Are You Writing a Dystopian?

This post has been a few months in the making and I haven’t got around to it for a few reasons. The topic started as a joke with me, HarperCollins editor Sara Sargent, and literary agent Hannah Bowman. Important note: we were not making fun of dystopian. Personally, I love it. But like with any genre, there are certain conventions you can’t avoid when writing it. The reason I didn’t write this post earlier is because I figured no one is even publishing or submitting dystopian anymore. Sure, there are still some stragglers – some established authors finishing up trilogies or the rare debut that manages to be the needle in our haystack of queries. For the most part, however, the dystopian trend has slowed to a stop to make way for whatever the next thing will be.

Like I said, I love dystopian, but writers often confuse “personal preference” and “what agents are able to sell.” My love of dystopian needs to take a backseat in the post-Hunger Games market. The stakes for what makes a stand-out, original novel have been raised and there just isn’t room for 95% of them right now. The market won’t be ready to take a chance on a more traditional dystopian – especially in YA – for a few more years. (“Traditional dystopian” means a story that stays within the genre and doesn’t try to reinvent it.) Hence, not feeling the need to write this blog post. Then I noticed a recent increase in dystopian submissions. It’s obvious writers who were told to shelve their dystopian manuscripts waited a month or two, and are now re-submitting under the guise of other genres. The general premise and genre elements of dystopian are still there, but writers are labeling it “sci-fi,” “futuristic fantasy,” and “dark contemporary with sci-fi elements.”

If you’re wondering if what you’ve written is a dystopian, here’s a quick checklist. More importantly, this is how agents and editors know what you’ve written, regardless of what you call it:

1. Everything Has Generic Name
Your character lives in District or Zone [number], New [name of old town], or, if they’re rich, “Capitol City.” The government that controls everything is called The Corporation, The Agency, or simply The Government. The people fighting against them are The Resistance or The Rebels.

2. Story Begins with The Government Entering the Main Character’s Life
This main character is often a girl who’s either super pissed or super scared. She might even sass one of the guards before she goes with them willingly to a place where her destiny awaits.

3. The World Totally Sucks Now – Doesn’t Matter Why
To be dystopian, the modern/contemporary world needs to be destroyed. Sometimes there are references to “the old world” and other times we’re just placed in the middle of What Happened After. Usually this thing is a natural disaster or a virus, both of which are probably government conspiracies. Whatever it is, we don’t get to see the transition into dystopian society. It just exists.

4. Teenagers Matter A Lot.
Props to Hannah Bowman for making this point. Obviously in YA (which is where most dystopian novels live), teenagers need to be the focus, but rarely is it explained why society focuses on them. (Presumably there are more children and adults than teenagers in any given world, right?) Teens are the ones chosen, left behind, arranged into marriage, or sold into slavery. If you’re between the ages of 14 and 18 in a dystopian world, you’re pretty much screwed.

5. No Matter How Bad Things Get, There is Never a Shortage of Pretty Dresses
OK, this last one is kind of a joke. But seriously – why are so many dystopian heroines given beautiful gowns and why do we spend so much time reading about what they look like?? (You’re not above this, Katniss!)

There you have it. Keep in mind this list is a bit tongue-in-cheek. If your novel has all of these elements, it doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal, poorly written, or won’t get published. It just means it’s a dystopian. You should put just as much effort into making it perfect as you would any other project. Just be prepared to hear a lot of “I’m not taking on dystopian right now” or “Dystopian is really hard to sell…” comments from agents and editors. We like you and we like your book and we like all those fun, now-expected dystopian elements. Most of us are just taking a break from it, so query with caution, but query correctly. (I’m looking at you, “dark futuristic fantasy with romantic and sci-fi elements” people!)

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18 thoughts on “Are You Writing a Dystopian?

  1. I sort of have my doubts about number five. You might have a leg to stand on with some dystopias when it comes to street names, although any decent world builder is going to make some kind of effort to create street names I would think. (That's what I'm doing.)

    One major thing I'm doing is actually showing the transition from the previous society to the current society. That was one of the things that bugged me about 1984. Just because the government destroys records of history for the character to see, does not mean there was not a history.

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  2. @Brielle – Don't die! Even if your book employed ALL of these, it would just mean you wrote a dystopian. That's not a bad thing. It just means you'd need to find something *else* in your book to make it stand out. (Hint: Superb writing often goes a long way.)

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  3. @T.A. – I just want to make the point that ebooks are very much a part of traditional publishing. Your comment made it seem like you consider them to be separate, but ebooks are just another format that Big 6 and smaller publishers produce their books.

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  4. I get the point and agree completely. The YA dystopic thing has gone on for far longer than it ever should have. Unfortunately, as your blog suggests, the damage has been done to those of us who thrive in dystopian environments. Having similarly survived the great vampire gold rush as well as the more recent zombie feeding frenzy, I've learned a few tools to keep my interest and inspiration stoked. I write what I love.

    To this end, it is a good thing that e-books are gaining acceptance in the market, as trend-following publishers are creating a greater and greater need for markets which reach more diverse niches. Each has their place, but it is very disappointing to see publishers succumb to the vision-limiting virus which has infected Hollywood.

    Of course, it wouldn't be a problem if these trends actually promoted interesting and challenging work within sub-genres, but often they do not. I think this is why they never get to be more than just trends, because they are not part of an actual evolution of the craft.

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  5. But… mine doesn't have really pretty dresses. In fact, there are very few clothes at all. It's “50 Divergent Shades of Hunger.”

    Funny post. I can see the formulaic elements you're pointing out. Even though I don't write dystopian (by your definition or dictionary.com's), do you have any advice for authors trying to sell non-formulaic books that would probably get shelved with the dystopians?

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  6. Interesting post. My America-Germany YA fiction is a realistic dystopian because we live in a dystopian world right now, but most people are unaware of this or prefer to be unaware. It's easy for us to read about dystopian world somewhere in the future. It's more difficult to accept that our contemporary world has dystopian elements. My novel has none of #1 and #2, but a little of #3 and #4. Thanks and best wishes with your own fiction.

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  7. Well the one me and my friend are about to co author is nothing like that. The government is still the basic American system of government, the main character isn't too sad about her life, and the story starts out being just about her rather than a larger movement. It turns into that of course. And I don't think there are any pretty dresses. There's controversial ideas though… dear god are there controversial ideas.

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  8. May I offer one?

    #6. Your characters must have “not real” names. Why Katniss? Why Peeta? In 200 years, have the names Michael and Sarah (which have been around for millennia) gone out of style?

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  9. “If you're between the ages of 14 and 18 in a dystopian world, you're pretty much screwed.”

    As opposed to teenagers in any other world, who are pretty much screwed.

    Or at least that's how they feel.

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  10. Haha… I wrote about rule #1 a few months ago.

    I think the use of vague names allows for a critique of our own culture without offending anyone particularly. A rich country that loves silly fashions and overeating and exploitative entertainment — it's “the Capitol,” set a century in the future, right? right?

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  11. I'm going to write a blog post one of these days about why most YA dystopians are so boring to me. Namely, they're episodes of Star Trek stretched suuuuuuuper thin. (*was raised on Star Trek*) I'll be glad when this trend goes.

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