Want to learn how to write dystopian fiction? You are in the right place. This article will cover two aspects of writing about a dystopian future. First, the common themes and characteristics of good dystopian fiction. Second, a list of dystopian writing prompts and ideas to help you get started writing, whether you want to write a novel or a short story, and whether you are a first-time or a seasoned writer.
What is dystopian fiction?
Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘dystopia‘ as ‘a very bad or unfair society in which there is a lot of suffering, especially an imaginary society in the future after something terrible has happened.’ The opposite of dystopia is utopia—a world or society in which people live free from oppression and terror but instead enjoy peace, harmony, health, and togetherness.
In literature, the dystopian genre is one in which the story takes place in a dystopian world. One or multiple characters must face and overcome the challenges posed to them by the society in which they live. Dystopia is an incredibly popular genre in literature, film, and television.
Famous works of dystopian fiction, such as George Orwell’s 1984, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, leave a lasting imprint in the reader’s mind as very often the themes, societies, and oppression featured in these works are never too far from potentially becoming a reality.
They present a rich opportunity for speculation on the society in which we already live and have gone a long way in waking society up to the dangers presented by authoritarian and totalitarian governments, leaders, and dictatorships.
How to write dystopian fiction
Dystopian fiction is an incredibly popular genre, so writing dystopia can be an exciting journey whether you are a first-time author or you have been writing for years. It allows you to comment and make predictions about society and where it is going. Since this is fiction, the genre allows for speculation and creative freedom. With a finger on the pulse of society as it is and where it seems to be going, good dystopian fiction can impact a reader’s current perception of reality.
There are a few things to consider when writing impactful dystopian fiction. Next, we will look at what makes a good dystopian story. Later in the article, you will find some brief, but rich dystopian writing prompts to help you get your speculative creative juices flowing.
Characteristics of dystopian fiction
Some of the most common characteristics, themes, and structures found in dystopian fiction, those which set the genre apart from all else, are:
1. Authority/Power Structure
Most dystopian fiction takes place in a world where the government is a large, even global, oppressive body. It feeds and perpetuates itself from the labor, loss, sacrifice, or outright misery of the people it oppresses. As with all ‘villain‘ or antagonist concepts, these authoritarian power structures often have some ‘good‘ or ‘morally just‘ motivation behind their actions, but they have gone too far, and the bad outweighs the good.
2. Individual mind vs. collective mind
Much of the conflict in dystopian fiction concerns the differences in motivations and priorities between the individual mind (the free thinker, the autonomous individual) and the collective, or ‘hive‘ mind. Often, authority thrives off a controlled hive, often represented as a brainwashed society forced to live under the powers that be out of fear. At the same time, a free individual mind poses a threat to the authority’s very structure.
3. Technological advancement
One of the most common themes in dystopian fiction is the technology that has become so advanced that it is no longer a blessing but a curse. Initially, helpful technologies, whether created for surveillance, to increase life expectancy, or to travel more efficiently in space, begin with a bright future but either get misused or become too powerful to control. The crucial point is the inherent vulnerability of humans to the power of corruption often seen in how advanced technologies are created and handled.
Dystopian story ideas
Now that you know the fundamentals of dystopian fiction, get ready to create your own dystopian world. We have included some short prompts and ideas below to help you get started.
Dystopian world ideas
- A futuristic city in which people must use oxygen masks to breathe. Oxygen is a valuable commodity that the elite has privatized. When a person runs low on oxygen, they must pay a high price for a refill.
- Climate change has led to irreversibly high sea levels. Large areas of land have been submerged in water. The remaining humans must travel across the risen sea to gather resources from other isolated lands. The sea is dangerous, brimming with toxic chemical waste that contributes to global disasters.
- A dystopian society in which everyone is legally obliged to wear surveillance technology—the unchipped, the ‘off grid‘ people are observed and logged on by obliging citizens who wear glasses with scanning technology. Once logged in, a violent police force locates and punishes them.
- A cyber attack shuts down power grids around the world. Globally, society descends into anarchy. The cyber attackers reroute all the world’s energy into one power grid around which they build a high-walled city for themselves, leaving all human life outside the city walls to survive in darkness.
- Death is no longer inevitable. In this world, you can prolong your life indefinitely, at a price. The cost is high, but those without financial limits do not need to worry until the true source of this life-prolonging technology is leaked. Extending one’s life is not just a financial issue but now a moral one.
- Music has been banned by an authority that understands music’s power to promote radical and revolutionary ideas. Anyone heard listening to or playing music will be heavily persecuted.
Dystopian short story ideas
- The entire human population lives in a post-apocalyptic world, where a global government controls all the remaining resources, and people live on rations. Those who report conspiracies, schemes and attempts to revolt are awarded more rations, while those who are found to disobey the system are captured and never seen again.
- Most of the human race has died after a world war involving nuclear weapons wiped out much of the planet’s sunlight and oxygen. The remaining humans survive underground in bunkers, but it has been years since the war, and resources are running out. A group of soldiers is tasked with leaving the bunker to locate an unused bunker full of resources in a nearby city.
- A group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse must protect themselves from the formerly human victims of toxic chemicals used in a nuclear attack gone wrong. Zombies roam the streets searching for human flesh, while the privileged upper classes take refuge in a walled-in town. Those unfortunate enough to live in a lower socioeconomic class must survive in boarded-up houses in the ‘wild land.’
- After an apocalyptic event, humans begin to live inside virtual reality through a brain chip. The chip is connected to the nervous system. Those living in this virtual alternate universe can live a full sensory life, with physical sensations like hunger, arousal, pleasure, and pain. The virtual reality space company gets hacked, and users’ memories are wiped. Now those who live in virtual reality are unaware that an original reality exists without their chip.
- Animal rights activists led a successful revolution to take down the meat industry. On the surface, people feel that they live in a utopia, free from all animal cruelty. The ban on meat leads to an illegal meat trade. Since animals are closely protected, the most accessible meat to find and sell is not beef or pork but human flesh.
- As part of a military experiment, high schoolers are randomly drafted and enrolled in a training program. In the program, recruits undergo gene editing, microchipping, and deep desensitization to violence to become super soldiers. They possess incredible strength and can recover from any wounds or injuries in minutes. When one soldier goes AWOL, the experimenters in charge of the program must find him before it is too late.
- Humans live in the sky. High-rise apartments and offices higher than anything that exists in the world today are the new norms. People travel to and from work and home through a network of tubes and drones in the air. The earth below is off-limits, and anyone who gets too close to sea level is at risk of contracting a deadly disease borne by large chemical explosions at several nuclear sites after an attack.
- In a world where human organs are sold at a high price among the elite, the black market keeps growing. People are forced to survive by fleeing as far away from densely populated areas as possible and living in small groups in the wild. Gangs hunt outside the city limits to find small communities, harvest their organs, and sell them for a huge profit.
- Children go to a school where artificially intelligent robots have replaced teachers. A team of hackers enters the AI-teaching system and begins radicalizing the children. They encourage students to share personal details about their parents and other adult family members. This information is used to identify parents who disagree with the authoritarian power structure’s new regime—a world where AI replaces all work.
- In the year 2150, a global disaster killed most of the human population. Those who survived and were fortunate to have money were taken to colonies on Mars. The survivors believe they are being saved, but life in Mars’ colonies is no American Dream. Socioeconomic statuses still apply, and the less financially well-off are forced to work hard labor for the elite who profit from the colonies.
- A microchip allows users to record their experiences and watch them repeatedly as memories. A team of hackers enters the system and gains the power to delete and alter people’s memories. One day, the news announces that the hackers have been found, put on trial, and sentenced accordingly. One young man whose chip has been broken tries to tell everyone that the hackers were never caught—they created that memory.
‘Dystopian‘ is a broad genre. As mentioned earlier, ‘dystopia‘ in a general sense refers to a near or distant future in which society has failed to achieve utopia or peace but instead has become corrupt or damaged by external forces. However, you can zoom in on the genre and discover several dystopian fiction subgenres or types. With an awareness of these subgenres, you may find it a lot easier to get your story started. You can even take inspiration from renowned authors and works that already exist in the subgenre to paint a clearer picture of where your story could go.
Dystopian subgenres include:
- Speculative fiction – Imagine alternative societies in which humans live miserable lives, and a government or power structure thrives from human suffering. (e.g. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale)
- Post-apocalyptic – Humans must survive in a world that an apocalyptic-scale event has destroyed, such as nuclear war. (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road)
- Climate change – Global warming and rising sea levels not helped by man’s contribution to the earth’s declining health mean that the characters in this genre must overcome obstacles posed by a changing planet, limited resources, and entities who want to control those resources. (e.g. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake)
- Science fiction – Technology has taken over, and humans live under the control of artificial intelligence or companies whose technological power strikes fear and submission into society at large. (e.g. Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police)
‘When we read dystopia, we root for these people to break free because we are these people; hoping and fighting against things that are bigger than ourselves.’Ally Condie
At first, dystopian literature seems to have a lot in common with the fantasy genre. Characters live in a world unlike our own, with technologies that may not exist, or in alternate universes where human life is viewed through a different lens. However, all good dystopian writers and avid readers of the genre understand that worlds presented in dystopian literature are not as unlike our own as one might think.
Dystopian literature is incredibly speculative. It draws from facts and observations about society as it already exists and ‘pulls the thread,’ imagining how today’s world could progress into anarchy or oppression, often based on the inherent vulnerability to corruption as part of human life.
So, if you are seeking inspiration for a dystopian story, check out all the ideas we have included in the article and come back to this page for more inspiration when you get stuck. Moreover, look around you for inspiration. Take a look at what is happening today, such as new emerging technologies or government decisions and actions (or lack thereof) around such issues as climate change and human rights. There is much material for great dystopian fiction to be found around us.