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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