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YA Dystopia Recipe

by Bonnie S. Calhoun

The latest reading phase for YA (and a lot of adult readers) is the dystopian genre. A dystopian is categorized by a world set in the future, unlike the world we live in today. I’m even reading one now where the only difference in worlds is that in the book’s world all people are mandated to stay thin, and if you get overweight they send you to re-indoctrination F.A.T camps that cost you a bundle of money.

Yes…with the advent of major motion pictures in the last two years about them (second Hunger Game, Catching Fire is out, the first of two parts for the last book MockingJay will debut in October, and at the end of March (21st) the first of the Divergent series books will debut in theaters), the genre is hot.

Now I know there are people saying it is dead already…but they’ve said the same thing about Amish fiction for the last five years…and it continues to perform. So you make your own call.

Why do I think the genre will endure? Because teens…and even adults…love to see overcomers in dire circumstances. The way we portray life today as on the precipice of destruction, the youth like to read that if the destruction succeeds, mankind can also triumph above those circumstances. That being said…what constitutes a good YA dystopian?

The recipe:

• You need a character in the age group of 16 thru 19 (supporting characters can be older.)

• An urgent journey to find someone or something, to escape, or to deliver something.

• A well developed story world. (I would suggest thinking out the story world until you have at least one new thing you can show about the world or be involved in for each chapter. (This is the most important part of a dystopia…taking them to a new world.)

• And a bunch of roadblocks that the protag can win at…or not win at, but succeed in getting away from.

• A romance thread. Yes…you hear me, Bonnie Calhoun say there needs to be some sort of a romance thread *bleck* because female readers love a romance, especially YA readers.

• The story does NOT have to be a HEA (happy ever after) but…

***Spoiler Alert***

One of the major lessons I’ve learned about writing dystopian from the last book in the Divergent series called Allegiant is DON’T KILL THE PROTAGONIST off. And don’t change your writing style from book to book. The first two books were written in first person singular POV of Tris. The last book is first person POV for both Tris and her male counterpart Tobias. It was very jarring to go from reading one person’s thoughts to reading two people’s thoughts, especially when there was no discernable difference in the characters. The reviews on Amazon are at almost 8 thousand and the book is evenly split on those who hated that, and those that thought it was all right.

In a dystopia urgency is the key. So let’s see what you can come up with!

Bonnie headshotBonnie Calhoun is the Owner of Christian Fiction Online Magazine (CFOM). She serves as Northeast Zone Director of ACFW. The first book in a new YA series with Revell publishes in Oct 2014 titled Thunder (Stone Braide Chronicles). You can find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/bscalhoun, and on Twitter (@BonnieCalhoun), and on GoodReads.

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11 Responses to YA Dystopia Recipe

  1. Ron Estrada says:

    Nice explanation, Bonnie. I agree, dystopian is not dead. To say any genre is dead, especailly the ones that have been around for a century, is a bit premature. What I love about dystopian is that it places people in the ultimate struggle: one person against an entire system of government or philosophy. The odds, if you’ll pardon me, are devinitely not ever in their favor. I think the time is right for Christians to move into the genre. Imagine one man or woman left on Earth who still believes in Christ. What better way to show God’s power? I’m excited to write in this genre. I plan on slightly happier endings than 1984, of course, because with Christ we cannot fail.

    Thanks for the post, and for promoting a fantastic genre.

  2. I’ve been in love with dystopian lit for over fifteen years, so I’m not sure that it will ever die completely. After all, the genre’s existed for over a hundred years. However, all genres experience an ebb and flow in their sales trends, and I suspect that’s coming for dystopian authors like myself.

    Which means we’ll have tell better – and more unique – stories and market smarter. I fully accept that challenge!

  3. Ane Mulligan says:

    Well, shut my mouth! Bonnie Calhoun including a romance thread? LOL After reading your “Pieces of the Heart”, though, I know you can do it. And I’ve no doubt you’ll do it well. :)

  4. Pam Halter says:

    Excellent post, Bonnie! I know lots of teens love dystopian stories. Looking forward to reading yours, even though I’m not a teen anymore. *wink*

  5. Keleigh Crigler Hadley says:

    Insightful. Thank you. :)

    As a believer, I am excited to write in this genre because it epitomizes Phil 3:13-14 to me – “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

  6. I just LOVE the idea of dystopian novels…like you said, there is something stirring to see a character overcome incredible odds! I hope the gerne continues :) Thanks for the post!

  7. Thank you all for the great comments. I love the dystopian genre, and I hope to continue in it for the foreseeable future. And it;s like pulling teeth but I can get that romance *gag* thread in there :P.

  8. Wayne Groner says:

    Good tips, Bonnie. What you say is good storytelling for all fiction. Dystopian is much more than a story set in the future. A dystopian society is characterized by human misery from such things as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.

  9. Sara Ella says:

    I couldn’t agree with you on the Divergent series more, Bonnie. This series started out so strong and then I totally lost interest by book 2. I also kept getting confused as to who was talking in book 3. Congratulations on your upcoming release! I love YA and will be looking for your book on shelves in October:)

  10. Thanks for the additional comments!

    Wayne, dystopian society is not always characterized by human misery…its point of reference is what we TODAY would think of as misery…and that is still dependent on what we individually think of as misery. For example, the series I’m reading now is about a US that thinks people who are fat belong in FAT concentration camps to lose weight. Not really human misery to people who presently think thin is good, but misery to a bunch of us “fluffy” people.

    Sara…***Spoiler Alert for anyone who has not read Allegiant yet*** The two POV’s in the last book drove me batty since that wasn’t the format in the other two books. And since there was no discernable difference in their “voices” I kept forgetting whose POV I was in. I finally started skimming all of Tobias’s sections…he sounded whiny and not at all like the Tobias I was used to.

  11. Suzan Robertson says:

    I too love dystopian fiction and have been reading it for many years. I write it as well.

    The crucial plot element that make a true dystopian:

    The status of the individual vs. the state.

    A dystopian novel’s chief antagonist is almost always a powerful and oppressive government. There may be individual antagonists as well, but the protagonist must face off against the state at some point.

    Without that element, the story may be futuristic or perhaps post-apocalyptic, but not dystopian.

    And I agree that a dystopian novel, whether YA or adult, must contain romance. :-)