Random Writing Tip #2: So You Think You Can Dystopia?

Speculative fiction has become popular in the last few years. Let me rephrase that: speculative fiction with dystopian plots has become popular over the years. (Is Dystopia a genre or a subgenre?) It’s been around for a long time. Orwell’s 1984 is one of my all-time favorite books. There are other cult classics, like A Clockwork Orange, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. These have been around for decades, and they’ve all transcended generations.

It is not until Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (published in the 1980s) that the genre found a stronger female fan base. A couple of decades later, other female-driven dystopians followed, this time for young readers, like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Selection, just to name a few. Swarms of YA/SFF Dystopians with strong female leads have emerged since The Hunger Games. (Okay, maybe not swarms of them, just, you know, a lot.) So many, in fact, that the literary world has begun to shy away from them. The story would have to be extremely original — the voice incredibly fresh — for it to stand out.

Or maybe Dystopian is back. Who knows? Hulu’s successful adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has rekindled an interest in the genre, so you may still have a chance. Do you think you have created the perfect Dystopian world? Here are some areas that make the genre unique.

  • The “OMG, this could really happen!” factor.


Just four girls chillaxin’ among hanged bodies and armed men.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, women lose autonomy over their bodies in the face of a political regime that favors men in power. In this world, the environment has become so toxic and dangerous that babies are stillborn and women lose their fertility. (Just the women, not the men. Definitely not the men.) And in this world, women are either wives or handmaids (or housekeepers or cooks or… you get the picture). The handmaids are there for reproductive purposes only, as stand-ins for the commanders’ barren wives, and they get passed around like dogs at a puppy mill.

In this genre, the story should be terrifying but relatable. Outlandish but probable. As horrifying and crazy as the plot is, the reader should be able to see parallels between the book’s far off, bleak future and the current political climate. That is why novels like 1984 are so timeless. People are now reading it and saying, “Oh my God, ‘alternative facts’ are like ‘Newspeak,’ only stupider!” (Okay, I just had to go there. Don’t want to turn this blog into a political discourse. We’re getting that pretty much everywhere now. So disregard.)


  • Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere…

A good horror story relies on atmosphere. The element of menace — whereby real or imaginary — should be there at all times. This could be accomplished with either a dark tone, a chilling villain, a creepy setting, or a combination of all those things.

This also applies to Dystopian fiction.

Atmosphere is important. So is world-building. This will very likely take place in a far-off future somewhere (you can either specify a place and year or you can keep it vague), so you need to create this world with crystal clarity, with the spooky, doom-and-gloom atmosphere to match. I loved Atwood’s novel, but I also fell in love with the Hulu series. The book is set in the late 2100s (as far as I remember), but the Hulu version takes place in the here and now. The cinematography in the series blew me away because… I just love striking images and strange, beautiful things! Take this description from Atwood’s book:

“If I turn my head so that the white wings framing my face direct my vision towards it, I can see it as I go down the stairs, round, convex, a pier-glass, like the eye of a fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairytale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger. A Sister, dipped in blood.”

And then see this mesmerizing visual on the Hulu series:

So much symbolism!

Blown. Away. I won’t bother to get into the symbolism of the red cloaks among the subdued blacks, browns and grays all around them. I’m sure it’s been discussed to death.

  • And finally, BE ORIGINAL!

There are many Dystopian books out there. My neighborhood Barnes & Noble has a whole shelf filled with them. If you think you have something fresh and original to put out there, then by all means write it. But only if you truly want to write it. Never try to follow a trend. A trend, by definition, is transitory. What’s hot today may not be relevant in a couple of years. (Just ask E. L. James.) So, unless you feel like you have the next 1984 in the midst, then I’d say write the story that is in you. You may just have the next classic after all.


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