It seems that writing a dystopian YA novel, is the golden ticket to a film trilogy in Hollywood. Well, it may be too late to jump on the YA train, as it must be reaching dystopian saturation, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t avenues to explore in other fiction markets.
First the definition. Dystopian fiction considers current day issues and takes them to a nightmarish conclusion. What if reality TV was fought to the death? The Hunger
Games. What if everything we did was monitored by government, even our thoughts? 1984. By asking ‘what if’ we can hold a mirror up to the world. The other nifty thing about dystopias is they are fraught with conflict and challenge for your characters.
However, don’t conflate dystopian with post-apocalyptic. The two don’t always meet. Whilst a dystopia will always examine the misery of our possible future, post-apocalyptic settings don’t have to and could instead focus on the return to nature and an innocent, pre-fall condition for humanity. The brilliant Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, features a travelling orchestra, in America, after the world population has been decimated by a pandemic. Mandel’s novel could be described as post-apocalyptic, but it’s focus on hope, rebuilding society and preserving culture, means it is not dystopian.
Here are the key elements of dystopian fiction:
- End of world event: Dystopian can be, but isn’t always, set in a post-apocalyptic world. Something has happened to change the world, usually, nuclear war, global warming or perhaps an alien invasion or other catastrophe. The Road by Cormac McCarthy uses this setting. We never know what the event was, exactly, but that’s irrelevant because it’s a story of survival, in the bleakest sense.
- Look at today and make it really bad: To find your dystopian setting, start watching the news for inspiration. Images of refugees in Europe, the rise of far right politics, Trump promising to ‘build a wall’, the rise and rise of the Kardashians – these could all be the thin end of the wedge, when it comes to a dystopia. What gives you nightmares about society today? Our obsession with youth and celebrity or the growing financial inequality around the world? Take that fear and magnify it. Batman is a good example of a dystopian world, with Gotham City being ruled by criminals and corruption.
- Low tech: Star Trek is a sci-fi utopia, where gender, race and class bias are almost non-existant, in a high-tech world that leaves nobody hungry or sick. Reverse that and you’ve got a low tech dystopia, such as Mad Max. Water and fuel are scarce and everything is made out of salvage because the world isn’t what it once was. The world’s gone to pot, everyone’s pissed off and it’s either really hot, really wet or really cold and just generally miserable and people dream of TV and bubble bath.
- Going tribal: As a result of ‘the event’ or gross inequality, society has returned to a tribal state. Government is either non-existant or there’s a sub-class of people who live in a state of lawlessness, below the ruling elite. This means tribes have formed, creating small pockets of society, rather than the global society we enjoy today. The 100 (TV show based on the book by Kass Morgan) starts on a space station, but literally descends to earth, where tribes of people rule. As a result, the ‘sky people’ realise that they don’t automatically get to reclaim their planet, but have to grapple with the different cultures, which established in their absence.
- Exploring gender: Dystopian worlds are interesting places to examine gender politics and play with our expectations. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale looks at Christian, right-wing America and takes it to an extreme, where fertile women are subjugated to bare children for the ruling classes, in an era of rising infertility . Interestingly, in YA fiction, gender restrictions seem to often melt away, giving us a female protagonist. Nobody raises doubts about Katniss, as a revolutionary leader, because she’s a girl. And it’s the same for Clark, in The 100 – she is seen as a capable leader and encounters often matriarchal tribes, so the dystopia can empower women.
- Tackling the Regime: The government, media, corporations and military are all-powerful and the oppressed masses must rise up to topple the regime. This is a common trope in the dystopian novel. Orwell’s 1984 is the quintessential examination of the totalitarian state, with The Hunger Games delivering a teen take on the literary tradition. In a post-Snowden world, data collection, drones and politically controlled media, keeping us in a constant state of fear and war is reality. The author’s job is to take that reality and draw the ultimate, dark conclusion. Establish a centre of power, whether it’s the faceless authority of A.I. or a religious leader – this creates the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that pervades true dystopian fiction.