Writing Dystopia? Try These Writing Exercises First.


So you think you know a few things about dystopia (especially after 2020) and you’re embarking on the next great novel or screenplay to capture this genre of greats. Fantastic! You’ve come to the right place. But before you commit yourself to 70 thousand or so words, see how you go with the tasks below. They may seem simple, but I promise, they’ll help with your insight.

1. First, the easy task: Quickly write down three or four dot points on what you think makes a dystopia.

2. Now, the easier task: Watch at least two from the following list (preferably that you haven’t seen already):

V for Vendetta (2005) In a not so distant British tyranny, a shadowy freedom fighter, known only by his alias “V”, plots to overthrow the government with the help of young and naïve Evey (Natalie Portman).

The Matrix (1999) When computer hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is led  into a forbidding underworld, he discovers a shocking truth—that the life he knows is an elaborate deception orchestrated by an evil God-like cyber-intelligence. 

Gamer (2009) In a warning about social media, death row convicts are forced to battle in a mind-controlled ‘Doom’-type game. Convict Kable (Gerard Butler), controlled by a skilled teenage gamer, must survive thirty sessions to be set free.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) In the crime-dystopia, a sadistic gang leader is imprisoned and volunteers for a conduct-aversion experiment, but it doesn’t go as planned.

They Live (1988)  A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allows him to wake up to an Earth controlled by aliens.

Divergent (2014) In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris (Shailene Woodley) learns she’s Divergent. When she discovers a plot to destroy those who are Divergents, Tris and her trainer Four search for why Divergents are a threat to their world before it’s too late.

3. After watching a movie or two, describe the six elements of a dystopia listed below. Use examples from the movies watched.

Loss of Individualism – Uniformity / Sameness / No Free Will / No Independent Thought

Government Control – Corrupt Government / Propaganda

Technological Control – Segregation/Unequal Power

Perfect Exterior Hides Evil Secret

Unexpected Hero

Survival

Has anything surprised you? If so, use this as the basis for the final exercise. If not, use those elements that stick with you most.

4. Write these elements or surprises into a 300 – 500 word story using a single protagonist and antagonist. Create a conflict and explore the underside of this world. Don’t drift too far and don’t worry about editing.

By now you should have a larger understanding of what you see as a dystopia, and with any luck, an outline for your next great story. However, a great story always requires a second character (at the very least) that we all love to hate, and you need to know what makes them tick.

5. Do the same again, but become the other; flip it around so you’re writing from the other character’s perspective.

Writing dystopian or spec-fiction isn’t for the faint hearted. There’s no set rhythm to the story, no real templates other than a crappy world often set in an avoidable future and where everything seems hopeless. Often times, there is no happy ending – Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World are prime examples of this. But these elements and more are what makes a dystopian tale dystopian. Use these elements wisely, study the greats in both literature and film and make them your own.

Let me know how you go in the comments below.

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