How original is that dystopia?

As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy a good piece of dystopian fiction. At its best, it challenges people to think about the future and what they think humanity’s biggest priorities will be one hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years from now. Will racism be eradicated by then? What about sexism? Will we have corrected our contributions to climate change? Will we have reached out peacefully to other life forms?


This forward-thinking citizen is already on it.

But towards the less thoughtful end of the scale, there’s a lot of stories driven mainly by emotion, not by circumstances. I’ve read story after story where the external scenario (a war, an oppressive regime, a natural disaster) consistently fades into the background, and the internal struggle (forbidden/unrequited love, family dynamics, self-discovery) takes center stage. I’m all for internal struggles. I love how they add a third dimension to a story and really make characters pop. But I’ve found those struggles most poignant and engaging when they’re a foil to whatever else is going on — not the other way around.

Earlier this quarter, I picked up a new YA dystopian novel from the library, just for something to read on the bus. On page 199, I came across this line, and I had to stop and grimace — it was such a perfect summation of so many protagonists I’ve come across:

“It’s so frustrating to have logic thrown at me now. It’s making all my plans seem so hopeless.”

That’s it, that’s the state of modern teenage female protagonists in a nutshell. Go away, Hermione Granger. Move over, Sally Lockhart. It’s time for narrators characterized mainly by high emotion and indecision.


I call this phenomenon the Rise of the Waffling Narrator, and if you’d like to turn that into a comic book, here’s your first character for free.

This latest foray into dystopias started me thinking about the patterns and tropes that many of them include. Below, I present for your amusement a metric for modern YA dystopian fiction.

Instructions: Measure the book against the following questions. For every question you answer in the affirmative, give yourself one point.

  1. Is civilization physically divided into separate groups or clans, with strict injunctions against mixing?
    BONUS POINT: Does the protagonist below to one of the lower-class groups?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist initially in the lowest-class group, but then there turns out to be a hidden group that’s even lower?
  2. Is the protagonist at least half an orphan?
  3. Has the protagonist always felt different and/or misunderstood?
    BONUS POINT: Is this because the protagonist is really from another class but was swapped/smuggled in at birth?
  4. Does the protagonist eventually fall in with a different band of people?
    BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist then dazzled by the food and/or clothing they offer her?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Is this new band kind of evil but the protagonist decides to cut them some slack based on said food/clothes?
  5. Is the Internet mysteriously missing from this civilization?
    BONUS POINT: … but does medicine border on the miraculous?

    "All right, I'm willing the tumor away now ... done. I also cleared up your gingivitis. You're good to go."

    “All right, I’m willing the tumor away now … done. I also took care of your earwax and the heartburn you were going to have tomorrow. You’re good to go.”

  6. Is access to books extremely limited?
  7. Does the protagonist encounter some long-lost technology (which is conveniently very well known to us, thus sparing the author from having to come up with something new)?
    BONUS POINT: Does this technology play a role in Saving the Day later on?
  8. Is there a Secret Rebel Alliance that has been operating behind the scenes this whole time?
    BONUS POINT: Do they, for reasons we can’t fathom based on our knowledge of the protagonist, choose to reveal themselves to the protagonist?
    SUPER BONUS POINT: Has the protagonist been The Chosen One all along, the rebel alliance’s only hope at pulling this whole rebellion thing together?
    EXTRA BONUS POINT: Is this because of the protagonist’s true parentage, which has been kept from her all along?
    WILDLY EXTRA BONUS POINT: In the end, does the rebel alliance actually turn out to be evil/infiltrated, forcing the protagonist to form a splinter group?
  9. Is there an irritatingly handsome, inexplicably single young man floating around making things difficult for the protagonist?
    BONUS POINT: Does he actually turn out to be a member of the Secret Rebel Alliance, making it A-OK for the protagonist to fall in love with him because Nobody Else Understands?

    "Can we discuss the plans now?" "Not here. The horse can read lips."

    “I’m so glad I found you — rebelling against the status quo can get lonely sometimes.”                                                                  “Ssshh, not here. I think the horse is an enemy plant.”

  10. Does the protagonist save the day by Listening to Her Heart instead of basing a plan on logic or following the advice of older, more seasoned superiors?
  11. Are there two separate moments when the protagonist realizes that Everything She Knows Is a Lie, the first good because it confirms all her suspicions of society, the second terrible because she has to go back to square one and discover what’s really going on?
    BONUS POINT: Is the irritatingly handsome young rebel a major part of this second reveal?
  12. Is the person who guides the protagonist to the truth ultimately killed?

Point guide:

0–8 points: Well done, that’s an original piece of modern YA dystopian fiction you’ve selected. (Shout it out in the comments — I’d love to hear what it is.)

9–16 points: Sounds like you’re getting to know modern YA dystopian tropes pretty well. Would you like to branch out into other plots and devices? Try Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, which scared my socks off and forever changed how I feel about grocery stores.

17–25 points:  So maybe Mark Twain was right:

For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to find some new material. Have you considered reading some old-school dystopias that laid the groundwork for today’s works? Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and “The Sound of Thunder” are classics; for something more recent, try Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

What devices are you tired of seeing in books? What device do you keep hoping a writer will use, but you haven’t seen it yet?


Photo credits: UFO parking sign from MartinStr, massage from Olof, couple and horse from gpalmisanoadm, waffle vector from Nemo on Pixabay.


Seven dystopian pet peeves

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.

"Would Madam like the salad or the salad? It is completely Madam's choice."

“Would Madam like the salad or the salad? It is completely Madam’s choice.”

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.

I still think we should seriously consider the possibility that the future global economy will be pastry-based.

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.

“We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”

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.

Incidentally, one of the most traumatic events of my childhood was the time I read a Garfield comic where Garfield dreams about being transported to the future and lasagna is extinct.

Incidentally, one of the most traumatic events of my childhood was the time I read the installment of Garfield where he dreams about being transported to the future and lasagna is extinct. It’s just gone. Everyone takes pills instead of eating food. That was the moment I stopped trusting science to work unilaterally for the good of humanity.

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.

“I know you’re trying to solve this mystery, but I really think we should pause for some superfluous canoodling,” said no good sidekick ever.

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.

That awkward moment when you meet the hope of the alliance ... and he's still figuring out what toes are.

On a side note, I’d like to read a dystopian novel where the rebel alliance finds the prophesied leader … and he’s still figuring out what toes are.

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!]

Photo credits: Salads from PublicDomainPictures, cream puffs from la-fontaine, squirrel from shondarandolph060, lasagna from johanndoringer, road from Antranias, and baby from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.