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The world is a scary place right now. People are dealing with the aftermath of a recession, natural disasters, political upheaval, and a climate that’s growing more and more hostile to life. So it’s no wonder that dystopian stories have gained such popularity. These stories may be set in the future, but they focus on the present by leveraging the power of speculative fiction to show how we might deal with the challenges of today. If you’re interested in writing a dystopian novel, here are the steps you’ll need to get started.
- 1 Do your research
- 2 Study atmosphere
- 3 Determine your theme
- 4 Create a simple blueprint for your novel
- 5 Choose your state of society
- 6 Grow your setting
- 7 Develop your characters
- 8 Decide who is in power
- 9 Determine why they are in power and what they want
- 10 Give your dystopia internal logic
- 11 Incorporate subtext
- 12 Contemplate social implications
- 13 Have a linchpin event set the story in action
- 14 Take on meaningful issues
- 15 Show no mercy!
- 16 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Do your research
As with any good writing project, the key to writing a great dystopian novel is research. You’ll need to do thorough research into your subject. The most immediate aspect of this research is to find out as much as you can about the history, geography and social context of the place where your novel is set. This ensures that you use the right terms for your technologies, transport etc. Once your research is complete then you can start to improvise your own version of your world. Remember there are no constraints except those caused by your writing ability, so have fun with it.
The most important feature in the dystopian novel is certainly its atmosphere. In order for the story to feel real and terrifying, you need the atmosphere to feel as if it’s seeping into you, leaving you gasping for breath. A lot of this sensation comes from the exposition. The way in which the memories of the past are written. Look at your favorite books in this genre and find examples where they leave little tidbits about the present day in the past. Remember that the way everything is writing is more important than how everything is written. Even a dull description can be given more flavor if you place it within the right scene, and weave it into the conversation during a tense moment.
No scene illustrates the atmosphere better than the typical scene of running from the law. If you’re looking for inspiration, re-watch the first half of any dystopian movie, or go back to your favorite novel. The reason for this is because many novels have the same concepts, just told in a different way. But feel free to take your liberties. After all these books aren’t called an exact history but art.
Determine your theme
The reality of dystopia isn’t always portrayed as klutzy teens fighting the system, and that’s why dystopian fiction is an engaging genre. The conditions in your dystopian world can reflect anything you want to talk about — war, abortion, or any other topic you feel strongly about. However, these first two steps first and foremost involve having your main theme in mind before attempting to write a dystopian novel. This is important because it allows for cohesion and message building. Ask yourself, what do you want to say, and what kind of story do you want to tell?
If you’re really thinking about your theme to the last detail in this stage, you’ll want to consider your origins. Where were you when you hit upon this premise for a dystopian novel? Was it a specific moment in history that inspired you, or watching an old science-fiction movie that got you thinking? Keep a notebook next to your bed and jot down any dystopian ideas that come to you in the middle of the night.
Create a simple blueprint for your novel
When you visit some of the most enduring settings in dystopian fiction, like Panem or Middle Earth, you may find yourself striking out on your own, reinterpreting the world in a fun or interesting way. But before you put in all that effort crafting a tangible and detailed new world, it’s a good idea to start with something simpler instead, like a simple marketing outline. Think of it as a board game in a box, or perhaps scribbles on a napkin that you can rearrange as needed. This kind of outline lets you try out different paths and themes for your story while keeping things flexible. So when the story starts to take off in an unexpected way, you can adapt as needed. If you want to try something more complex, consider an adaptation outline—think Marvel movies, which rely on streamlined versions of characters and mythology borrowed directly from decades of Marvel comics. You can apply this same process to create an adaptation outline whatever story you want to write. It’s your choice. For pure originality, take a look at our custom world-building services, where we help you come up with your own world and bring it to life for a tidy sum.
Authors who want to write their own worlds by hand can’t go wrong following some tried-and-true steps that build on the foundation of the world. From a list of major races that occupy the areas to a timeline of wars and a map of the continents, you’ll get a firm, internal view of your world from the get-go. And if the end of the world found your story via a stolen barbarian princess or something, at least you’ll know just how likely it is, based on the past performance of history. Your future itself will have trouble living up to it.
Choose your state of society
When structuring your dystopian universe, the main thing to decide is the state of its society — whether your characters are living under a totalitarian regime, conducting warfare in the wasteland, or just dealing with societal conflict as it builds around them. The other details of your world — the political structure, the technological level, the philosophical tenets — will ask questions of and answer questions about your setting. It will also enable you to better place your characters in an environment where they are being challenged by the world at large.
Keep in mind that you’re not limited to these three possibilities — they just offer the most archetypal model, so if you’re unsure, start with one of them. Each of them can be well suited to either a dystopian fantasy or a dystopian science fiction, so choose according to the rest of your genre. You’ll also need to determine how long your story has been in its apocalyptic period. Is this a change that happened in the past, making it a historical fiction in your genre? Did it happen over the course of the story, meaning that the whole trilogy chronicles the tension between the last utopian/utopian society, and the next? Or have the characters lived their lives in this world already, meaning that the novel is how it feels to live in the end times? These questions will inform nearly everything about the rest of the writing process.
Grow your setting
At the most basic level, a dystopian novel is about a world that is not ideal — whether that’s a future world in a distant setting, or a present day planet falling apart from pollution and corruption. It’s very easy to get ahead of yourself as a writer and focus on the themes and circumstances of the novel instead of the setting itself. A lot of writers overlook the list of small questions you should ask yourself as the world grows about the way your primary character would experience it. For instance, if your premise is that everyone has to shave their heads, a reader needs to get a better sense of how that daily dialogue would sound. If your story takes place in a place where smoking is strictly forbidden, what do the people involved sound like when they’re looking for a secret to sneak a smoke? The dialogue in dystopian worlds is just as important as the theme of the world.
Once the primary character is created, you can start to move into the character arc. The arc is just one of the tools for your reader’s connection. Make it personal and engaging. The character wants things. What does the character want out of this dystopian world? If you, as a writer, can make what your character wants sympathetic, it will lead to some great lessons including ambition and empathy. It also makes the book more than just a dark and petty story. Turn up the heat. Try to make your worlds become nightmares. You want to be sure you have a theme of survival under pressure. This is important to bring your stories up another level. Remember, this is writing something with high stakes. You will need tension. Having tyrants and a strong feeling of panic will bring everything together. Always keep the heart. Dystopian worlds are all fighting for the same reason. A good writer always gives the reader something to fight for. If you get your audience emotionally invested in your story from the first page, you are doing the right thing.
Develop your characters
One of the biggest contributors to the success of a dystopian story is being in the perspective of protagonists. This means that rather than telling a story from the top of the dystopian hierarchy, such as the point of view of a government puppet master, you get to see things from the bottom. You see firsthand what those in power are doing and why, and start to understand what they’re up against. Surviving the Hunger Games would thrill many of us, but if your protagonist is the kid fighting just to stay alive, you’re giving them more to overcome.
William Patterson pays a lot of attention to the roots of his characters in his dystopian series The Rising. It’s set after hundreds of nano swarms have damaged the surface of the planet, and there’s been a purge of anyone infected, called the Hives. People who manage to survive in the wild, called Rats, are exploited for labor. As a result, all of his characters — both good and bad — are a composite of their own experiences and, of course, these changes to the world around them. They know when the sun has gone wrong because they have memories from another time, just like they black marketeers have known for hundreds of years that the government will never punish them no matter how much contraband they accumulate. Write down the history of your world before writing the story, so that you can map out how your characters see and react to these changes and challenges.
Decide who is in power
Dystopian novels all take place in devastated worlds. They are defined by the struggles of humanity against such abuses as unlawful imprisonment, excessive censorship, and heavy oppression. While there are several different types of dystopian novels, one of the most popular frameworks is categorization by who is in power. On one end, you have dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale where civilization is under control of one group that is oppressing everyone else, similarly to a powerful governor or president. Alternatively, some dystopian novels see every character under oppressive rule, like The Hunger Games trilogy.
It’s important to consider who is in power in this carefully if you’re crafting a dystopian world. This will help you determine what issues to examine and how to properly write your novel. You also need to consider appropriate setting and conflicts so that your plot is intriguing and not just a hopeless loop of back to the beginning. One of the most popular structures in dystopian novels is dictatorial rule—this gives you the chance to explore the conflicts of having to follow a rule you disagree with. Read 1984 by George Orwell for a superb example of an oppressive world and how one brave man can overcome it. If you prefer a less draconian scenario, you can write a dystopian novel about an oppressive world where there is no leader dictating it. The Hunger Games is an excellent example of this, which has a governing body that will kill anyone that attempts to resist the regime. In novels of this nature, the results are often not as pleasant as they seem.
Determine why they are in power and what they want
One of the biggest differences between U.S. dystopian fiction and its predecessors from England and France is the degree of social consensus that dystopian societies preside over their citizens. While England and France introduced repressive regimes the anarchist response to oppression by the state, the pre-modern U.S. could not have seen the modern dystopia that was imagined by twentieth and twenty-first century authors in the way they saw theirs, but which was not quite the totalitarian reality familiar to us from across the pond.
The American dystopia is characterized by an ideological promise that is backed or against the principles of an historical regime, and cannot be accomplished without a variety of social movements and public actions of what brings us together that happen in stages entailing the conversion of the private, individual, or social problems into a political force to forge a new social order. This progressive utopia of action has been the utopian framework of the American constitutional project since its revolutionary interpretation.
Give your dystopia internal logic
Dystopian novels operate under the contradiction that enough people are unhappy to revolt, but not enough people are unhappy to succeed. Rather than imagining a single bad leader, the dystopia needs to convincingly portray a problematic society, with legitimate and enraging flaws. Oftentimes this takes the form of showing how people’s well-meant rules and policies have unintended, negative implications. For this reason, it’s crucial to world build. Give your how to make counterfeit money society’s ills a concrete cause, and show how they build on one another — think of how the Hunger Games exposed media violence alongside anti-imperialist weaponry.
Similarly, the most compelling dystopian literature is dark without being nihilistic, showing that even if the times are terrible, people can still be kind, productive, good — that these traits are still worth something for the survivors. Strong protagonists tend to include some degree of personal rebellion against the system they live in, even if they manage to find plenty of other like-minded souls. Generally, this idea personifies the larger conflict of the entire narrative, which serves the purpose of showing readers where the author stands, who is the ‘good guy,’ and who the bad guys are.
It’s not enough for your audience to understand the surface plot of the story. In order to get them immersed in it emotionally, they need to feel something deeper. That something deeper is subtext, and it can be history, a character’s emotions, the conflict between the character and the world, or even a metaphor. Subtext gives the audience one more reason to feel invested in the story and, just as importantly, it reiterates the idea that the world is imperfect. It’s not even just about limiting yourself to a single theme like equality or human rights — the best books have many layers to them.
Subtext is born from what would otherwise be considered straightforward elements of your story. You don’t need to put a card up on the board for your audience to see — instead, you can rely on shade. A dystopia requires an oppressed population and a minority culture, so you can bring these elements to the front by revealing racism and other ugly aspects that most contemporary audiences would like to forget. Uncovering ugly truths about humanity can be discomforting, but using them to construct a deeper story can allow you to give your audience a sense of closure, much in the same way that sacrifice does in superhero movies.
When you decide to write a dystopian novel, consider how it might affect your readers. Are there any lessons that you’re hoping to teach? Are there any ideas that you think need further exploration? Do you want to throw in some smaller discussions or side issues? Think about why this topic is appealing, ask yourself any hard questions that you might have, such as “what if society was structured differently?”, and try to logically work out the answers in your head, if you can’t work them out log large, write several smaller message-oriented chapters. Remember, you’re here to analyze alternative societal structures and present new ways of thinking about previous ideas.
Once you’re able to create a new system of societal order that’s realistic and scientifically viable, you might consider taking a few more steps to actually explain it. Decide what your main goal is — is your plan to release people from the malaise of modern society by creating a new cradle-to-grave arrangement or is your main goal an opportunity to vent about something about the real world that annoys you? Think about if the benefits outweigh the costs, if they do you’re pretty much finished, if they don’t, there’s more work to be done. Just remember to try and keep your indulgence and your sense of logical balance in check. Otherwise, you’ll lose readers…and rightfully so.
Have a linchpin event set the story in action
Not every plot that could conceivably take place in a dystopian setting is gripping or relevant. The road to dystopia is paved with technological advances that only seem like threats, and media that presents social problems that seem ripe for exploitation. To write a dystopian novel, you need to find a way to frame all this technology and media in a threatening light. What is the prime moment in which your future society tips from successful to two steps from apocalyptic? For most dystopia, it’s a war, pandemic, or environmental disaster of some kind. The way the story begins and ends forms its own literary device — often referred to as an “ironic frame” — this linchpin event either creates a new world or is used to explore an old one that’s somehow gotten worse. Ray Bradbury’s short story There Will Come Soft Rains is an example of this structure in its simplest form — it’s no coincidence that the story begins on January 1st, 1952 and ends on New Year’s Eve, December 31st, 2026.
In your story, the linchpin event doesn’t have to be a single event, but the widening effects of it may be. Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game could serve as a tentative model for this structure, as Ender’s planet undergoes devastating nuclear warfare, only to be followed by a simultaneous, fearful guerrilla insurgency of the survivors. Only when the initial invasion and subsequent conflict become central to the main conflicts of the story do we approach a viable plot for a how to write a dystopian novel. But whichever structure you decide to use for your novel, you’ll want to outline the time between this first event and the moment at which the story begins as a single, bullet-studded sentence.
Take on meaningful issues
What are the essential elements of a dystopian novel? If you like to write fiction that makes a difference, the kind of book that gives your readers pause and—best of all—a starting place for their own discussions, you’ll need to fully embrace the role of social commentary in your story. This means taking on meaningful issues, like feminism, gender and sexual equality, xenophobia, colonialism, social pressure, ethnocentrism, the role of ideology in society, the importance of words, being socially visible without losing privacy, political self-interest, regulatory capture, political violence, and the importance of education. Once your ideas are fully-formed, you’ll need to develop a broader world — this is where all that research comes into play, including the geographical and cultural questions about where and when your protagonist must live to best address your issues.
Artists have to work with what they have, and whether you’re a natural writer or someone who needs more practice, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel on this one. Start by reading dystopian novels with issues you hope to address in yours—most likely many of your favorite books have more than a touch of this issue. By delighting in dystopian fiction that already takes your side, you can see what the alternatives are — but you’ll also become more open to the other, less good books around, to know what you want to avoid. And while reading isn’t just about looking for ideas, don’t be surprised if you find yourself inspired enough to get started with a start to your story!
Show no mercy!
Your dystopian novel happens in a world just slightly different than ours, and that’s how you’re going to grip the reader from the beginning. By definition, though, dystopias are repressive and violent, so by implication, anything that reads like a happy scene is going to be bearish. In the introduction, you may spend a paragraph or two introducing how things worked before the problems, but once you get to page two, there’s no looking back. Unless someone’s blood isn’t spraying all over the wall, keep the pages flying. Sure, it’s gruesome — but it’s what you do after that’s the most tricky.
The conversations you have with other people are the easiest starting place for sparking ideas. Get talking and listen to what the people around you say. You’ll likely be surprised by the disconnect between what people seem to say and what they actually mean. Explore the gap between intention and result, and you’ll likely find an idea for your book. Then it’s simply a matter of putting thoughts into action, researching and writing as you go. And before you know it you’ll have your own take on the thought-provoking trend of dystopian stories. Good luck!
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