Monday, September 10, 2012

6 Elements of a Great Dystopia

So my forthcoming book falls under the heading of Dystopian Fantasy. Dystopia is a hot genre these days because of the success of things like The Hunger Games and the bounce-back of the zombie genre (just one great big dystopian world. See my earlier blog post where I discuss this.)

So I got to thinking: what elements make a great dystopian world? There are a few

1) The government/ruling entity must be supremely powerful. As in, no one defies them. No one gets out. Penalties for rebellion are beyond severe. You must convince your reader of the danger your MC will be in if they dare defy the powers-that-be. The darker, more brutal, more mysterious, the better!  Ever notice how no one cares if someone defies the PTA. (Okay, maybe the PTA moms.) Make your governing entity intimidating, please! These are the kinds of people that kill without thought, torture without conscience, suppress basic human rights, and kill liberty. Make your readers hate them!

2) You dystopic world itself must be dangerous! Again, if your MC is in danger of stubbing his/her toe while crossing the road, no one's going to be impressed. Long before the Hunger Games commenced (before the Reaping, even) Katniss took risks by venturing outside permitted areas. In Cormac McCarthy's pulitzer-prize winning The Road (a MUST read if you're at all into dystopia), life is dangerous. The man can't go certain places, do certain things. He must keep going; he must keep his son alive; they can't stay in one place for more than a night or two. We don't even know why, only that there's an inherent sense of danger. These worlds are deadly. Make your reader feel it.

3) Darkness and gloom. The Hunger Games didn't make use of this one, except perhaps in describing District 13, but it's often a good idea to have things like overcast skies and barren landscapes. Think the "real world" shown in The Matrix. In The Road, we aren't given details about what event threw the world into madness but McCarthy's description of ashes in the air points to some kind of extinction-level-event that resulted in nuclear winter. This one may not be a must-have, but it's a good way to go. Even if your world isn't this way physically, using these kinds of words as mood-descriptors will help make your world FEEL very dystopian. If you need inspiration, may I suggest listening to New Divide by Linkin Park. The imagery in this song is very post-apocalyptic. (Might I add that I'm currently writing Book 2 of Interchron, and the 2nd verse of this song inspired the ending. Just sayin'. Click the link if you're curious!)

4) Facades. Of course you don't want to confuse your reader, so don't go overboard, but in my opinion, the more, the better. You could do any number of these, but here's a few examples that it's a good idea to include.

  • Illusion of a perfect world--the way the ruling entity is keeping power is by putting forth the idea that their rule of the world is perfect. Even if the citizens of your dystopia know better, perhaps they see this as the lesser of two evils. So there should be a very distinct line between what the world seems to be and what it actually is.
  • Mystery of the ruling entity. There should be many things about the unrighteous, ruling entity that are not readily obvious to it's citizens. Slowly revealing shadowy truths about your ruling entity will keep the story moving forward and eventually show the reader how the evil entity will be brought down. If you wanted to bring down a government, how would you go about it? Rush the capital on a motorcycle? Good luck in prison, pal! On the other hand, if your characters (and therefore your readers) can slowly, piece by piece infiltrate the entity and find it's weaknesses, well...
  • Character facades. Anyone know what synectoche is? It's a really geeky English major word that means a smaller story mirrors events in a larger one. A play within a play, if you will, but events in the two stories mirror one another. The best example of this EVER was Lost, which isn't on anymore, but they did this beautifully. Anyway, because facades are just part of dystopia, utilizing them with your characters is a great way to mirror the larger story and keep tension. Just make sure to reveal all truths by the end (of the story, not necessarily the novel) so the reader feels satisfied.
  • I'm sure there are many other possibilities. This is something you could play around with and never entirely miss. Like I said, the more, the better. 
Source: Goodreads
5) Tragedy. There simply MUST be tragedy in a dystopic world. I recently watched the movie version of The Hunger Games with my younger sister, who'd never seen it before. While my sister can get weepy, especially where her daughter is concerned, she's not one to sit back and cry very often or feel sorry for herself. She often says (and The Hunger Games was no exception) "Don't get sad, get pissed!" I think this describes very well how dystopic stories work. Tragedy or sadness is a powerful emotion, perhaps the most powerful one we have. Look at how depressed people behave (or don't) or how the death of a child or other loved one effects us. Tragedy is what moves people to action. I think Suzanne Collins did this masterfully. The death of a certain child or children (trying to stay away from spoilers here) is what sparked revolution in the districts. Only tragedy can have that sort of effect. So, set down the rules of your world, show the conflict, then add some tragedy. You'll be amazed how fast your characters will form insurrections and take their lives into their own hands.

6) Hope.This goes hand-in-hand with #5, but make sure there is some hope. I've read some stories that are nothing but depression and hopelessness from beginning to end. The point of these stories was shock value and to show that we need not to let our world become that way. I understand the point, but I don't necessarily agree with it. You send a much more powerful message, tell a much more powerful story, when you give your readers strong characters who have some chance of bringing down the system. Who didn't want to tune in and see if Katniss prevailed? I simply couldn't stop reading The Road. It was actually quite tragic throughout, but the MC had a plan, a mission, something he had to do that propelled him on. I HAD to keep reading to see if he succeeded. Hope will propel the reader on to the next scene, the next chapter, the next book.

There may be more elements to good dystopias, but I think the majority fall under one of these settings. If you write a good dystopia, people will return time and again to see how your MCs fair. 

What do you think? What elements do YOU think make a great dystopia?

Coming Winter 2012
In a world where collective hives are enslaving the population and individuals have been hunted to the verge of extinction, Maggie Harper, and independent 21st Century woman, must find the strength to preserve the freedom of the future, but without the aid of her memories.  
After experiencing a traumatic time loss, Maggie is plagued by a barrage of images she can't explain. When she's attacked by a creep with a spider's web tattoo, she is saved by Marcus, a man she's never met, but somehow remembers. He tells her that both he and her creepy attacker are from a future in which individuals are being murdered by collectives, and Marcus is part of the rebellion. The collectives have acquired time travel and they plan to enslave the human race throughout all of history. The flashes Maggie has been seeing are echoes of lost memories, and the information buried deep within them is instrumental in defeating the collective hives. 
In order to preserve the individuality of mankind, Maggie must try to re-discover stolen memories, re-kindle friendships she has no recollection of, and wade through her feelings for the mysterious Marcus, all while dodging the tattooed assassins the collectives keep sending her way. 
If Maggie can't fill the holes in her memory and find the answers to stop the collectives, the world both in her time and in all ages past and future will be doomed to enslavement in the grey, mediocre collectives. As the danger swirls around her and the collectives close in, Maggie realizes she must make a choice: stand out or fade away...


  1. Caught a couple movies this weekend that were made in the early 80's and realized that dystopian stories have been around a long time. People just didn't call them that until recently.

    1. Agreed. It'd be interesting to research when the term came about, or at least when it became mainstream. Thanks Alex! :D

  2. I've read/seen a lot of dystopian stories, and most all of them feature at least 4/6 or so of these elements-- great job delineating them all out here. "Across this New Divide" is a song which has always reminded me of a post-apocalyptic kind of world, too... maybe more like the Hunger Games than the Road, which I liked though it's not my favorite. Oh, another good "classic" dystopia is I am Legend by Richard Matheson-- and the movie with Will Smith is really awesome, too.

    1. I haven't read the book I am Legend but I saw the movie and really liked it. I should try the book out sometime. Thanks, Kat! :D