updated to an uncanny modern setting.

As a writer, you’re still allowed to create strange societies and terrifying oppressors—but if you do your research and really think those ideas through to their logical ends, your ideas will hang together with more than force of will.

After that, you’ll be left with a flawed complex society deteriorating just the way it should, all the better to brew conflict for your characters, who the readers will root for, flaws and all. The book practically writes itself!

Well, that’s not true—it will still take dedication, patience, and time. But when at last you fight through to that final draft, you’ll have a story that will sweep readers away—one you can be proud of. 

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