Despite the cry of “dystopian stories are sooooo over!” new ones come out every month. It feels to me that dystopia is not just a trend; it’s a genre that’s here to stay, just like sci-fi or historical fiction, and frankly it’s been around much longer than The Hunger Games. So if you have an idea that’s set in a false utopia, never fear, there’s hope of publication after all!
Dystopia Plot Notes:
The defining element of this masterplot is the setting:dystopias are societies which falsely present as utopias. This differs from post-apocalyptic settings which don’t try to hide that society is in shambles.
A dystopian hero is someone who questions the existing social and political systems in their world, and takes action to challenge the status quo.
In a dystopia, the hero’s main externalconflict is whoever has control over society. It can be Corporate Control (MINORITY REPORT), Bureaucratic Control (THE HUNGER GAMES), Technological Control (THE MATRIX), or Philosophical/Religious Control (THE GIVER).
As for the time frame, people often think dystopian stories must take place in the future. But I find it telling how some dystopian novels don’t specify a date (THE HUNGER GAMES, THE GIVER). Sure, what happens in these novels is presumed to take place in the future, but there’s also a disturbing hint that these events could happen soon, if not right now. And that’s the power of good dystopian story: it feels possible.
Dystopias often take present day problems and escalate them: in the HUNGER GAMES that problem is the spectacle of reality TV; in THE UGLIES it’s society’s obsession with looks and plastic surgery. Dystopian stories reveal what’s happening right now but brought to the extreme.
The ending of dystopian stories varies. In most adult dystopia, the end is sad and grim, and the story serves as a cautionary warning, a message that if society goes down this path, we’re all doomed! But in YA dystopia, there is hope. Usually the hero has a victory, and even if society isn’t completely changed, there is hope that it will.
Example to Study:
I read a LOT of YA dystopia, so it was hard to pick which one to break down, but I’ve decided on UNWIND by Neal Shusterman.
· SETTING: The United States in the near future (date unspecified).
· PRESENT DAY PROBLEM: Abortion. Yep, unwinding is this dystopian society’s solution to the abortion debate – if a child is unwanted, the parents can’t have an abortion, but they can “stork” the child (give it away) or raise it to teenagehood. Once the child is a teenager, they can be “unwound” and parts of their body distributed to other people. And the propaganda machine tells everyone this isn’t murder, it’s “living in a divided state”. It sounds crazy, but the brilliance of this book is a fully flushed out history that makes this dystopian world seem completely and terrifyingly plausible.
· CHARACTERS: Three main characters who are all on the verge of being unwound. They manage to escape their fate only to be hunted by the authorities. Two of them question society right from the beginning, but one doesn’t, and seeing his evolution is one of the best parts of this book.
· CONFLICT: Bureaucratic (unwinding is the law).
· ENDING: Hopeful! Our heroes haven’t solved all of society’s problems, but they’re alive and safe… for now.
Other dystopian novels that I didn’t mention above but are super awesome and you should read: LEGEND by Marie Lu, RED RISING by Pierce Brown, STARTERS by Lissa Price, and PROXY by Alex London.
Thank you for joining us today! We hope you enjoyed D is for Dystopia and invite you back tomorrow for our next installment of Masterplots Theater: E is for Escape.
Please share your own favorite dystopia tips or titles you love below.
Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW
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43 thoughts on “Masterplots Theater: D is for Dystopia”
Thank you so much. My current WIP is a sort of YA dystopian lite as I am adding a layer of humor which may or may not work – we’ll see. This is very helpful. I would love to have a similar resource for dystopian plot obligatory scenes and conventions. Any help??
Glad you found the post helpful! As for obligatory scenes, I don’t think there is any such thing, but I would say that there are “must do” things with regards to worldbuilding. When I know what all of those things are, I will write a post. Right now I’m reading a lot of history books about the birth of various civilizations to get a handle on how societies rise and how they fall. Because though we often think of dystopias as future worlds, there are plenty of dystopian societies in human history.
I didn’t use to be a fan of this genre, but I started reading more of it when my kids became teenagers because I like to read what they read to make sure it’s okay for them to read it and I found that I actually liked many of the novels I read. I also never really considered that dystopian stories reveal what’s happening in the real world right now, but to the extreme, but you’ve made a valid point. They truly do. The internet ‘s been down in our city all day and so has AT&T wireless so I haven’t been able to access any of the A to Z posts. It just came back on and your blog was the first I stopped by. I’m glad I didn’t miss this post. I was worried I might miss an entire day. When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was Logan’s Run. You may not remember the film, but I was wondering if that would be considered dystopian? I can’t remember if it was set in a dystopian world or not, but I believe the characters couldn’t live past the age of 35 or something like that. Anyway, Unwind sort of reminded me of Logan’s Run. I don’t know why, but it did. I know I will like Unwind and I’m eager to read it. Abortion is always a contraversial topic, but put that in a YA novel with teens and have them running for their lives to keep from having their body parts distributed to others and you have a suspensful, high stakes novel that I want to read. Thanks again for another great post.
I haven’t seen LOGAN’S RUN, but according to the synopsis I just read online, it sure sounds like a dystopia! I will have to watch it. Thanks, Melissa!
She doesn’t write for YA audiences, but I really love Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels. The environment almost always figures large in her plots.
Yes, Margaret Atwood is most famous for her dystopian stories! Well, maybe that’s just my opinion. Some may love her most for her other stories.
It does appear to be more than a trend. Lots out there still!
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Nope. Not going anyway. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Sharon!
Especially during the current U.S. presidential election season, I’m finding reality more than dystopian enough for me! But your discussion of literary genres is very well-done, and I’m enjoying reading about them even if I’m not going to rush out and read the books!
Thanks, Susan! Yes, the news about the U.S. elections feels like something right out of a dystopian prologue. Up here in Canada, we’re watching the race with baited breath and crossing our fingers that the worst doesn’t happen.
My favorite dystopia is also a utopia – Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. It involves time travel and a community that I still think I`d like to help create in the so-called real world. One of the scariest dystopias for me is in Margaret Atwood`s novel – The Handmaiden`s Tale. Come to think of it – she has a few – Oryx & Crake, MaddAdam, The Year of the Flood. But there you go – two women who are both also fantastic poets and feminists.
Yes, Margaret Atwood is a classic dystopian novel writer. I haven’t read Piercy’s novel, but it’s on my list. Thanks, Jan!
Can’t say that I’m a fan of dystopia. I try to read it every once in awhile, but then I remember that I don’t like it.
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Not everyone enjoys dystopian stories, and that’s cool. Though the downside of dystopia being a trend is that a LOT of mediocre versions got published, which I fear gave the genre a bad rap.
Well I won’t say I am very big fan of Dystopia but I don’t mind reading them …
A wonderful analysis and a great post 🙂
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Thanks, Srivi! I guess no one is really a fan of dystopia as a location. 😉 Though often when I watch the news I kinda think we’re already living in one…
I think anyone should write whatever story they want to. As a bookworm, a new book is always a happy happening in my eyes. And as a writer, I’d like to write anything that pops into my mind. Thanks for the explanation about the dystopia plot. I’m going to lurk around in your blog and learn more.
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Thanks for the comment, Grace! I agree – just write the best story you can in the genre you want.
Loved this post! I think that as long as people are trying to fix problems in our current society there will always be a place for these type of stories. Love the suggestions of books too! Totally adding them to my list of books to read!
Thanks, Tawnya! Yes, unless we create an actual uptopia (which I don’t think is possible), dystopian stories will continue to have a place in our world. Hope you enjoy UNWIND!
I appreciate your analysis. I’ve only read a few dystopian books and have mixed feelings about them. The theme of the one you used as an example is intriguing.
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Thanks, Kathleen! Like any genre, dystopia is filled with all kinds of books, good, bad and ugly. But I hope you like UNWIND.
I just said yesterday that I want to read more dystopian novels! I’ll start with Unwind, thanks for the hint! 🙂 Onto my reading list it pops!
Fantastic! It’s such a great story.
I’ve read a number of dystopian books, but somehow never heard of this one. It sounds horrifying and yet it intrigues me. I’ll have to read it now.
Please do! It’s a thought-provoking book, and also a hell of an adventure!
I sat across from an agent in 2014 who said most agents would immediately reject anything dystopian because it was “over.” I can’t say that doesn’t mean people can’t write it for small presses or self-publish it. My agent won’t look at it, either. I was personally affected when chick lit came and went (VERY quickly) because I could no longer write romantic comedy. No agent or publisher would touch it because they saw anything humorous in the romance genre as chick lit. SO annoying!
That’s true, whenever there’s a glut of the same type of story, agents/publishers get sick of it and there’s a rush to say it’s over. Yet dystopians still come out every month. It seems to me that the genre isn’t done, it’s just not fashionable to call it dystopia anymore. I’ve noticed the more recent dystopian novels are labeled “sci-fi” — which is true. Dystopia is just a sub-genre of sci-fi or spec fic or fantasy. Sometimes it’s all in how the story is presented. Bottom line, dystopia stories are still being published by mainstream publishers, they’re just downplaying the dystopian part or labelling it something else. At least that’s what it looks like to me. Anyone else have any more information on the subject?
That sounds like a really interesting book. I’ll have to check it out. Reminds me a bit of “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro.
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NEVER LET ME GO is an excellent example of an adult dystopian novel. Though both books touch on the same themes, the execution of each story is very, very different since UNWIND is YA.
Great point and thanks for the comment!
Thanks for the definition – I haven’t seen it put that clearly before :). I used to love dystopian stories when I was younger, but find them incredibly uncomfortable these days. Maybe because some of them are so plausible.
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Yes, as we get older we see the reality in dystopia a bit more and that makes these stories extra disturbing. Admittedly, I’ve always loved scared stories, so I guess that’s why I still love a good dystopian novel.
Thanks for your comment, Tasha!
Well, dystopian might be overdone at the moment (we are in a time of very hard change, of course we fear what the future will bring), but I think this is one of the most powerful generes out there. Precisely because it takes a reality what we know and escalets it to impossible visions. Impossible, but not unrealistic.
This is the power of it: we recognise our present and we recognise the fact that that kind of evolution is plausible. It’s a very strong kidn of warning and more straightforward than other genres.
I don’t read a lot of dystopians, but I have a great respect for the genre.
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Very well said, Sarah!
Doesn’t surprise me that in our society where so much is horrifying, many choose to read about places where even more horror is the norm. A strange way of running away from it all, perhaps.
Hm, I definitely don’t read dystopia to escape. I think I like the challenge of it, how it scares me and makes me think about what I would do in that situation. Preparing myself for the future, perhaps? Though often when I’m done a dystopian novel I sit back and think, “Well at least my life isn’t THAT bad!” Which could be the appeal of dystopia for others too; when we are faced with so many horrors in life, a dystopia is a reminder that things aren’t as bad as they could be, that we could still turn this sh*t around.
Thanks so much for your comment, Sharon!
Hmm. Now I am torn. There are dystopia that I still want to read, especially those by Patrick Ness, but I am not a big fan of dystopia anymore. Like who I have been during the hype of Twilight, Divergent and The Hunger Games. 😀
Nonetheless, great post! 🙂
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Thanks, Rose! Yes, the world got a little overrun with dystopia, but the best books rise to the top no matter what the genre. 🙂
oh well. i cannot agree more! 😀
Okay, first, it’s so not over. I love dystopian YA (and am so glad you covered this). Second: “even if society isn’t completely changed, there is hope that it will.” Yes!
P.S. That book sounds so creepy but now I must check it out. Thanks. A lot. 😉
Thanks, Sarah! And yes, Unwind is amazing. It was originally written as a standalone, and because it was such a hit it was developed into a series.