How To Genres: Dystopia

Dystopian fiction is really hot right now. Just look at The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Uglies trilogy and more.

The New York Times had a discussion where authors and other professionals chimed in on the popularity of the dystopian genre and tried to understand why young adults specifically are so drawn to it.

What exactly is dystopian?

Dystopia, according to Merriam Webster, means an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.

It’s the anti-utopia, the anti amazing heavenly paradise.

Stories in the dystopia genre are dark, conflict-driven and usually take place sometime in the future after something horrible has happened to the Earth whether through an apocalypse, government takeover, war, drought etc.

Coming up with the back story in a dystopian novel is where a writer can be truly inventive in social commentary and criticism. Some writers are very specific and detailed, while others only give vague descriptions about the past and focus more on the present events.

The protagonist has some kind of awakening or passion to right wrongs and find a way out of the miserable , but not with out lots of sacrifices and facing terrible consequences for fighting against the system. The protagonist becomes a hero for questioning what others are too afraid to question and for noticing what others are too afraid to notice.

If you want to read some classic dystopian literature to do some homework before you try your hand at it, you should definitely read Brave New World by Aldeous Huxley, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

My favorite contemporary dystopian novel is The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, which I’m on book 2 of. I know, I know the third one has been out for awhile, but I’ve been busy!

Here’s a dystopian writing prompt: Write a short story where everyone on Earth can only speak one word a day. Once a person chooses the word, they can only use it for the next 24 hours even if they have other thoughts and feelings to express. What would people’s conversations and interactions be like?

Get writing!


7 thoughts on “How To Genres: Dystopia

  1. Atlas Shrugged has always been one of my favorites, and I always recommend it to anyone who liked 1984 or Brave New World. A Clockwork Orange is by far my favorite movie of the genre.

  2. I think the dystopian novel is a cautionary tale that gives the reader road signs indicating how the present could become a dystopian future. You should see your own society in the reflection of the dystopian society. In my novel (e-book) Against Nature I start in the present and take the reader into the dystopian world. The catalyst is a global pandemic; a disease without a cure. I consciously put the road signs and reflections in the book. It’s what makes it a dystopian novel.
    I think recent YA dystopia lacks the reflection of our own society. Hunger Games is a great example. Though an entertaining read, it lacks any social commentary. How did we get to such a society? Who or what does the “capital” represent? Is it a critique of reality TV where we watch groups of people emotionally tear each other apart and this is the progression of our current popular culture? If so, the reader will never see the (non-existent) road signs (especially the younger reader.) I also found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road lacked any hint as to how we got to the post-apocalyptic world. It too was a good read, but it didn’t have the elements I look for in a dystopia. I didn’t learn much about our present social condition from either. Brave New World, 1984, It Can’t Happen Here, and Animal Farm do that very well. I tried to emulate that with Against Nature.

    • John – the Road is not dystopian; that much is certain. It’s apocalyptic, meaning that any structured society has been destroyed or abandoned. The Road is more of a sttudy of human nature than current society, and in that case, it doesn’t really matter the reason the world is the way it is; it is more how people react to it, if morality means anything after society goes, if one can keep one’s identiy and morality in times of extreme duress. It’s also somewhat environmental, but that seems to be a meaning imposed by critics or an afterthought. Post apocalypse tends towards more character studies; the Walking Dead, the Road and

      The very hallmark of dystopian media is that there is still a society to imprison; all dystopias I’ve read have had a high degree of orginization and structure. And the great thing about dystopian literature is that it, under the right circumstances, can go either way; super plot-driven, like the Hunger Games or Animal Farm, of character studies, like Oryx and Crake, or A Clockwork Orange, or strike some medium between them.

      Though I do agree, dystopia is a great way of hinting at what’s wrong with society on it’s current path, and it’s currently being exploited like a twelve year old immigrant at a Thai massage parlour….but in a good way. If that’s ever good. Perhaps this is the distainful hipster in me talking, but I don’t really like the Hunger Games series. Perhaps it is the cloud of popularity hanging over it, the fact that it’s not that well written (in my humble opinion – a little too tell-y) or the fact that Katniss is the least sympathetic character I have ever encountered, but I find it not intense enough, somehow…I dunno…there’s not enough enforcement of the Capitol’s will, a seeming disinterest in District 12, which is the most likely to rebel, even after the destruction of District 13…the whole issue of Distric 13 (if we were good little dictators, we would constantly be quashing rebellions and aware of them, if the Capitol is as all-seeing as it’s implied to be – how did it get so big without anyone noticing?) There’s more, but this is gettting labourious.


      Oh, and Nesima –

      Minority Report
      Book of Eli
      V for Vendetta
      Renaissance (2005)
      Watchmen (I also recommend the comic)
      Daybreakers (it counts, dammit. Even if they’re vampires)
      Equilibrium (2002)
      A Clockwork Orange (though the book is better, as always)
      Serenity (2005,BDM of Joss Whedon’s Firefly)

      The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
      The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood)
      Federal Zombie and Vampire Association (comic)
      And all else mentioned previously.

      • Thanks for your input Farlee. I know it does get a bit annoying when one style of writing begins to pop up everywhere and lose its authenticity and sincerity, but this is one I’m surprisingly more generous and patient about. I definitely agree with the books and films you mentioned. I actually really want to read The Handmaid’s Tale!

        I’m sorry you didn’t like the Hunger Games though. I’m about to read the final book in the series. It’s just sitting on my nook until I finish my other books and find some more time:)

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