Perfect Your Dystopian World in 5 Easy Steps

DystopiaI’m obsessive. Once I get my little fishhook fingers into something there is nothing I won’t consume about a subject.

That’s why I’ve obsessively read books since I sung my first ABC and it’s why I write just as obsessively now.

One of my biggest obsessions, is the concept of dystopian worlds. I heart everything about them. I want the t-shirt, the fan girl moves, the merch and ALL the books. ALL OF THEM.

But right now, as a writer, I’m more interested in how to get them right. What do you need building bricks do you need to include and what key factors do you need to make a dystopian world realistic.

I’ve just finished reading Jane Dougherty’s Abomination. It was both a fantastic read and an exceptional example of an apocalyptic and dystopian setting.

Here are 5 steps to perfect the dystopian world.

‘Dystopia’ is: characterized by human misery, as squalor,oppression, disease, and overcrowding.” Dictionary.com

abomination_scaled_finalDystopian novels usually examine a social or political concept through an oppressive or broken society or power. The juicy bits in these books tend to come from the exploration of the reasoning behind why it’s broken. But my most fave bit about dystopia is that its usually a reflection of our own fucked up society.

It’s an exploration of what could be, of what’s to come if we don’t shape up and what really, already is. It explores the darkness inside us all that if we’re not careful, will seep out, infect our shambles of a society and lead us on the path to dystopian hell.

Some of the first and most uber famous work in the dystopian field include 1984 by George Orwell and A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, both books I’ve put on my 30 by 30 list (30 things I want to achieve/do or in this instance read by the time I’m 30, in March 2017)

In the last five years there’s been an explosion of dystopian fiction in the YA genre, and anyone who’s hung around here for even one post, will know I am a super geek for anything YA. Famous examples include: Divergent, Hunger Games, Uglies and Matched.

If you’ve got any dystopian book recommendations for me (but particularly in the YA genre) tap me up and leave me a scribble in the comments below.


Step One – Something Broken

Writing dystopian fiction is fun because you can behave like a teenage boy; break shit and blow stuff up.

You can pre order Devastation (Book 2 of the Pathfinders Series) from Finch Books here.

You can pre order Devastation (Book 2 of the Pathfinders Series) from Finch Books here.

And that’s just the setting. Dystopian fiction dissects humanity. I get literary ecstasy when I rub my writerly hands together and drill down into the what and why we do stuff. Why is our society so corrupt? Why do we lie? And are lies ever justified if it’s for the greater good?

These moral and philosophical questions are exactly what should be explored in a dystopian world. It’s an opportunity to explore what really fucks you off about life. I have two dystopian books on the back burner waiting to be finished: Adultland, and The Firmament, the latter of which I posted an excerpt of in last week’s Writespiration.

The point I am trying to make is, BREAK SOMETHING. Something political, or societal. But it has to be something fundamental to how our society works.

In Delirium, they determine love to be a disease and find a cure for it. In Divergent, they portion society up by personality traits. In Hunger Games they send a child off each year as a sacrifice to keep the peace.

In Abomination, Dougherty’s something broken is the world itself. The apocalypse has come, and the world is breaking apart as hell itself descends on earth.

“As long as the satellites continued sending pictures, the monitors showed catastrophe on a global scale. Coastlines were submerged, islands disappeared, mountain chains exploded, fault lines opened and swallowed cities in a cascade of flames, plumes of smoke miles high, and the black dust and ash of the end of the world.” Ch 1 Abomination, by Jane Dougherty


Step Two – A Villain’s Reasoning 

Now, it’s all fun and games breaking shit for literary giggles. But readers won’t be laughing if there isn’t a fully thought out justification for society’s fuckedupness (that’s 100% a word).

I’m not about spoilers, so I can’t tell you about the main villain in Dougherty’s book, but Ace, the second villain, is really just a scared little boy, using bigger boys to beat on others in order to do what he wants and retain control.

Divergent is another good example of this. The ‘real’ world is broken by war, their justification for locking people in Chicago and sectioning them off into factions is to wait for evolution to bring about ‘whole’ humans again in order to broker peace. That sounds like a reasonable justification to me. But the key here is you do need a believable justification.

If you want more tips on Villains, subscribe to get the latest news on my book release, 13 Steps to Evil – The Ultimate Writer’s Guide To Creating Superbad Villains.


Step Three – Physical Dystopia

Now as much as you shaft your characters intangible psychological stuff in your dystopian setting, you also need to tinker with the physical. By that I mean your setting.

Usually a dystopian setting is based on a world that is dying, been through some kind of world ending war, or ravaged by viruses. Whatever the cause it needs to be messy.

Some things to consider include:

  • Buildings, where do people sleep/eat/live
  • Weather
  • Clothing
  • Technology
  • Food and the ease of access to it

I am super visual and draw a lot of inspiration from seeing things. One of the things I wanted to achieve before I was 30 was entering a derelict building. So far I’ve got photos of a derelict barn and a burnt out canal boat. I’ve also managed to talk my way into being allowed into a derelict school so I’ll be taking photos of that soon too. Below are some images I’ve taken for dystopian inspiration:

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Dougherty is the master of creating a broken world. I lost count of how many sentences I highlighted. But here are some examples of her gorgeous descriptions:

“…the track behind him erupted into a tangled web of razor wire and jagged pieces of beaten metal. The creatures raced into the trap, hoisted into the air by barbs that tore deep into their flesh.” Ch6, Abomination, by Jane Dougherty

“The smell he gave off was a heady mixture of unwashed human and decomposing canine.” Ch 7, Abomination by Jane Dougherty

“Everywhere piles of debris and smashed lights and windows bore witness to the fighting for control of the place. Shops had been pillaged, some burnt out, all had been defiled in some way. The wall were plastered with tags, scowls and daubs, spattered with paint, excrement and blood. Even in the cold, even with half the glass in the doors and windows put out, the stench remains. It was the smell of decay, of putrefaction, of a whole civilisation rotting away.” Ch 13, Abomination by Jane Dougherty


Step Three – The Struggle

If you break something, then something needs to be a struggle. It doesn’t matter what that struggle is, but you need to make some part of living hard for your characters.

Usual suspects, include food and shelter. But as in Delirium, it’s being able to love freely.


revelation_9781786517715_xlrg-180x288

You can pre order Revelation (Book 3 of the Pathfinders Series) from Finch Books here.

Step Four – The Extreme

Once you decide what your something broken is, and what your something struggle is (I feel like I’m wedding planning now, I just need something blue) you need to take shit to the next level.

I’ve talked about pushing readers to the extreme in recent post on giving readers book hangovers.

Struggles and extremes come hand in hand like cupcakes and my stomach. If you want to make your characters struggle the easiest way to do it, is to take whatever is broken and push it to the next level.

For example, in the Hunger Games, not only do they struggle for food, they then have to sacrifice CHILDREN to prevent war.

In Divergent, not only do they get ‘tested’ for personality traits, they then have to live, breathe and be all consumed by those traits.

In Dougherty’s book, everything is pushed to the extreme. The world really is ending. Food is limited and if they don’t starve to death first, they will freeze because of the weather extremes.


Step Five – The Warning Message

And here we come to an end. Through all the catastrophes, character starving and blowing of shit up, is the thought you want to leave your readers with.

What is your theme? What is the message about society that you are really leaving readers with?

In Uglies, by Scott Westerfield – in which at 16 you undergo plastic surgery to make you pretty – pretty being societies pre-determined definition of pretty- his message is clear. Don’t be a sheep. Stay unique, and don’t become a drone. Wanting to be the same as everyone else, is more than just visibly damaging, it’s mentally damaging. It’s okay to be different.


I asked Dougherty, three questions on dystopian settings, here’s our Q&A:

Q1. Jane, where did you draw inspiration from?

A.1 For the wormhole aspect the idea came from looking through a kid’s science magazine and thinking what a really cool idea wormhole theory is. Using them as shortcuts through time and space, I mean, since they really do exist, and have been created artificially. I love space, string theory, parallel worlds and all that but I don’t have a very scientific mind and it’s so rare I actually cotton onto a theory. Probably because the article was written for eleven year olds…

The shopping mall idea comes from a visceral horror of shopping and a morbid fear of being trapped in a mall. Photos of abandoned commercial and industrial sites have also worked their way into my imagination.

Q2. What did you find most important to consider when thinking about getting a realistic apocalyptic setting 

A.2 There are dozens of apocalyptic stories around, many of them, like mine set in the ruins of cities and inhabited by blood-crazed savages/aliens/zombies/normal terrified people who don’t know where else to go. It’s all very plausible (if you believe in zombies) but for how long would it be possible to scratch an existence in the ruins? There’s a limit to how many cans of beans and packets of cornflakes you could scavenge before the perishables just…perished or got eaten. No electricity, no water, no agriculture, nothing produced at all. I reckoned five years would be just about all we’d get, to paraphrase Bowie. I’ve read plenty of stories where food supplies, new clothes, shoes, munitions for guns, fresh fruit and vegetables, household implements etc all appear out of nowhere, when nobody is actually producing anything. When that happens, my belief in the story crumbles completely. If somebody makes a sandwich in a post apocalyptic world, I want to know where the f**k the sliced bread and the lettuce came from. How to manage on nothing seems to me what’s most important. If you can’t find a solution to that one, then everybody has to be dead.

Q3. What would your three top tips be for anyone wanting to create an apocalyptic or dystopian setting?

A.3 Decide on your social structure. Is society going to be organized to continue producing what we are used to having, or is it going to collapse completely and morph into something else? Who will run it, to what end, and is there an alternative?

There has to be a conflict; somebody has to be in disagreement with the new society. Perhaps there’s a threat, aliens, human gangs/armies etc. Whatever, even if it’s a utopia, it needs an opposition not only to make it credible, but to create perspective and depth and, let’s face it, a good story.

Keep it realistic. Whatever commodities your characters use, you need to be able to account for how they came by them or made them. If the refrigerator still works, you need to explain how, likewise where does the fuel come from for the cars, the electricity for the lights, running water, the sewage system. And don’t go to the other extreme with a highly urbanized population of Homer Simpsons suddenly intuitively rediscovering the lost arts of long bow making, home steel production and arrowhead manufacture, spinning, weaving and sewing with fish gut. Don’t kid yourselves, it wouldn’t happen.


NEWS ALERT – CALLING ALL READERS OF BOOKS!

There’s a new campaign out – if you’re a reader and you don’t leave reviews, then you should. Reviews are the bread and butter of a writers career. Terry Tyler has started a new twitter hashtag, #AugustReviews with the goal of encouraging readers to leave just one review in the month of August. PLEASE join in, and check out her campaign here.


I wanted to leave you with my favourite quote from Dougherty’s book:

abomination_scaled_final“To go where? You don’t understand because you’ve only just arrived, but the rest of us have lived  through five years of watching the earth pulling the plug on itself and humanity squabbling over the leavings like dogs over a bone. There is nowhere to go, nowhere that isn’t exactly like this.” Abomination, Ch 35, Jane Dougherty

You can buy Abomination from Amazon UK or Finch Books.

As a point of review, while Dougherty’s book is awesome of the highest proportions, and I really did love it (go read it now), if you are faint of heart or on the sensitive side, read it with caution. Dougherty is not afraid of…well, anything.


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56 comments

    1. Thanks so much – I am off to check this out now. I have done the odd search on goodreads actually, but sometimes having an actual recommendation is better because you know who’s saying they liked it 😀 Thanks for the link it does work.

  1. reading your posts is sooo good for me, I always seem to come away with a raft of new ideas! I will see what I can do about the review situation, brilliant idea!

  2. Janes book is fabulous, and a great example of a dystopian world. Loved your post about how to do it. You do make it sound easy. Duh… but I suspect it’s not, lol! I’m wondering though, does dystopia have to be set in the future? If it’s about society breaking down and life as everyone knows it, could it also be set in the past? I’m thinking about the Great Flood, for example, or even the present (revolution is totally gutting some countries) or even the recent past , ie Russia, Germany.

    1. Lol, I think if u have a hook – I.e the something broken your basing your story on, then it shouldn’t be too hard. It’s just trying to choose what thing to break and make sure it’s unique.

      Yep, don’t see why it can’t be set in the past. 🙂 sounds like another book idea..: just saying ?

  3. Oh Brave New World is excellent!

    It’s funny, there are actually some crossovers with steampunk in a way. Not for the world building part, that’s more alt history in steampunk, but there’s always a sense for the main character that something is broken that needs to be fixed (hence ‘punk’).

    In a weird way, my Underground City universe for my Necromancer series is an alt-history fantasy type of dystopia, where the slums have been forced underground, and the hoi polloi live it up in the sunny world of the City Above. Funny how dystopia creeps into loads of different areas.

    But do you read Urban Ghosts Media? LOADS of abandoned buildings and places on there!

    1. YES YES YES and guess what else I am obsessed with?! Steampunks – I shit you not. I had going to a steam punk fair on my 30 by 30 list! did it and it was awesome.

      I don’t read it – but guess where I am headed right now… thank you so much for the recommendation.

  4. Pretty sure I’m not following #2 with my Bedlam series. Probably because the focus is on the two characters surviving in a dystopian landscape with no intention of fixing the world or even knowing why it happened. I did get complaints about the events leading into the collapse being vague, but how do you go into details when your protagonists are more likely to walk away from those conversations?

    Probably only giving a message of ‘stay away from cannibals’ too. That or make sure you’re the craziest bastard in the room if society collapses.

    1. Hey look – these things are just trends and the shite I pick up on. Doesn’t mean every story ever needs to follow them all. The point is, to be unique and interesting or there’s no point to our books.

      hahahaha I love that – if society collapses make sure your the craziest bastard in the room! nearly spat my coffee out. Brilliant.

  5. This is a great insight into creating a dystopian world and how to create one. For me when you talked about lying for the greater good – that’s the thing with a baddie. They’re got to be Machiavellian and doing bad things for a greater good, which could be good or bad. Maybe the best baddies are the ones doing really bad things for a good or logical cause. Adds that bit of reader conflict in their mind.

      1. This is the ting, what’s good and what’s evil – do the ends justify the means? Even those we consider heroes have to do things not great to achieve that greater purpose sometimes.

  6. Hmm now I want to write a dystopian novel… yup, that’s definitely on the agenda now. Umm books. Well JG Ballard is the ultimate writer of dystopia. EM Forster, contemporary of Aldous H wrote The Machine Stops which freaked me at 18. And if youw ant dystopia and derelict you ahve to go to Orfordness the now rotting secret military weapons establishment where you can access many derelict buildings but there’s so much unexploded ordnance around many places are locked away. I posted about it a while ago (Sam did his dissertation on it). Look it up. If you fancy it then it’s easy. You Chloe and the young star come and stay with us; they go to the beach and we go and do dystopia!! And we visit D Hearn too so you can give him more grief for not coming to the bash…

    1. Haha no way? Do you really? Awesome that you have added it to your list. I have heard of JG Ballard actually. But now added it to my list. AND OHHHHHH MMMMMMM GGGGGGGGG I just googled it. I WANT TO GOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!! We need to discuss on the 8th – you never know, we could always co-author a military dystopian book together! Now wouldn’t that be something 😀

  7. Writing a story about a dystopian world is something I find quite difficult although, being a huge fan of Dr.Who, I do wonder why that is. Breaking something and writing about the consequences sounds great fun, though.

      1. But there is ‘gentle’ and ‘hard’ science fiction. I always go for the gentle type and try and stick to what I know. Ask me to write an opera or a poem and I’d be out the door before the bell rang.

  8. I love dystopian worlds, I think it was when I first read The Stand, or watched the original Red Dawn, giving away age here, lol. So also Dr. Who, bloody Daleks who gave them permission to be able to fly now, shudders. My parents gave me a black Dalek when I was two that ran on a battery and said the usual things. I was terrified then I got mad and bashed it with the sweeping brush. So, yes, I am a dystopian girl, as long as it`s writing about it or reading about it that is.

  9. Well you know I’m not into dystopia – no harsh dark inner broken worlds for me. There’s enough of that in the real world! But your advice sounds sound and of benefit to others who are creating dystopian worlds, or is that un-creating? I wish you much success with yours, but I’m not sure that I’ll put myself forward as a reader. Good thing you have many others who will!
    It’s great that you are also promoting Terry’s August Reviews. Did you review Abomination? I love that shiny spinny thing on Jane’s cover. I wonder how she (or you) did that. It’s pretty awesome.

    1. Ahh I write YA dystopia so not tooooo harsh, and honestly more about love than anything! It just happens to be set in a dystopian world!

      Also, my first book is technically fantasy, not dystopian at all.

      I did indeed review abomination. I review every indie published book I read. I review some traditionally published ones too, but only if I have time, Jane is traditionally published and although I’m biased I happen to love Jane! ?

      Also Janes cover is proper wicked I have no idea how she did it in guessing it’s a gify file, but either way I’m impressed

      1. So, I’m edging closer to a read. You sound rather convincing.
        I have heard others discuss Jane’s writing prowess as well. Her cover is extraordinary.
        You are great to review the books you read. Well done. 🙂

  10. Have you ever read The Orphan Queen books by Jodi Meadows? They’re really great. The main character is heir to the throne of a conquered country she hasn’t been to since her family was overthrown but she and the surviving children of the nobles are plotting to take their country back. Also there’s something spreading across the face of the world, a kind of energy field that warps reality within it making it uninhabitable and creatures caught in it monstrous. It’s believed to be created by humans using magic (guess who also happens to be a born magic user) and it will be upon the city immanently. Throw on top of that concepts of responsibility for unforeseen consequences of ones actions, confusion about who the villains and who the heroes are, the importance of image and identity, inherent isolation and inequalities of power, dangers and obligations of fame, and the ethics of being a magical being where magic is outlawed. Oh, and there’s a romantic subplot that actually fuels the issues. I don’t know if that’s your kind of thing but it seems like it might be and I very much enjoyed them.

    1. Hey, thanks so much for dropping in and commenting. I have now just this minute, gone and downloaded a sample of the Orphan Queen to give it a go. Thank you so much for the awesome suggestion.

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