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What Is a Dystopian Story?
Dystopian literature is a form of speculative fiction that began as a response to utopian literature. A dystopia is an imagined community or society that is dehumanizing and frightening, and dystopian stories often tell tales of bravery and defiance in the face of totalitarian governments or survival in a post-apocalyptic landscape. A dystopian society is the opposite of a utopian society.
5 Elements of a Good Dystopian Story
Dystopian novels often explore themes like anarchism, oppression, and mass poverty. Margaret Atwood, author of Oryx and Crake and one of literature’s most celebrated dystopian fiction writers, thinks about it like this: “If you’re interested in writing speculative fiction, one way to generate a plot is to take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if humans are short-term thinkers, fiction can anticipate and extrapolate into multiple versions of the future.” Here are other elements of a good dystopian story:
- Reflection of present-day anxieties: Dystopian fiction can be a way to educate and warn humanity about the dangers of our own society’s social and political structures. Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a futuristic United States, known as Gilead. It cautions against oppressive patriarchy.
- A strong point of view: Works in the dystopian genre may convey an author’s beliefs. For example, H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine reflected Wells’ socialist views. The story follows a scientist in Victorian England who builds a time machine and witnesses the pitfalls of a capitalist society.
- Imaginative worldbuilding: Dystopian stories require a greater suspension of disbelief and can be very imaginative. For example, George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm is about a group of pigs who stage a rebellion against their human farmer. The farm animals’ rise to power is based on the Russian Revolution. Learn more about worldbuilding in our complete guide here.
- Satire: Dystopian novels can also be satirical critiques. For example, the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a social satire of behaviorism. It takes place in a dystopian future with a youth subculture of extreme violence. A totalitarian government claims to protect society by prescribing good behavior and abolishing violent impulses.
- Themes of control and loss of individualism: Dystopian works often cover similar thematic ground. Typical dystopian themes include governmental or technological control and conformity at the expense of individualism. In George Orwell’s 1984, the world is under complete government control. The fictional dictator Big Brother enforces omnipresent surveillance over the human beings living in the three inter-continental superstates remaining after a world war.
How to Write a Dystopian Story
Here are some tips to help you write the best possible dystopian story:
- Settle on a central theme. The best dystopian writing explores a central theme while building out a dystopian world. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley uses its dystopian setting to examine the dangers of rapid technological advancement. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 explores the consequences of censorship and ignorance. In The Giver by Lois Lowry, the author reflects on the loss of individualism through the eyes of Jonas, the main character. When brainstorming dystopian story ideas, you should consider which theme you’d like to examine and make sure that it runs throughout your novel or short story.
- Consider the world around you. Dystopian works are effective and thought-provoking because they reflect elements of our own society. In Suzanne Collins’ young adult series The Hunger Games, the games themselves serve as a mirror of our own society’s thirst for violent spectacle. The Road by Cormac McCarthy depicts the earth as a post-apocalyptic wasteland, reflecting present-day anxieties about climate change’s effect on the human race and the world that we inhabit. As you write dystopian fiction, think about aspects of society that you find troublesome or that you fear may become troublesome in the near future. What makes you angry about the world today? What makes you scared? Now ask yourself: How could those elements be extrapolated or exaggerated to fit into a dystopian society?
- Build a complex and detailed world. One of the most exciting aspects of science fiction and dystopian books is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a strange and unfamiliar world. This world should be as meticulously rendered and detailed as possible. It’s not enough to simply say that your story takes place post-apocalypse. What caused the apocalypse? A civil war? Nuclear disaster? Climate catastrophe? If your story is about a tyrannical government, ask yourself: Who wields the power in this government? What do they do to oppress the lower class? Imbuing your dystopian sci-fi world with specific details will make your writing more vivid and your conflict more precise.
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