For several years of my youth, the YA section of my public library seemed to purchase new books in only three genres: manga, high school romances, and dystopias. Since I find manga drawings hard to focus on, and most high school romances make my eyes roll of their own volition, I read quite a lot of dystopias during that time.
Despite this lack of variety, I still respect the genre — it’s kind of neat to see ten people sit down, consider the question “Where is the world going?”, and come up with ten completely different answers, from zombies to superviruses to satellite-based mind control.
Not all answers are created equal, though. Below are seven things I would dearly like to say to future dystopian novelists — actually, all future novelists, come to think of it. I’ll draw in non-dystopian examples to make it more broadly applicable.
1. Go easy on the names … Yes, baby names have trends just like everything else. Yes, by the time the Great Soy War rolls around, we won’t still be called Emma and Olivia and Jacob. But your audience lives in the here and now, so consider treating unusual usage of punctuation and capitalization the same way you treat accessories: Put on all you want, then remove fifty percent before going public. You might fall in love with the name Tar’Yni!Aquj, but every time your readers see it, they’re going to stop and think, How on earth is that pronounced? Don’t do that to your readers. They have hard enough lives as it is. (Alternatively, if you do use an unusual name, try making it the only unusual name in the story, and apply it to an unusual character for dramatic effect. Or make it so outlandish that it pokes fun at an otherwise serious character.)
Where this was done well: Tanith Lee’s The Claidi Journals, where the characters’ names are exotic and memorable, but still pronounceable.
2. … but not too easy. If you’re a new author, chances are you’re not going to have enough influence with your readers that you can make them shiver just by capitalizing a noun. Are you sending your protagonists to an uber-creepy cave where their fates are going to be decided? Don’t call it the Cave. Sending your intrepid band on a perilous mountain trail? Don’t call it the Trail. Your imagination is better than that. Borrow from other languages if need be — try calling it “the Cave” or “the Trail” in Manx or Yoruba or Tocharian B.
Where this was done well: Look to the classics: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Once you’ve read them, I dare you to read the words “Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning”, “Ministry of Love”, or “Unwoman” without shivering at least a little.
3. Don’t forget about the characters … Yes, the world might be irrevocably different in your story. People could be living alongside beings from other worlds, eating synthesized goo and taking pills instead of sleeping.
But unless you’ve deliberately created a strain of unemotional humans (or put normal humans through some serious trauma), your human characters will most likely still have needs and reactions and emotional depths just like people do today. That’s what makes them relatable. You can’t kill off your main character’s family and have her just walk away saying, “Well, that’s war.” Humans don’t work like that.
Where this was done well: Throughout the Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins didn’t shy away from describing the emotional damage that the Games inflicts on its victors. She made it very clear that winning the Games wasn’t the fairy-tale ending the Capital marketed it as. The ending of Mockingjay hammered this truth home: Being involved in a high level of violence leaves indelible marks on one’s psyche.
4. … but don’t forget about your audience’s emotional attention span. While emotional and psychological reality are important, they should drive the plot, not be the plot. I once read a series in which the main plot was a love triangle between the female protagonist; a wealthy, kind, gorgeous guy; and a poor, selfish, rude guy. This “tension” played out for well over two books. It was the literary equivalent of an eye exam: you think everything’s obvious, and the guy in charge keeps changing one tiny detail of the situation and saying, “What do you think now? Come on, react.” Meanwhile, you want to beat him over the head and say, “Arrghh! Nothing is happening! Your tiny excuses for action are not changing my mind in any way!” In short: Love triangles are fine. Romantic tension is fine. Just consider making it a secondary or tertiary plot. You know, like love in the face of interplanetary war.
Where this was done well: In Philip Pullman’s The Tiger in the Well, Sally’s love for her daughter drives the action and raises the stakes sky-high, but Pullman is always careful not to get melodramatic about describing it. He doesn’t need to — he counts on readers to know about that kind of love in their own lives, and he weaves that motivation seamlessly and consistently into Sally’s every move. Similarly, Pullman describes Sally and Daniel’s connection sparingly, but it’s all the more beautiful for that sparsity. We know the feelings are there, and we can see how they inform the action, but they never put the brakes on the main story.
5. Overused trope #1: “The protagonist eventually realizes that the rebel alliance isn’t so great after all. The protagonist then starts thinking about a way to counter or undermine this.” We get it. It happens a lot. Please don’t make it the Big Reveal of your story.
Where this was done well: Margaret Peterson Haddix provides a fresh, memorable spin on this trope in Running Out of Time.
6. Overused trope #2: “The protagonist becomes the best hope of the rebel alliance — much to his/her surprise, as he/she had previously considered him- or herself a simple shepherd/apprentice/dishwasher.” The Unwilling Hero(ine) is one of the oldest tricks in the book, so you might consider putting a new spin on it rather than using it as a convenient crutch. Also, please don’t use this as the Big Reveal either. The enemy is hunting for a prophesied leader of the rebel alliance? Who on earth could it be? Surely not the lowly servant boy who cleans the pool! The advisors are in a dither! Nobody knows for sure! … except the audience, who is rolling their eyes in unison, having guessed it three books ago.
Where this was done well: Star Wars.
7. Don’t forget about the details. We get it: your dystopian world is sparse and bleak, inhabited only by intrepid humans, cockroaches, and sentient Twinkies. (Incidentally, who’s up for forming a band called the Sentient Twinkies?) But there’s still room for some details in there, and that’s going to make your story vivid and unforgettable.
Where this was done well: Did Foaly’s tin-foil hat dramatically affect the plot of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series? How about the tech specs of the Hummingbird Z7s? No. But it’s those quirky little items that suck in an audience and make them want to come back. Also, anywhere the author used a rich tapestry of details to hide one or two incredible important things. (For example, did you remember Ravenclaw’s diadem from book 6? I sure didn’t.)
In conclusion: I love the questions that dystopian fiction raises, as well as the scope for imagination and creativity that it affords. In a market filled with dystopian fiction, it can be hard to write something fresh and engaging … but it’s still possible, and when done right, it’s absolutely worth the effort.
What tropes did I leave out? Is there a dystopian plot or detail you’d love to see in a bookstore near you?
[UPDATE, 12/11/14: The dystopian discussion continues here!]