Monday, December 17, 2012

8 Story Points for Crafting a Dystopia

I spent the weekend trying to sell my book at my first ever vendor fair. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a bust. Everything went just fine, but it was very poorly attended, so I only sold a handful of books. :( But, all was not lost. I actually spoke to a lot of people and had at least a dozen people tell me that they wanted a copy but that they would only buy digital copies. I gave them bookmarks with links to the website for download. Now, granted, they may or may not download it, but I felt like I did pretty well at spreading the word.

I'm not sure why no one came to the fair. Usually this one turns out pretty good numbers. The inclement weather probably kept people home. I also think the horrendous tragedy in Connecticut was a factor. While that was going on, no one felt much in the Christmas-y, go-shop-for-gifts mood, and I can't blame them for it. I didn't much think about it while at the fair. I was afraid I'd become a soggy mess. It wasn't until I got home Friday night that I finally watched some of the coverage and felt the full weight of what had happened. I rocked my baby niece to sleep last night and cried while doing it. I think she thought I was weird.

My deepest condolences to the families of the victims and all those touched by this tragedy. My thoughts and prayers are with them.

While at the fair, trying to occupy my mind during the down time, I started thinking about story structure, especially as it applies to dystopian stories which are so popular right now. As I said, I also talked to a lot of people about my book. I always started by asking if they knew the word, 'dystopia.' Some did, but many didn't and to explain it to them I would say, 'Dystopia just means an undesirable society. So, something like Hunger Games.' That was enough for most people. That's what got me thinking about dystopian story structure. Here's what I came up with.

I can't take complete credit for this template, because I heard a more generalized version of it for generic story structure. The guy I heard it from then got in trouble, not because he didn't give credit for where he got it, but because the people he got it from didn't give credit for it. I know, I know, it's like a bad game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. I've adapted it and put in my own ideas to make it my own but, in short...I own nothing and don't claim I came up with this on my own. Don't sue me!

I'm going to use three well-known stories to illustrate my points: a) Hunger Games, b) Harry Potter, and c) Star Wars. Granted, HP and SW aren't generally considered dystopias, but 1) they're well-known stories and you can adapt this structure to any story, not just dystopias and 2) I've made the argument before that all stories with a conflict are, by definition, imperfect societies, and so can be considered dystopias.

**Warning: Spoilers ahead. I'm using these three stories because most people in the world have either read the books or seen the films. If you haven't and don't want to know what happens in them, stop reading now!**

If you want to write a great dystopian story, follow these seven points to make your story complete. This is a bare-bones structure only, but it's a great place to start.

1. Dystopic Starting Point--This is the beginning of the story. Of course you introduce your main and other central characters, but we should also be introduced to the dystopia. In a dystopian story, the dystopian world itself is a central character. We must see it and its undesirable attributes.
a) Katniss lives in a poor district where they aren't allowed to take their lives into their own hands even to hunt their own food. The people are poor and oppressed.
b) Harry lives under the stairs with horrible guardians. His life is sad and boring.
c) Luke lives the life of a farmer on a planet far away from intergalactic events, but dreams of more.

2. Introduce Conflict--The character's life or world must change in some way.  Introduce your dystopia's "normal" (step 1) then turn it on its head.
a)  Katniss was happy to live in her world, doing what she could indefinitely. It was the Reaping that changed everything, throwing her into upheaval. 
b) Harry learns he's really a wizard. He leaves the only home he's ever known for a whole new world.
c) After Luke's guardians are murdered, he leaves with Obie-Wan for a new life as a Jedi apprentice.

3. Introduce Complications--This can be a dangerous/deadly situation, a villain, or just some other reason why the hero is doomed and won't be able to overcome the dystopia.
a) Katniss finds out about other, well-trained tributes who've been practicing for years and are brutal killers. 
b) Harry learns of Voldemort, who killed his parents (which will complicate his reputation at school) and who still haunts the wizarding world.
c) Darth Vader is introduced before Luke is, but Luke's learning about him and the Empire, and the Empire using their secret weapon to destroy Alderan, all qualify as complications.

4. Turning Point--The turning point is a change in character motivations. The character goes from reaction to action. Up until this point in the story, the character has been acted upon by outside, dystopic forces. Now, they decide to be active, or pro-active, in bringing down the dystopian conditions.
a) Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games and actively tries to figure out how she can win.
b) Harry decides to go find the Sorcerer's Stone and take steps to stop Snape (Quirrel) from stealing it.
c) Luke decides become a Jedi and from then on takes steps to help bring down the Empire.

5. Things get worse--a mentor dies, the MC is hurt, things get harder, hope seems to be slipping away.
a) Things are going pretty well for Katniss when Rue dies.
b) Ron is hurt and Harry has to go one alone. (That's harder and scarier for him.)
c) Obi-Wan is killed.

6. Climax/Human-Passion Moment--this is where the MC and/or their buddies fight valiantly against the dystopian world. I call it the human-passion moment because often all hope seems lost, but they fight tooth and nail against the oppressive force because that's what human beings do. This scene/part always ends in despair. They can't do it. All hope is lost. 

a) Katniss fights to win the Hunger Games against everything they throw her way. Then it looks like either she has to kill Peeta or die herself. 
b) Harry does his best against a much more seasoned wizard (Quirrel), and Voldemort himself, but he can't win against them.
c) Luke helps the rebellion fight to destroy the Death Star but soon he's the only fighter left with little or no chance to prevail.
7. Ah-Hah Moment--This is when the MC finds the one thing they've been missing that will help them overcome the oppressive dystopian regime. Often, this is something they find within themselves.

a) Katniss uses something she learned from her father (about the poisonous berries) to manipulate the Capital into declaring them both victorious.
b) Harry obtains the stone magically because his heart is pure. Also Harry's touch is toxic to Voldemort. (Notice the reasons behind this don't necessarily need to be explained right away. Just sometime before the story ends.)
c) "Use the force, Luke!"
8. Resolution--Individual triumphs; dystopia overcome in some way.

a) Katniss and Peeta win together.
b) Harry destroys Quirrel/Voldemort.
c) Luke destroys the Death Star and gets a medal of Valor.

Keep in mind, this is just a bare bones structure. Characters, conflicts, plots, and especially worlds need to be fleshed out. If you include all these points in your story, though, it will continually move forward and be complete. Here's to creating dystopian worlds!


  1. I think you covered the points well. Sorry there wasn't a bigger turnout at the book fair. You can only control so much though and sounds like you made the best of it.

  2. Nicely laid out there. And hopefully your next gig will be a gigantic success.