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How to Build a Dystopian World

My niece Jules, who’s turning twelve next week, wants to know if I have any advice for someone who’d like to write dystopian fiction.

A story starts with either a character or a plot. Lots of writers start with a character first and then put them in an exciting story. For our purposes today, let’s start with the plot.

Dystopian stories need a central conceit, or a fictitious assumption which must be accepted by the reader so the plot will be seen as plausible.

For example, in Gone by Michael Grant, it’s an ordinary day—until everyone over the age of 15 suddenly disappears. Poof. The children who remain are trapped inside a ten-mile wide dome that stretches over their entire town. No one can get inside to help them. Their cell phones and televisions don’t work. And there are supernatural horrors inside the dome that no one could have imagined.

In Bumped by Megan McCafferty, the central conceit is that a virus has swept the earth, rendering nearly all adults sterile. Most of the teenagers will be affected by the virus and lose their ability to reproduce by the time they turn eighteen. Pop culture shifts to make teen pregnancy the cool thing to do, and the pressure to “bump” is intense. If young girls don’t start having babies by the time they’re thirteen or fourteen, the entire human race might die out.

Those are some pretty unbelievable situations, right? So how do you get readers to believe a central conceit?

It all lies in how your characters react to the unbelievable situation. No matter how crazy your central conceit, your character must react in an honest, believable way. Your character shouldn’t be perfect. They might be frightened. Maybe they trust the wrong people. They’ll definitely make mistakes as they confront the obstacles you’ll throw in their path.

In dystopian stories, the government/society/cult/etc. claims to be the perfect solution to the problem in the central conceit. As I’ve said in other posts, dystopian societies are twisted versions of perfection. Once their flaws are exposed, the good guys and gals will have no choice but to try and change the world for the better.

So how do you do that??

Keep asking “what if?” and come up with enough answers that you don’t have to go with the obvious choice.

You may start writing with an idea of how your protagonist will triumph in the end. You can probably tell what your readers will want, or expect, to happen. But maybe your ending won’t be happily ever after. You’ve got to keep them guessing.

The key is to get from the beginning to the end in an unexpected way.


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Tracy Lawson has wanted to be a writer ever since she learned to read. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Communication from Ohio University, and though she embarked on a career in the performing arts as a dance instructor and choreographer, never lost her desire to write, and thus far has to her credit a coming-of-age dystopian thriller and an historical nonfiction. Her interest in writing for teens is sparked by all the wonderful young people in her life, including her daughter, Keri, a college sophomore.

You can find out more about her on her website and on Twitter


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