Dystopian fiction has been and continues to be popular in all forms (novels, short stories, movies, shows, and comics). While delving into the reasons for this would probably require the help of a trained psychologist, you don't have to know why these stories are popular in order to write a good dystopian novel.
And that's just what this article on how to write a dystopian novel will help you do.
- Defining characteristics of dystopian stories.
- What to do before you start writing.
- Tips for writing a great dystopian story.
Table of contents
- What is Dystopian Literature?
- Do These Things Before You Write Your Dystopian Novel
- Tips on Writing a Great Dystopian Story
- How to Write a Dystopian Story: Conclusion
What is Dystopian Literature?
All storytelling relies on one very basic fundamental: conflict. This is one reason why you don't often see utopian stories. After all, in a world where nothing is wrong and everyone has everything they need to live healthy, fulfilled lives, there's really no cause for conflict.
While we would be lucky to live in a utopia, there's a big difference between striving for a better society in real life and picking up a book for entertainment. Utopian stories are, in a word, boring.
On the flip side of this speculative fiction coin, you have dystopian stories, which are rife with conflict. A dystopia is a society in which there is widespread suffering, injustice, and oppression. If that's not a backdrop for great conflict, I don't know what is.
But not all dystopian novels feature brutal neo-fascist regimes that squash all dissent with an iron fist. Some dystopian stories are a little more subtle, presenting a society that is, at a glance, pretty good. It's only when you dig a little deeper that you see the dirty secrets that are swept under the rug by those in power. These are called false utopia stories, and they're a fairly common form of fictional dystopian work.
Whatever kind of dystopian story you're aiming to write, you'll need to make sure that you hit the primary tropes of the genre. I’ll discuss some of those tropes below. But first, let’s talk about things it’s good to do before you start writing your dystopian story.
Do These Things Before You Write Your Dystopian Novel
The following tips can help you make the best of your writing time. Whether you've already started your story or you're just now formulating your idea, these tips can help.
Get to Know the Genre
The best thing you can do before you start the creative writing process is read! Not only can reading dystopian novels provide you with plenty of inspiration, but it can help you get to know this science fiction subgenre. To that end, here are several popular dystopian novels to check out:
- The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Divergent by Veronica Roth
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
Research the Market
Since the dystopian subgenre is a popular one, it can be difficult for new writers to gain traction on Amazon. Simply publishing your novel is not enough. If you want to be the proud writer of a popular dystopian novel, then you'll have to do some planning. Ideally, that planning should begin before you start writing.
There are other categories on Amazon that could be a great fit for your book but may be less competitive than the dystopian category. This is why I suggest doing your research before you write. You could find a category that's adjacent to dystopian literature that might work better for the story you have in mind. And if that's the case, you could then make sure to include the things that readers are looking for in that story.
A couple of examples of “dystopian-adjacent” categories include Alternative History, Post-Apocalyptic, and Cyber Punk.
While it's possible to do decent market research by scrolling through Amazon with purpose, this isn't the most time-efficient way to do it.
This is why I recommend using the tool I created to make market research and advertising easier. It's called Publisher Rocket, and it can help you analyze categories, find books like yours, and select customer search terms that readers actually use.
It can also help you gather a list of keywords for use in Amazon Advertising, which is a powerful tool many successful writers use in their marketing efforts.
Check out Publisher Rocket here to learn more.
Tips on Writing a Great Dystopian Story
Good dystopian tales explore what it means to be a human while also providing readers with an intriguing and often disturbing glimpse at an extreme form of society. The tips below can help you balance these factors to keep readers turning the pages.
Consider Oppression in Any Form
While you want your story to be about the humans living in your dystopian society, you do need to put some serious thought into the backdrop of the story. Dystopian societies are characterized by widespread oppression of some kind, even if it’s oppression by social norms.
This could mean strict censorship of speech, expression, or thought. It could mean that every child born is taken away to be a ward of the state until they're eighteen. Or it could be a society in which people are subtly enslaved by oppressive economic policies and the strict control of resources.
Here are a few broad dystopian scenarios you can use to influence your story:
- The loss of individual freedom and expression.
- The restructuring of society after nuclear war decimates the planet.
- The commoditization of human life.
- The crushing grasp of a totalitarian government.
- Technological advancements fueling oppressive systems (armies of robotic police patrolling the streets, artificial intelligence pulling strings for seemingly unfathomable reasons, etc.)
- Environmental degradation resulting in societal collapse.
- Alternative history stories in which some event in our past changed the direction of human society for the worst.
These are just a few examples. The best oppressive dystopian regimes are based on topics important to our world. By taking a real-life example and turning it up to eleven, you can create a great dystopian setting for your story.
Determine the Time and Place
While many dystopian stories happen on Earth in the not-too-distant future, there are numerous other settings for these stories. They don't even have to take place on Earth if you don't want. You can make up an entire planet if it serves your story well.
You'll also want to think about time. If they happen on Earth, is the story taking place in the past (alternative history) or the future? Is it taking place in an alternative present? Even if you don't spell it out for the reader, it's a good idea to know for yourself so you're consistent in your storytelling.
It's important to remember that there's a fine line between the dystopian genre and other science fiction subgenres. If your world is overly fantastic, featuring aliens and space travel, it could easily be seen by readers as less of a dystopian book and more of a space opera or some other SF subgenre.
In order to keep it in the realm of dystopian work, you'll want to keep the society fairly recognizable for modern readers.
Character Development (Nature vs Nurture)
While some writers may start with the overall concept of their dystopian world, this isn't the only way to do things. You may want to start with your main character and let them influence the setting as you write.
Either way, you'll want to give serious thought to how people living in your imagined world would behave under the conditions you've created. In many dystopian stories, the protagonist is a normal person just trying to survive with no real thoughts of revolution—until something happens (the inciting incident) that drives them from their ordinary world, putting them on a crash course with the powers that be.
In other stories, the protagonist is a government lackey who works as a cog in the oppressive machine until they decide they've had enough.
These are far from the only options you have. In fact, you'll want to stay away from cookie-cutter protagonists. Let your knowledge of the genre influence you, helping you to write a unique character who has believable wants and needs (not just an implacable hate for the rulers or a blind drive to take the system down).
Likewise, decide on your antagonist. If it's going to be a person, then spend as much time on their development as you do on the protagonist. If it's going to be the faceless foot soldiers of the totalitarian government, think about the ways you'll present the evils they embody.
Nail Down the Specifics of Your World
Once you have the broad ideas down, use them to inform the more minute details of your world. By this I mean things like cultural norms and traditions. If your main character were to rebel at first on a small scale, what would that look like? Skipping the evening prayer? Not averting their eyes when passing a member of the ruling class on the street?
The little details really help to set your world apart in the reader's mind. They provide the texture of your society and serve to show the differences and similarities between it and the one we live in now. For more information on nailing down the details of your world, check out our article on worldbuilding.
Craft the Main Conflict
Crafting the main conflict of your story may seem like a no-brainer. Your protagonist has to incite revolution and take down the oppressive society, right?
Not so fast. Just because you're writing a dystopian story doesn't mean it has to end with the defeat of “Big Brother.” While this is certainly an option, don't feel like you must work toward this outcome.
Some dystopian novels end with the characters succumbing to the societal pressure to conform. Others end with a failed revolution. And some of them don't even attempt to tackle this grand objective.
Book Marketing Made Simple
Over 47,000+ authors, NYT bestsellers, and publishing companies use Publisher Rocket to gain key insight to the market. Help your book now
In fact, your central conflict doesn't even have to touch on this directly. It could be a heist story set in a dystopian future. It could be a coming-of-age story in which the character realizes that there are certain trade-offs to be made. Perhaps the majority in this society is willing to trade some personal freedom for better living conditions, even if it does seem like the worst thing in the world to your adolescent character.
If your main conflict will be about taking down the dystopian society, ensure your character has a good reason to want this. Show them discovering this need or being thrust into it. Just as unexplainably evil characters are boring antagonists, unexplainably heroic and “good” protagonists are also boring.
Give the reader a good reason to identify with the protagonist, and they will care about whatever that character's ultimate goal is.
Put Increasingly Difficult Barriers in the Way
The basic building blocks of any popular fiction story remain true in the dystopian genre. Once your main character has a goal, you can create suspense and drive conflict by putting barriers in their way. These barriers should be put into place by the antagonist, forcing the protagonist to learn and grow, creating a character arc.
The climax should be the most impactful and difficult moment for the character. Whether the protagonist achieves their goal and defeats the antagonist will be up to you.
For more on plot structures, check out our story structure hub here.
Create, Customize, and Publish
When you've written and edited your dystopian manuscript, you'll still need to have it professionally formatted for publishing in eBook and print.
With Atticus, you can actually do both the writing and the formatting. You can even see what the finished product will look like right in the tool, allowing you to customize it to your liking with just a few mouse clicks.
You can also set writing goals, edit with ProWritingAid, insert your own scene breaks, and much more. Check out Atticus here to see everything it can do.
How to Write a Dystopian Story: Conclusion
Whether you're writing a novel or a dystopian short story, the tips above should help you create an original and market-honed piece of literature. The combination of setting and character can help you establish the details of the story. And when you determine your primary conflict, you can put barriers in the protagonist's way as they work toward their goal.
If you want some story prompts you can use to jumpstart the writing process, check out our dystopian writing prompts article.