Along with splatterpunk horror fiction, detective fiction and 1950s-1980s science fiction, dystopic fiction was a genre that I absolutely loved when I was a teenager. I still find dystopic fiction pretty interesting, especially when it’s combined with sci-fi (eg: in cyberpunk stories) but I don’t seem to be quite as fascinated by it as I was when I was younger.
In case anyone is unfamiliar with this genre, it basically covers any type of story which is set in a dystopia (the opposite of a utopia/paradise). Whilst some writers use dystopic settings purely as a way to make a story interesting, other writers use them in order to make a political point or to explore current social issues.
This article will mostly focus on political types of dystopic fiction although the points in this article can obviously also be applied to non-political dystopic fiction too. If you live in a country where there is serious political and/or religious censorship of literature, then it goes without saying that you should be extremely careful if you plan to write any dystopic fiction.
Anyway, without any further ado, here are five tips which might help you if you’re planning to write some dystopic fiction:
1) Story first, politics second: Yes, you might want to write a world-shaking dystopic story about what would happen if a particular political ideology is allowed to gain too much influence or if a particular issue isn’t addressed. But, when you’re planning your dystopic story, politics shouldn’t be the first thing that you should be thinking about because, in practical terms, it isn’t the most important part of your story.
This might sound slightly counter-intuitive, but the main reason that people read a story is because they want to be entertained, enthralled and amazed by a good story. If they want to learn about politics, then they’ll probably read non-fiction instead. Stories which are nothing more than thinly-disguised political tracts tend to get very boring very quickly.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t include politics in your dystopic story, but it means that your story should have a compelling and interesting plot in it’s own right. In other words – after you’ve come up with an interesting plot, then you can work out how to add politics to it.
A good way to test this is to think about whether your story would still be readable and interesting if it didn’t contain any politics of any kind. If it’s still interesting without politics, then that means that you can go ahead and add politics to your story.
2) Ubiquity: Like how ‘war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength’ (in George Orwell’s excellent “Nineteen Eighty-Four”), when it comes to dystopic fiction, less is more.
In other words, once you’ve set up the premise of your story, it is usually a lot more effective to show the effects of your dystopic settings in more subtle ways and leave some details to your readers’ imaginations. For example, it can be a lot more dramatic/dystopic/disturbing to show that a friend of the main character has just mysteriously “disappeared” than it could be to actually show him or her being arrested by the regime’s secret police force.
Likewise, signs that your characters are living in a dystopia should be fairly subtle, but fairly ubiquitous (eg: everywhere). This will lend your story a certain level of realism, since dystopic regimes in the real world often try to subliminally reinforce their power over their people by placing subtle signs of their presence pretty much everywhere (eg: propaganda posters & films, political symbols, soldiers & police officers on every street, portraits of political leaders in public places, surveillance cameras everywhere etc…)
Plus, it can be a lot more effective to show the effects of your dystopic setting on a more “ordinary” and “everyday” level than it can be to show them on a larger, political level. For example, showing someone lowering their voice and looking over their shoulder before telling the main character a political joke about a dictator can be a lot more effective and dramatic than showing a speech by the dictator in question.
3) Don’t copy Orwell: Yes, if you are even slightly interested in dystopic fiction, then you should read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, since it is one of the most well-known and influential works in this genre.
However, you shouldn’t copy it to any significant extent – even if you substitute your own politics for Orwell’s.
This might sound counter-intuitive, since “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is one of the most influential dystopic novels ever written. But, because it is so influential, most of the things in it have turned into cliches. I mean, in the UK, there’s a (fairly crappy) reality TV show called “Big Brother”, there’s a (much better) comedy TV show called “Room 101” and Orwellian metaphors are pretty much par for the course when describing our unusually high number of CCTV cameras and/or anything illiberal which our Government has done.
Yes, it is admirable to be inspired by the influence which Orwell’s novel has had on the world, but you shouldn’t try to acheive the same thing by copying his style/plot/settings. Not only is this somewhat cliched, but it will make your story less relevant too.
Remember, Orwell was writing in the 1940s, when totalitarian communist and fascist regimes were still a major issue and a major threat to Europe and America. These days, although there are still a few communist countries in the world, most of them aren’t totalitarian in the way that the 1940s Soviet Union/Eastern Europe was (and, thankfully, there are no longer any fascist dictatorships in the world either).
As such, whilst “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was extremely relevant to readers in the 1940s-1980s, Orwell’s concerns probably don’t translate as well into the modern world. So, if you’re writing a dystopic story that takes a lot from Orwell’s story, then you’re going to lose some of the dramatic influence which his story once had.
4) Extrapolate from the media: One good source of ideas for dystopic fiction is the media. This, in some cases, is because there’s usually a lot of discussion about controversial subjects and issues which can make good topics for your stories.
Just remember to look through the media thoroughly before choosing a subject to write about because, if an issue is very prominent, then it might have got “old” by the time you have finished your story (or lots of other people might have already written dystopic stories about the same subject). So, it can be a good idea to use your imagination and/or look for smaller or lesser-known stories which have the potential to become major issues in the near future.
For example, if you had written a dystopic story about mass surveillance of the internet two or three years ago, then it would have been deeply shocking to quite a lot of people. However if you started writing one today, then people might not be so affected or shocked by it, given all the stuff in the news over the past couple of months about mass surveillance of the internet by the British and American governments.
But, in other cases, some types of news media can be works of dystopic fiction in their own right and this can be a potent source of inspiration in a slightly different way.
More politicised forms of news media (eg: certain conservative news shows in America and certain right-wing tabloid newspapers in the UK) have a vested interest in presenting the world in a slightly dystopic way in order to influence people politically and/or to attract more customers.
If you’re looking for examples of how to portray “realistic” political propaganda or to show the effects that it has on people, then these politicised newspapers and news shows can be a very good model to base your story on.
5) Base the story on your own fears: This is a really obvious point, but the most effective dystopic stories often emerge from the writer’s own fears and concerns. If you don’t personally care about the issue you’re writing about, then it will probably show in your story and it might put your readers off. But, at the same time, caring deeply about an issue is no excuse for political lectures and/or bad writing in a dystopic story either.
So, although it can still be a good idea to take inspiration from topics in the news, make sure that they are topics which you care deeply about.
Anyway, I hope that this article was doubleplusgood 🙂