When a writer sits down and wants to write, the biggest motivations in doing so are often that they want to put out a work that reflects themselves. Something that is unique, that can become long-lived in the literary world, and have a lasting impact on audiences. When an author intends to write a dystopian novel, those motivations have even more depth, as it has become a very difficult genre to break into. To shine on the shelf amongst so many other dystopian media, is a true testament of uniqueness, because of how oversaturated the market has become. Historically, dystopias have been explosively popular, and even infamous, in some cases, which has given them adequate leverage to shape so many other popular books and genres. The usually significant social commentaries that they give continue to have impressive longevity in the literary world, and yet, in the current literary climate, it is increasingly difficult to stand apart from the rest.
The dystopian novel is at its core, and from its etymological root (dys- meaning bad, paired with the word utopia), a direct opposite and response to the idea of a utopia. First thought of by St. Thomas More in 1516, a utopia is an ideal place, and a perfect society. This means, then, that a dystopia is a direct opposite, and a truly awful place to be; a place where all the worst parts of society converge (Shiau). Characterized by vicious human suffering and totalitarianism, there is a distinct emphasis on conformity and rugged survival in most dystopian literature (“What Is”). It took the better part of four centuries for the word “dystopia” to emerge, the brainchild of John Stuart Mill in 1868, but it finally gave the world a word for the genre which would notably shape the history of literature (Shiau). Thus was the technical beginning of a new form of speculative fiction.
One doesn’t have to look far at all to find heavy hitters in the genre, from gold standards Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and 1984 by George Orwell, to the much more modern The Giver by Lois Lowry, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Each of these novels and series are widely beloved, for the surface story, and for the deeper social analysis offered. Coming from a place of critical thinking and heavy subjects, a dystopian piece of writing has become characteristic as subversive, as topical, and has developed its own set of cliches, stereotypes, and tropes to define it.
In order to write the next “Great American Novel”, or even just write something that will stand out, especially in an incredibly established genre such as dystopia, an important task is to be subversive. This is a genre made for “exploring dangerous aspects of political and societal structures'' of reality, superimposed into a fictional world, in order to discuss or satirize (“What Is”). As such, the main way to be subversive is to put significant work into world-building, and essentially, guide the reader through making their own connections, allowing them to draw conclusions and think deeply about the text (Howard). This is where an author gets to explore topics and subjects of society and politics that disturb, or scare, or worry them, and lead the reader into that world. Strong world-building is key in this type of writing. Much of the time, these types of settings can be fleshed out and related to that of urban fantasy worlds. Not requiring such intensive stone-by-stone building as high fantasy, creating a believable (or even something in which the audience can suspend disbelief in, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm) world is important, so that events that happen are not entirely without the realm of reality (“How To”). The idea is to make it so that the audience is able to recognize the interpretation of relevant current events, and use critical thinking to understand the messages and critiques within the writing.
Perhaps the most important part of standing out is putting in time and effort into research. Being passionate about a piece is something that will undoubtedly help an author shine in a saturated market, and doing research is a hallmark of passion. Reading the foundational and contemporary works within the genre, learning what elements from the genre have succeeded on the bookshelf, and what readers tend to shun, are all big parts of writing for an audience. Just as essential, researching world events and learning how to apply those are highly important in making a long-lasting and subversive work. More research put into work can yield a good understanding of audiences, societal and political machinations, and a strong familiarity of cliches and tropes within the genre. This will in turn strengthen a writer’s awareness of their own point and reason for writing, and make the piece that much more relatable and palatable for audiences.
Ultimately, something that is going to make a story objectively good, no matter the genre, literary climate, or audience, is making it mean something. Give the piece strong logic, give it a throughline that is understandable, and that will fuel interest. Take care in writing characters, and plotlines, and make careful usage of literary devices in such a way to garner solid meaning, and take care of the audience, in that the writing takes them to a satisfying end. That does not necessarily mean happy, or even bittersweet, but the entirety of the piece should be sensible - something in which the reader can make sense of it. Obviously, while this is contingent on actually selling the piece, making a novel long-lived is largely about making something fulfilling or rewarding to consume in and of itself. There is much work required to break out from the many dystopia genre greats and not-so-greats, but armed with research, passion, and a solid understanding of the genre, there is always hope to shine amongst them on the bookshelf.
Howard, Joseph. “Characteristics of Subversive Literature - Owlcation - Education.” Owlcation, Owlcation - Education, 2 Mar. 2020, owlcation.com/humanities/Characteristics-of-Subversive-Literature, Accessed 24 Mar 2021.
MasterClass. “How to Write a Dystopian Story: 3 Tips for Writing Dystopian Fiction - 2021.” MasterClass, MasterClass, 25 Mar. 2021, www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-a-dystopian-story#quiz-0, Accessed 25 Mar 2021.
MasterClass. “What Is Dystopian Fiction? Learn About the 5 Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction With Examples - 2021.” MasterClass, MasterClass, 25 Mar. 2021, www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-dystopian-fiction-learn-about-the-5-characteristics-of-dystopian-fiction-with-examples#whats-the-difference-between-utopia-and-dystopia, Accessed 25 Mar 2021.
Shiau, Yvonne. “The Rise of Dystopian Fiction: From Soviet Dissidents to 70's Paranoia to Murakami.” Electric Literature, Electric Literature, 26 July 2017, electricliterature.com/the-rise-of-dystopian-fiction-from-soviet-dissidents-to-70s-paranoia-to-murakami/, Accessed 25 Mar 2021.