Notes on Starting a Dystopian Novel

I’ve started writing a dystopian YA. I’ve read dozens of these books and finally have an idea of my own which I feel compelled to write. While I am good at plotting and cliff-hangers, it will be a challenge to build a new world. When I’ve written a SEER or DEAD GIRL books I already know the world and paranormal rules. But world-building is new to me and I have to do more than plot a story; I have to create a new world. I’m having to consider language, setting, history, rules of society and much more. I could spend months creating all the background for this book, but my impatient style is to just jump right into the first chapter.

How to start my book? If I compare myself with clever writers of my favorite novels, I’d probably get stuck and never write anything. I often like to start books with dialogue, but is that a good idea for a darker glimpse of a future world?

For examples, here are the opening lines from my favorite dystopian authors:
HUNGER GAMES: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
INCARCERON:  Finn had been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway.
CITY OF EMBER: (Chapter 1)  In the city of Ember, the city was always dark.
BIRTHMARKED: In the dim hovel, the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push, and the baby slithered out into Gaia’s ready hands.
FIRST LIGHT: Most boys his age had never touched paper.

All very different openings, but each sets the scene for a new and different world. Which is your favorite? I particularly like the opening for FIRST LIGHT. Not a surprise that this author, Rebecca Stead, went on to win the Newbery with her WHEN YOU REACH ME last year.

So now I’m thinking…should I start with dialogue? None of these authors did. But then I have to remind myself dialogue is a strength of mine. It’s important not to follow other authors and hone in on my strongest skills.

I have lots of notes about my society and I have an idea of where the book is going, including some dramatic plot points. But as I plot, I wonder if some of my ideas are over-used? My society is secluded, which has been done a lot. It involves scientists, which is also common. And even if I come up with something completely new that hasn’t been done yet, it might be published by the time my book is ready. So how can I make my story different enough to be publishable?

It would be interesting to know what things you think have been overdone in dystopian books. Comments please!

Linda Joy Singleton — who is entering a strange new world where the future is a scary, fascinating word adventure.

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21 responses to “Notes on Starting a Dystopian Novel

  1. Natalie Aguirre

    I’m no expert on this because I tend to read more fantasy. But I think you should not follow the same story line of the books you’ve mentioned. Maybe the world shouldn’t be as dark. The problem could be more every day for that world. Just an idea.

    • Actually one of my concerns has been that my plot isn’t dark but it’s twisted, thrilling and explores some life and death issues.
      I haven’t written much, so even writing about it here is very premature. I’m only on chapter two. But I’ve been mulling this idea over since Jan 2009.

  2. great post linda!
    im attempting a YA dystopian short
    story myself and unlike you im not
    widely read in it. so im glad its not
    novel length.

    i think you can def put your own
    unique twist on it. from your previous
    comment it sounds great!

  3. Sean

    Hey Linda,
    I’ve been wanting to write my own novel for the last few years but I wasn’t ready. I wanted to read more books in the dystopian/utopian genre. I also wanted to expand my vocabulary and get an understanding of how those types of stories are written. I’ve also been watching more dystopian films as well games. The most I’ve been doing is world building and taking my time with it. I think the important this is to see what has and hasn’t been done and how your story will stand out amongst the others. For me, I can’t write until the rules are set. I had a problem with that in the beginning because if I changed one detail about the rules, it changes the story. So it took me a while to figure out what-I-wanted the rules to be. I’m set now but I’m taking my time with it. I’ll probably start writing in the next year or so. Thanks for the post. I look forward to hearing about your novel.

  4. Kimberly McAllister Sell

    I wouldn’t start with dialogue because I believe the “world building” is extraordinarily important to setting the tone and image of how we’re going to see the characters. It will even color how readers perceive dialogue. I know it’s your strength, so maybe you could start off with a sentence or two (short or medium length) and then go right into dialogue. The dialogue, I believe, will be perceived differently and have a sort of psychological layer to it that the reader will put there because of how you’ve portrayed the world in which your characters will inhabit. I’ve thought about this a lot lately because I, too, am writing — or more specifically — plotting a dystopian political novel. At least, that’s what it is, so far. I might make it YA, though, because I just came up with another idea last night that seemed more YA. You don’t need a lot of exposition, although you might think so. Just a couple well crafted lines showing how the world is different. The opening line to “1984″ is a good example. I can’t quote it exactly without looking it up but I believe it starts with the clocks striking thirteen. Orwell goes on to use a lot of exposition but the modern reader doesn’t have that much patience.

  5. Kimberly McAllister Sell

    Oh, and then of course, you’ll keep building the world through dialogue and tiny snippets of description interspersed throughout. Don’t forget, of course, that you can use interior monologue or thoughts to describe the different world, as well. Good luck.

  6. Kimberly McAllister Sell

    Argh! Sorry, just realized that you first wrote this piece in the fall of 2010. My apologies, again.

    • lindajoysingleton

      Thanks for your comments. I fi usher writing the book and my agent is subbing it, after many rewrites. The dialogue at the opening is blended with description and setting. Good luck with your own writing!

      Linda Joy Singleton THE SEER series & DEAD GIRL TRILOGY/Flux #6 THE SEER, Magician’s Muse Coming March 2012, spinoff from THE SEER

      • Sean

        Linda. Have you started your dystopian novel yet?

      • lindajoysingleton

        Sean, I finished the novel and it’s being submitted to publishers. After rewrites it came to 80,000 words. It was a huge challenge and I’m really proud of my work. Fingers crossed it finds a publisher!

      • Hey Linda. Me again. Been a while. Just wanted to check in to see if the dystopian novel you wrote went anywhere? I’m always looking for some to read. A lot of them are not really dystopians but post-apocalyptic with dystopian elements.

  7. Anonymous

    that is such a great idea!!! Thank you so much

  8. Good luck, Anonymous! My dystopian is being considered by editors and I’m hopeful for a sale. I had so much fun writing it and look forward to completing the trilogy once it finds a publishing home.

  9. Elizabeth Sterling

    Hey! I just stumbled across this today because I’m in the process of working on my own young adult dystopian novel. I basically decided to do this a week ago, so I’m still working on the idea in my head, and it feels like I have writer’s block…
    Anyways! This is great information! Thank you for this post, it has gotten me thinking!
    Also, a side note, I have read a couple of your books, Linda, and I think they’re great! Good luck with your Dystopian fiction!

  10. I’m writing a dystopian novel but it kind of seems like another story i’ve heard of but i’m not sure, i just have one part thats the same though….. the main characters name is Page Twelve!!!!! idk it soubnded cool

  11. Rei

    Hey Linda,
    I know I’m super late with this comment but it certainly was a great article and a very interesting read! I’m currently working on my first YA novel which is going to be the political dystopia type. I’m a young writer (just moving onto my sophomore year in high school) but I’ve found writing to be one of my greatest passions and hope to pursue a carrer out of it in the future :) I’ve been very interested in dystopian fiction for the past year or so, I can’t remember what my first dystopian read had been but whatever it was it had intrigued me enough to start my own! Ever since I began planning my new dystopian world I have been doing plenty of research on everything from types of government to Indian slums to Internet activism and more and found that I myself have gotten very interested in real world politics and events as well. A year ago I never would’ve imagined myself to be as deeply interested in these things as I am now, I feel that dystopia novels are not only fun to write but can be very eye opening for the author (and reader!) as well. The idea of a dystopian society taking over our world doesn’t seem too farfetched with the way things are going now ;)
    I would also love to know how everything went with your novel! Gathering from your post it sounded very interesting and I would love to read it! Thank you again for this awesome article, it was just the thing I needed :)


    • Nice to hear from you. This blog isn’t kept up anymore but I do see comments and am happy to answer questions. The dystopian I wrote about went through many changes and became more of a science fiction novel. It hasn’t sold yet but I’m hopeful.

  12. Anonymous

    Hi Linda,
    wanted some ideas on how to start a dystopian story, mine is based on a perfect world in a dome, but the ruined world is outside, just wasnt sure how to start, would appreciate it, if you would let me know soon

    • I’ll chime in. What I did was ask yourself questions. Why is the world you created perfect? What makes it perfect? What happened to the outside world? Why is it ruined? Is life in the dome really perfect or is it a facade? Can people go to the outside? Why or why not?

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