Since we’re in the middle of a pandemic, now might not be a bad time to consider writing dystopian fiction. But what are the key ingredients for a strong dystopian story? Let’s break down the basic components and set you up for success.
What is Dystopian?
Before you begin, think about the origins of the word dystopian. The Latin prefix dys, which means bad, has been added to the word utopia, which means a perfect society. Therefore, in order for your story to be dystopian, it must be in direct contrast to a perfect society. As you determine the premise of your story, consider what the world was like before it became dystopian.
Maybe your previously known world is the one we’re living in now, or maybe it’s one on a distant planet. As a storyteller, you will be taking this known world and unraveling it, creating an unpleasant environment for its occupants.
Creating a Catalyst
As you begin to craft your story, create ‘before’ and ‘after’ world scenarios for yourself. Then decide, what caused the change? Was it a right-wing government coup, a disease, zombie hordes, or alien invasion? Your readers may never know the why of your known world’s descent into chaos, but you will. Layout all these details somewhere, whether that be in your own mind, a notebook, or a file on your desktop. Once you do this, you are in complete control of leaking out this information over the course of your story.
Choosing the Jump Point
To me, this is the fun part. When will you start your story? Will you begin at the beginning or will you start fifty years after the change? I think it can be interesting to start mid-conversation, then unveil crucial historical details slowly, as the story progresses.
For example, in The Hunger Games, the reader enters the timeline at the 74th Hunger Games reaping. That means the initial breakdown of a non-dystopian society happened at least seventy-six years prior to chapter one of the first book.
The Big Baddie
If dystopian means bad society, who or what puts the bad in your story? Is it an oppressive government agency? Environmental threat? Lack of resources turning neighbor against neighbor? Or is it a combination of all these influences?
Once you tackle this element, consider the societal members and their compliance or noncompliance towards this new source of control over the status quo. How will individuals respond versus the herd mentality? When will kindness overcome survival instincts? For example, what lengths will a person go to survive or secure survival for their own family? When faced with a lack of resources, will someone furlough human decency towards fellow humans for a loaf of bread or what about a package of toilet paper?
Tackling Big Questions
It’s one thing to write about a world where humans are struggling to survive under alien occupation. It’s another to write about the decisions we make when faced with adversity. As a writer, you have the power to ask your readers to think. That’s a big responsibility.
Sure you could write about how lizard people took over the world and we rose up against them. Or, you could write about a bigger question, when faced with enslavement, how does a human being not lose their humanity or become consumed with hatred towards those that suppress them?
Take a look at The Handmaid’s Tale. It was written in 1985. Women are still fighting for their own reproductive rights. And furthermore, here’s something to think about, Margaret Atwood would not allow herself to include any atrocities that hadn’t already happened in our world’s history. I leave you with this chilling quote:
“There’s a precedent in real life for everything in the book,” Atwood told People recently. “I decided not to put anything in that somebody somewhere hadn’t already done. But you write these books so they won’t come true.”