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On Writing a Dystopia



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Sat Apr 26, 2014 6:40 pm
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queerelves says...



There are guidelines or rules for everything writing-related, and they help us to categorize and understand our writing. Grammar has rules, there are guidelines that define what's fantasy and what's science fiction, etc. There are also rules/guidelines that define what a "true dystopia" is.

The (Typical) Guidelines for a Dystopia-

    1. Everyone believes it's a utopia. The exceptions are the main characters, or a very small revolutionary group (because you wouldn't have a story if there weren't exceptions to that rule)

    Examples:

      Animal Farm by George Orwell (all the animals believe that their farm is better than it was when Mr. Jones was in charge)

      Delirium by Lauren Oliver (everyone believes they're safer since love is non-existent)

      Divergent by Veronica Roth (everyone believes they have an ideal system, and that their society functions better than before because of the factions)

      Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (everyone thought that the mass production of children/the class system/the brainwashing made it ideal and put everyone in their place)

    2. Everyone must believe the same thing. Sometimes, it means science is banned and only religion is allowed; sometimes, it means religion is banned and only science is allowed. Those are only broad examples, though. Usually, it involves brainwashing and/or indoctrination.

    Examples:

      Delirium by Laruen Oliver (everyone is required to believe the same things about love, and [as far as I remember] there's a state-wide religion)

      Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (the state literally brainwashed the children from the time they were born with what I believe they called hyponopaedia)

    3. Everything is predetermined. In a dystopia, your life decisions are directly chosen by the government, indirectly chosen by the government, or the government gives you a list of options to choose from. Often, things like what you read, what you wear, etc., are chosen by the government.

    Examples:

      Matched by Ally Condie (who you marry is decided for you, as well as what you eat, where you live, what you read, when you die, etc.)

      Divergent by Veronica Roth (you must choose from a specific list of factions, though you're able to choose what you do within those factions)

      The Giver by Lois Lowry (your job, who you marry, who your children are, what you feel, what you see, when you die, etc. is decided for you; the best example of this)

    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (books are banned)

    4. There is a gigantic gap between the upper class and the lower class. Certain groups are systematically oppressed, or in some cases, systematically killed. Genocides are common. Often, the government tells the people that one group or one person must suffer in order for the rest to be able to live happily.

    Examples:

      Divergent by Veronica Roth (the factionless are treated as sub-human)

      Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (you are literally born into your class; the best example of this)

      The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin (one child must suffer in order for Omelas to be as gorgeous as it is)

      The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (the Capitol is filthy rich, while people in the lower districts are treated as sub-human to point where they're essentially treated like animals)

      Matched by Allie Condie (I forget the names of the ones who are treated as sub-human here, but certain people aren't allowed to be married, are forced into what were basically labor camps, etc)

    The Giver is a notable exception to this rule since there is no class in their society.

    5. The government is totalitarian. The people have no choice in their representatives or their laws. You almost always have to be born into the government. The government is either an autocracy or an aristocracy. Usually, there are two ways this goes. Either it's a standard dictatorship where everyone knows who their ruler is and essentially worships them (think North Korea), or it seems like the government is an invisible force, and no one really knows who the government is.

    Examples:

      The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (President Snow is the only ruling force that anyone ever sees)

      The Giver by Lois Lowry (the lives of the entire population are chosen by a group of elders)

      Legend by Marie Lu (the government is exclusive and, I believe, a monarchy)

    6. The government is watching. The government keeps track of what its citizens do. They watch them, listen to their conversations, etc. This isn't in all dystopias, but it's pretty common.

    Examples:

      1984 by George Orwell (Big Brother)


The most important thing about this list: you don't have to follow these rules. In writing, rules are established in order to be broken for effect. Take the poetry of e.e. cummings for example: he breaks the rules of grammar, and he does it to create a certain effect within his writing. You can do the same thing with the rules of dystopia! You can follow all of the rules (like in Brave New World) in order to make your dystopia seem all-around awful and thus create an effect that way. You could also follow just one of the rules (like in Fahrenheit 451) in order to highlight only a certain issue in society.

I might be calling these rules, but they are not absolute.

The key to writing well is reading a lot. Reading modern dystopias is helpful, but the classical ones are where these rules spring from, and they're the reason modern ones exist. Reading these will help your dystopia writing skills.

Recommended Reading-

    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (Warning: Sexual content)
      Brave New World was the first dystopia, written in 1931. Modern Library ranked it fifth on its list of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century. I read it a year or two ago and I enjoyed it. It's a little difficult to read, and it's a really bizarre book.

      Summary: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/bravenew/summary.html

    1984 by George Orwell (Warning: Sexual content)
      1984 is probably the best known classic dystopia, and also one of the first, having been written in 1949. 1984 has shaped our culture, and it's where phrases like "Big Brother" come from. It's not too difficult to read, and it's also pretty bizarre--but not as much as Brave New World.

      Summary: https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/1984/summary.html

    Animal Farm by George Orwell
      Animal Farm isn't a traditional dystopia. Actually, it's not traditional at all, considering it's literally a book about talking animals. It seems childish at first--and that's part of the point--and I expected not to like it, but it turned into my favorite book. Like 1984, it's an allegory for Stalinist Russia and communism, and it's very easy to read (it has simple language and only about 80 pages) but not as easy to understand. If you want a short, simple dystopia, I would definitely recommend checking out Animal Farm.

      Summary: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/animalfarm/summary.html

    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (Warning: Mild violence)
      Fahrenheit 451 is a pretty infamous book, and even though it only contains one or two aspects of a true dystopia, it definitely belongs on that list. It's a fairly short novella about a man named Guy Montag, a fireman, but his job isn't to stop fires, it's to start them. It's central focus is censorship, since it takes place in a universe where books are banned, and anyone who is caught with a book has their home set on fire. It's likely to touch a lot of people here, since books have a special place for all of us. And get this--people have literally tried to ban Fahrenheit 451, a book about banning books. I recently read it (about a month or two ago), and I thought it was a pretty easy read.

      Summary: https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/451/summary.html

    The Giver by Lois Lowry
      Another infamous book, set in a society where everything is heavily controlled. I believe it's meant for a younger audience, so it's a pretty easy read with a cliff hanger-esque ending.

      Summary: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/giver/summary.html

    The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin (Warning: Sexual content, abuse)
      This is the only short story on this list, and it's also probably the most bizarre. It starts with a serene description of what sounds like an ideal town and ends with a horrific twist.

      Summary: http://www.enotes.com/topics/ones-who-walk-away-omelas (Sorry, I couldn't find a Spark Notes for this one)
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It's like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.
— Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind