How to Handle Dystopian Stories

That meme made me laugh out loud. Listen (old grandpa voice) I remember when dystopian novels were about warning people about possible futures they wanted to avoid, not about super-powered children with teenage problems. 1984 and Brave New World are the pinnacle of dystopia.

Anyway, you wanted to find out how to make your own? Well, (Phrase removed due to redundancy across all articles)! I’ve had my fair share of dystopian novels and movies (although I confess that I haven’t read or watched some of the cult classics…I may someday), and I’ve experimented with the genre a bit.

Fist of all, dystopian novels are often mishandled and mistaken for other genres. Just because a book has dystopian elements doesn’t mean that the genre of the novel itself is dystopian. Remember, just because the world gets destroyed does not assume that the world magically falls into a dystopian structure, even if you’re treating it as such. It could devolve into the post-apocalyptic genre (but more on that below). Let’s begin by saying what a dystopian story is not.

A post-apocalyptic story is not necessarily a dystopian one. Self-explanatory. Any story that starts with picking up the pieces of a world after a disaster is classified as post-apocalyptic. The dystopian story is particularly one that has a corrupt and “anti-utopia” (hence the name) society. No miserable society, no dystopia.

A dystopian story is not so if a corrupt government is absent. Picking up on the last comment, this is what makes the dystopian story what it is: a corrupt government that is depraved, all-powerful, and nefarious in nature and execution. Without such a government there is no dystopia. Period.

A dystopian story is usually not very complicated. Owing to the simplicity of harsh brutality and utter totalitarianism, space travel and superpowers are a bit redundant for a dystopian story. A good rule of thumb is to keep the characters down-to-earth and normal. As far as adding things is concerned, keep it to a minimum.

A dystopian story usually does not have any kind of meaningful resistance against said government. The gimmick of the dystopian story is that the good guys are struggling against a well-nigh unbeatable villain: the combined force of a powerful government. This doesn’t mean that the government is actually unbeatable, but it must appear that way–at first. It has to be invincible, to crush all in its way before it can be opposed by the special someone.

Okay, so on to mechanics. First you have to distinguish what kind of hostile government we’re dealing with here. Is it decadent, militaristic, euphoria-seeking (Brave New World), primitive, high-brow, or what? Pick an adjective and build the society around it. See if you can make the society’s customs and quirks to match the feel you want it to have.

As another tip, all dystopian societies have their little practice that defines them. (Except for 1984, which just has a bunch of things typical of a dystopian society) Find yours. Maybe they regard dying of old age to be the highest good. Maybe they force your children to fight to the death (like in Hunger Games). In any case, you need to find that special detail that defines your dystopia.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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