I’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: “
Dystopian 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.
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
- 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:
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.
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:
“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
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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