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Crafting Dark Worlds

A Writer's Handbook to Dystopian Storytelling

What is dystopian fiction?

Merriam-Webster defines dystopia as, “an imagined world or society in which people lead dehumanized, fearful lives.” Well, I suppose that’s true, but I like to take it a bit farther. My definition looks like this: Dystopia is a genre of fiction that utilizes speculative fiction elements to explore the negative aspects of a society, culture, or the human condition.

But what does that mean? Let’s break it down:

 

Speculative fiction is a broad umbrella genre that includes fantasy, science fiction, and dystopia (among others). These are the stories that take the reader far and away from their everyday lives. Their most vital purpose is to ask the reader “what if.” When researching this genre, that phrase will pop up a thousand times. It’s inescapable. Every article, blogger, professor, or how-to novel will say the same thing: speculative fiction is asking the question “what if." It is especially essential in dystopia.

 

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins asks: What if children were forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the ruling class?

  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner asks: What if a group of teenagers were forced to survive in a deadly, constantly changing maze?

  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood asks: What if women were stripped of all their rights and forced to bear children for the ruling class?

 

These questions are important because they put readers into another world. They ask the reader to examine their thoughts and feelings about situations they will (hopefully) never have to endure.

 

Dystopia is unique in that it also shows “what could.” It gives warning. It creates conversation and gives substance to abstract thoughts and ideas. This is the very reason we see women dressed in Handmaid’s costumes attending political functions. Atwood’s novel showed us what can happen when a woman’s bodily autonomy is stripped away. It prepares us for that possibility by teaching us the warning signs of a society moving in that direction. It warns us what will happen if those signs are ignored.

 

Dystopian fiction uses the same elements as any other genre, but the importance of these elements is arranged differently. Every genre does this. What is most important in one, could be the least important in another. For example, a romance novel without a happy ending might not work, but you could lose world building and it would still be a romance novel. The reverse is true with Dystopian fiction. Strong world building is essential, but it would still be Dystopian without romance.

 

Elements of Dystopian Fiction

  • Worldbuilding: Creating a fully realized and immersive world is crucial, as the setting often plays a major role in the story.

  • Characterization: While the world may be fantastical, the characters should still be relatable and believable, with clear motivations and flaws.

  • Rules of the world: Establishing the rules and limitations of the world is essential to maintaining consistency and avoiding plot holes.

  • Imagery: Vivid and descriptive imagery is important in creating a strong sense of place and atmosphere.

  • Plot: Speculative fiction often involves complex plotlines, so it's important to ensure that the plot is clear and well-structured.

  • Themes: As with any genre, themes are important, but they may be more philosophical or abstract.

  • In this post, we will take a quick look at the first two sections:

 

World-building

In fantasy, world-building is vast, encompassing a rich and varied selection of flora, fauna, and inhabitants. Dystopia does this too, but it does it from the restricted gaze of the characters. As fantasy is far and wide, dystopia is intensely up close. It’s gritty, it's relatable, and it’s personal. This does not mean that dystopia worlds can’t be just as massive as fantasy. It just means that the reader needs to explore it from a narrower perspective. A fantasy world is meant to be viewed. A dystopian world is meant to be lived. This is why so many dystopian stories are told in first person.

 

Keep in mind that Dystopian stories are fast. Exposition (non-action, non-dialog sections) slow things down. However, as we have said before, world building is essential. So, what do we do?

We build the description into the action. We build it into the dialog. We still need exposition; all stories do, but limiting it will help keep the pace dystopian stories thrive in. Descriptions should also be as sensory as possible. Knowing what the character sees is great, but knowing what they taste, feel, hear or smell is even better. 

 

Characterization

Creating relatable characters is important in all genres. But a dystopian novel will not survive the first chapter without one. In dystopian and post-apocalyptic sub-genres, creating compelling and relatable characters is crucial to engage readers and convey the emotional impact of the story. As writers, we pull readers into an uncomfortable world and keep them there. To do that, we need to give them characters that feel like real people. They need to have complex personalities, relationships, and histories. They need to face moral issues, have flaws, make bad decisions, and be forced into traumatic situations. They also need to have clear wants and needs, dreams, hopes, and strong motivations for their actions (right or wrong).

 

We need to explore society, the landscape, and the political and economic systems through the eyes of our characters. Where do they live? What do they eat? Where do they sleep or go to the bathroom? How does their job fit into the larger plan of things? How do the laws and regulations affect them on a personal level? This can include restrictions on personal freedoms, experiencing propaganda, brainwashing, effects of population control, or rewards and punishments based on behavior.

 

In my next post, we will explore more elements. I'll also discuss some common tropes and expectations for dystopian novels. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it!

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