How To Write Dystopia Well

dystopia done well

Dystopia – the one thing we are always nearing and we always write darker than they wrote it before. And we always write it darker than the things really are. Dystopia is an imaginary place whee everything is unpleasant or bad. It is almost exclusively a mirror-reality that serves as a commentary of the contemporary.

I love reading dystopia. 1984 is one of my all-time favorites in the genre. That is, if we can call it a genre. It is rather a style, but stronger than the style. It is like steampunk in a sense that it can fit a range of genres. The word I am looking for is an aesthetic.

Many dystopian novels and stories, TV shows or movies, have emerged during the years and a lot of them are very memorable. Think of Black Mirror. It is nothing short of a dystopia done excellently. It is dark, it is unsatisfying, it predicts the worst case scenarios and it mirrors our reality if we stop paying attention to the world.

So, moved by so much darkness going on in literature and television, I present to you a guide to writing dystopia well. In this article we will go though some of the questions you need to answer to be able to complete the picture of your dark society-gone-wrong.

What Cause Dystopia In Your Society

Was it a war to end all wars? Or was it PR? Was it a demagogue hungry for power? Could have it been one Joker-like person who caused a complete anarchy by randomly doing terrible stuff?

This is the first thing you really need to answer before even contemplating what your protagonist should be like. This is what defines the whole society. If it is the aftermath of war you will have a nationalist society. But, if it was caused by an alien invasion you will have one society that puts nationalism in the background while debating their new alien overlords.

Think carefully about the cause of the rotten state. You have the freedom to reuse the already tried causes (war) or make up your own. Post-apocalyptic societies are almost always dystopic societies.

How Do The Ordinary People Behave?

If you are imagining a society where something went terribly wrong, what do the people who live in it thing about it. Remember Hugh Howey‘s Wool? It works so well as a dystopia because we get a glimpse, at least from a subjective perspective, into what people think about the Silo.

You have Winston Smith who sees people and decides he will not be like that even if he has to die for it. He will risk everything just to have that journal of his.

What do the people think about the state of the matter? Are they on-board with it or are they suppressed but silent out of fear? Or, will there be an uprising soon? These are the things that will give extra flavor to your novel if you write them in well. A guide on implanting moods and symbols in your story can be found here and applied to novels as well.

What Happened To The Privileged People?

So, aliens came to Earth and selected everyone who earns over 200k a year for experiments in another galaxy. Okay, question answered.

But, let’s think twice. Knowing how the privileged people behave in this situation will give gravitas to your novel and your society. Describe their lives and what they think and do about the situation everyone is in.

Will the privileged people be sent to labor camps because there was an uprising or will they benefit? Think of The Handmaid’s Tale. We want insight into their lives as well.

How Long Has The State Been That Way?

Did a nuclear head blow up yesterday putting the world into chaos or did something happen twenty years ago and we are seeing consequences?

Answer this one clearly as it will influence your dialogue (mainly the bits where people talk about the state of the matter). And, it will influence the overall mood of your characters, main and supporting.

Test different ideas through plotting and see what works well in your context.

Will It Change At The End?

You need to know how you novel is going to end. Of course, you will plot it out before you write it (or not, if that’s how you work). But, from the very start you need to know where your society is headed.

Knowing the ending will impact the gravity of the situation and you will have options to foreshadow the ending through your subplots.

The ending will greatly influence the way we see your protagonist. Will they be a success or will they sacrifice or will they be shot for defying the system? Know this and you will easily create a character that fits the story and the ending.

Also, think about how the things change in the end if they change. If you have a character who realizes everyone is living in a state of dream where they are submissive and dictated, one person will not be enough to change the outcome. You will need an organized effort to overthrow the system and change how people think.



Which Side Is Your Main Character On?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a book following a dictator’s thought process. The main character of the book is a dictator.

So, who is your main character? Think about this because it can greatly shape your narrative. If you are following the all-powerful leader who only wants to stay in power it’s a completely different book from the one following a reluctant hero or a brave investigative journalist in the same setting.

What Is The Government Like? And The Press?

This is one of the most important things you need to explain in detail before plotting your novel and before writing it. Also, explain it in the novel either through dialogue, or history, or simply events.

How much freedom do the people have? Is it a totalitarian government? Could it be a religious oligarchy? Or even an anarchy? Is there a perception of democracy?

Any could produce an exciting novel. Think about how much freedom the people have and how much freedom they think they have. Also, give an insight in what the government is doing to change or keep the status of your society.

Possibilities are endless. Now you only need thrilling characters who develop in that society and a plot set there. I hope this was helpful. Be sure to let us know if you decide to write a dystopia so we can talk more about it.

Keep writing!

Author: Mladen Reljanović

Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.

5 thoughts on “How To Write Dystopia Well

  1. Very interesting post.
    You covered quite a lot here and certainly give a lot to consider when writing out a Dystopian novel, I think I will be referring back to this page when I have one of my “uhhh…?!” moments.
    Thank you!

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