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Writing Dystopian Fiction: 7 Tips

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.

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 middle class 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.

(10 Best Dystopian Novels.)

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.

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7 Tips on Writing Dystopian Fiction

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).

(10 Equal Quotes From Animal Farm, by George Orwell.)

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:

(15 Lasting Quotes From The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.)

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 suit 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.

(12 Thought-Provoking Quotes From 1984, by George Orwell.)

Why do readers latch on to such pessimistic, futuristic novels instead of utopian works? Why are we dystopian downer dudes and 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 gripping 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 readers' minds.

(Here's a great article on how to structure a killer novel ending.)

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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