Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Reading Dystopias during Quarantine

With life on hold, I have had endless hours to catch up on my To Be Read pile. Quite a few of the Fantasy YA novels are about dystopian societies. As I read and listened to the daily news, a few things came to mind about story building a dystopian novel.

1. Dystopian novels often minimize or ignore the range of responses from people. As I watch the arguments over quarantine, masks, and social distancing play out, it is obvious there are more than two sides to the characters dealing with the overall story problem. There are bands of resistance that want different things.

2. I am not certain that the level of dread and panic is presented enough in books. There is a lemming effect too, where people herd and move in different directions as a pod. How do your characters deal with their panic? What soothes them? What traumatizes them?

3. Stakes are crucial to every story, but should be the highest alert level in a dystopian thriller.

4. There are shades of gray. Even well-meaning basically decent people are confused about what is wrong and what is right and what is acceptable risk. How much the problem affects them personally varies widely.

5. People fear change, even necessary change. It is hard to let go of daily regimens and comforting rituals in a threatened world.

6. The toilet paper hoarding was a new twist. What would your characters hoard if they thought the end times were nigh or if their world suddenly felt uncertain? Be creative.

7. How does their world suffer in day to day operations? What interruptions change their lifestyle: trade and supply chains, embargoes, rules of law and order, access to necessary services, restrictions in mobility and travel? What are the consequences for breaking new restrictions? What clever ways do they find to subvert them?

8. What are things opportunists can utilize? While the world's focus is elsewhere, it is fertile ground for industrious and ingenious friends and foes.

9. In a Fantasy and Sci Fi, unique diseases and medications are rarely mentioned unless they are directly related to the overall story problem. Writers sometimes invent magical recreational drugs and magical illnesses and cures in paranormal novels. No matter the genre, even a passing mention can enrich the story.

10. Every story world has a past that has been shaped by things like pandemics, wars, and shifts in power. What impacted their world before it changed with the inciting event? How are they reflected in day to day life and rituals?  How has your story world adapted in the fallout?

I thank all of the writers of books and screenplays for their work. It has helped keep many of us sane during this stressful time. Which leads me to a final question: How does story affect your dystopian world? Do books, cinema, oral storytelling, etc. play a part? What urban legends do characters share?

Read More:

Ten Dystopian Novels Inspired By Pandemics

Is the State of the World Affecting Your Writing

Are Your Character's Fears Your Fears

Ten Tools for Crafting A 3D Setting

How To Build A Planet

Mastering Worldbuilding

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Excellent analysis, Diana. There's indeed a lot of scope for adding layers of depth to a dystopian novel, and even other genres that deal with mass events that have the potential to cause panic and change people's lives. I wonder if writers of these genres will pick up on the same elements that you have found lacking.

    1. Many of them now have personal experience to draw from!

    2. Good point! I wonder how many dystopian "plague" novels will be hitting the stands in the coming months and next couple of years...

  2. I have avoided dystopian novels. I'm afraid they will come true. And here we are in an almost dystopian time. I think of Mad Max and Children of Men and Big Brother and The Handmaiden's Tale, and I see all of it could happen. Now I'm depressed.

    1. Depression is certainly a problem during crises like this. The world feels messy, scary, and out of control. All things I hate. :) Fictional characters would find things challenging as well

    2. It has an odd double-faced feel: real (as in sitting here, typing away, cup of coffee nearby) / unreal (what's happening "out there," and the reality of a virus we don't entirely understand).

  3. While not typically a reader of dystopian novels, I see potential variations of your 10 points in contemporary stories. All your points are valid in general story writing, as well, and should be woven into the fabric of most plots if readers are to relate to the characters and situations. As for fantasy and sci fi, it's even more imperative in those because it creates a reference point, an understanding for readers, who are likely unfamiliar with the stories' locations and customs. Great post, Diana. :-)

    1. I love well-thought out story worlds. The history of the worlds can often be overlooked. It is the difference between a pencil sketch and a 3D image.

  4. I have always been a fan of post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels (although I might avoid them for now). Your observations about story building are right on for many genres.

    1. In most cases in fiction, the good guys win. I find that comforting.

  5. Good post. Like others, I'm avoiding dystopian stories for now. It's just too much, and I need time to assimilate what's going on in the present (and somehow still find the focus to keep doing what needs to be done in the present).


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