Dystopian stories, when done right, have massive appeal. Some big-name books, movies, and television shows of the last ten years have been based in an imagined dystopia. And from a writing point of view, there’s plenty to work with in these kinds of stories.
You don’t have to stick close to reality.
You can go a bit wild in discovering and describing your world and the disturbing factors that rule society. But if you’re not sure where to start, these dystopian story ideas will help your imagination tumble into a world where hope is the greatest asset of all!
- What makes a good dystopian story?
- Some examples of excellent dystopian stories.
- A list of dystopia writing prompts.
Table of contents
How to Write a Good Dystopian Story
For some reason, humans tend to gravitate toward fatalistic and macabre stories. While not all humans enjoy these kinds of stories, enough people do that dystopian tales have become very much mainstream. But it’s not just the depressing and the existential that automatically make these stories popular. There needs to be something else, too. A couple of things, actually, to make this type of speculative fiction entertaining for the reader.
The Character’s the Thing
To write a good dystopian story, you need an engaging character and a compelling conflict to help the reader keep turning the pages. Actually, these two factors are essential in most types of creative writing endeavors. And when we consider character, we also need to consider point of view. Many relatively recent dystopian novels are written in first person, but third person limited is also a good option.
You’ll notice that the main characters in dystopian stories are often products of their world, but they strive for something better. They learn to stand up to the powers that be, whether directly or indirectly. Sometimes, the main character starts the novel not knowing that there’s another way to live. But something forces them out of their ordinary world, which opens their eyes to the surrounding injustices.
And, of course, the reader will need a reason to like them. There are several ways to make readers like your main characters, but the save the cat method is a favorite. Just make it your own!
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Hope, Love, or Justice
It can be hard to read 50,000+ words of dystopian fiction. These worlds are often dark, dreary, and brutal. This is why there’s almost always a through-line of hope, love, or justice — or all three.
Even if the character doesn’t accomplish their goal at the end of the story, there should be a light at the end of the tunnel that’s at least partially visible throughout the story. Even if the tunnel collapses at the end. After all, your main character needs to want something! They need a goal. And in a depressing dystopia, hope, love, and justice are all good things to want.
The Best Dystopias Seem Like Utopias at First
Imagine living in a society where no one falls through the cracks. People no longer go hungry. Those who want an education can get one without paying out the nose. Mental and physical health are priorities instead of commodities to be traded upon. And it’s all to everyone’s liking. Sounds pretty great, right? It almost sounds too good to be true.
Well, in a great dystopia story, it is too good to be true.
What would the cost of all this good be? Maybe the only way to keep the delicate balance is population control. Each family is only allowed one or two children. But what about the couple that accidentally gets pregnant with a third? What is the enforcement of these laws like?
This is just one example (and a rather obvious one at that). There are a ton of different ways to show the dark underbelly of an apparent utopia that’s really anything but. Strict food rationing. Capital punishment for anyone who steps out of line. Public beatings. Point systems that ostracize those with low scores. It’s all ripe for the picking.
What price would you be willing to pay to have all those great things mentioned above? And what if you and your neighbor disagree on that price? Exploring questions like these is where things get interesting in the dystopia story.
Dystopia Story Examples
You don't have to look far to see examples of great dystopian literature. Here are just a few well-known dystopian works you can check out for inspiration and ideas.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
- The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Anthem by Ayn Rand
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick
- The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry
Dystopian Writing Prompts
Use the following dystopian writing prompts as jumping-off points, or simply take them as they are and get writing! They’re yours to use as you please. Whether you're writing a novel or a short story, you're sure to find some inspiration in at least one writing prompt below!
1. When turning 16, every person is required to have a kind of health meter installed in their brains that only they can see. Only it doesn’t measure health. It measures how much work you do. And if you aren’t “productive” enough, you will die.
2. Police officers are all replaced with robots. These machines are supposed to be incorruptible and unable to use “excessive force,” but when they all start acting strange at once, your characters must run for their lives.
3. Humans are forced to sleep in tiny little cubbies so their body heat can be siphoned off to power the cities. But it soon comes out that they’re taking more than just body heat when people start dying in droves.
4. In a state of perpetual surveillance, people are forced to smile and get along or else be taken away for reprogramming.
5. Happiness is available for a simple, low-price monthly treatment. And at first, it works. Everyone who can afford it is happy all the time. But humans aren’t meant to be happy all the time. What kind of adverse effects start happening as a result of this new wonder treatment?
6. Extrapolate the negative effects of social media. What happens in a few generations of people using social media as their primary means of interacting with others and getting information about the world?
7. Some unknown calamity has befallen the world. The remaining humans live in underground bunkers. If anyone goes outside, it can end the lives of all those in the bunker. But a growing movement thinks the whole thing is made up and they want to leave. What happens? Do they make it out? And if so, what do they find?
8. After an apocalyptic event, people are forced to repopulate the planet. They’re paired off from the age of eighteen and required to have at least two children, with no regard for sexual orientation or attraction. Those who don’t “perform” are ostracized.
9. A genetic mutation allows some people to see into the future. The world is controlled based on what these “seers” predict. But then they start seeing things that should be impossible. Chaos ensues as society scrambles to head off these threats that may or may not come true.
10. Explore a society in which our brains can be downloaded into cyberspace. But the demand for this stresses the entire world economy as more and more servers are built. What kind of effects does this have on those living in servitude to the dead?
11. In a world plagued by hunger, all animals are supposed to be processed for food. But one young woman finds a cat (or a dog) and decides to keep it. How far will she go to protect it?
12. Write about a world in which people can automatically upload their thoughts to social media sites. Society soon becomes split into two: those who do upload nearly every waking thought, and those who don’t. What would their differences be?
13. Two competing cults have taken over the world. They are at near-constant war with each other, turning the world into a hellscape. Until one character takes it upon herself to heal the rift.
14. In a world where death is a thing of the past, people's minds begin degrading after about 150 years. A radical new treatment purports to solve the problem, but there are unexpected side effects.
15. Military service becomes required at the age of 18. But with new advancements, soldiers come home changed into weapons that can't be turned off.
16. In a world where clean water is the major commodity, a sophisticated hierarchical society has formed around water purification plants.
17. As sea levels rise and farmland dries up, the world falls into chaos as little groups vie for control of food production.
18. When the wealth inequality gap grows large enough that the middle class disappears, homelessness runs rampant and the world is divided into homeless camps and walled-off subdivisions where the rich live.
19. In a world in which the air isn't safe to breathe, one scientist creates a device that is simple, cheap, and will clean the air. But the powers that be don't want the air cleaned. Your character must help get the word out about the new technology.
20. Earthquakes have decimated the world. Nowhere is safe. Now, most people live on massive floating platforms hundreds of feet off the ground. But these platforms require constant care, and it’s dangerous work to keep them afloat above the wrecked ground.
21. A couple has been separated by an explosive apocalypse. Neither knows if the other is even alive. But they both set off to try and find each other amid the chaos.
22. The world is ruled by humans with superpowers. The rest of humanity acts as their slaves. So far, there hasn't been any way to beat these superhumans. Until now . . .
23. A virus attacks the human brain, leaving those who get it essentially brain-dead. The government's solution is to kill these people and keep the virus from spreading. But people are starting to think this isn't the best way to do things.
24. A law is passed allowing clones the same rights as the original human. This means people can clone themselves and pass on their property and bank accounts when they die. But many of the clones don't want to wait that long . . .
25. The best drug in the world is time in the virtual reality world. But it costs money, which leads to rampant crime as 99% of the world wants nothing more than to escape to their virtual lives.
26. The United States is suddenly at war with itself, turning the Midwest into a dystopian setting. But as brutal battles rage, two groups seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. It won't be easy.
27. In a dystopian society where travel from state to state is tightly controlled, one character must find her way from New York to San Francisco to join a group of renegades fighting the status quo.
28. Humans can download any skill or knowledge they need from the internet directly into their brains. How does this affect the meritocracy in which we live?
29. Pollution gets so bad that the sun no longer shines through the smog. Explore the world that comes after 100 years of this.
30. Write about a world in which massive monsters have taken over large swaths of land. There's an uneasy and unspoken truce until the monsters start venturing out from their territories.
Position Your Dystopian Novel for Success
Whether you're doing a new take on Big Brother or you're looking to write a wholly unique story idea, there's one thing to consider: your audience. Dystopia books are considered speculative fiction, and there's a lot of overlap with science fiction. But choosing the wrong sci-fi categories or aiming for an oversaturated market can be roadblocks to success. That's where Publisher Rocket comes in.
You can use the information you get from Publisher Rocket to position your dystopian book for success on Amazon. You get insights directly from Amazon on:
- Keywords – Metadata to position your dystopian book on Amazon.
- Competition – Allowing you to see what's selling and how stiff the competition is.
- Categories – So you know where people who are looking for books like yours go to find them.
- Amazon Ads – Helps you quickly configure a list of profitable keywords for running ads for your dystopian book.
Check out Publisher Rocket here to get started.
I hope these dystopian writing prompts help get your ideas flowing. Keep writing!
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