Table of Contents
- Dystopia vs. Post Apocalypse, What’s the Difference?
- Themes in Dystopian Writing
- Protagonists in a Dystopia:
- Antagonists in Dystopia:
- In Writing Dystopia, Show Don’t Tell
- Writing the Final Scene of a Dystopian Movie
- In Conclusion
Writing dystopia has become something screenwriters are increasingly drawn to in recent years. The dystopian movie is in itself a classic genre. However, this genre seems to have gained increasing traction in an anxious and changing world, with dystopia being portrayed frequently in TV too.
This perhaps is due to the versatility of the genre, which allows the writer to challenge their audience, question society’s socio-political standpoints and even inspire action.
However, because it has been so wildly popular and offers a fair share of creative freedom it is easy to lose originality and believability when writing dystopia.
So, how do you go about writing dystopia that is original and convincing? How do you both subvert the genre and fulfil genre expectations?
We’ve compiled a guide to writing dystopia that will both satisfy genre conventions and challenge the audience’s expectations.
Dystopia vs. Post Apocalypse, What’s the Difference?
Firstly, let’s look at dystopia in opposition to its close cousin, the post-apocalypse movie. In cinematic understanding, dystopia is typically a futuristic society that is characterized by suffering and injustice, often based on our own reality. It is an established society, with its own rules and values.
This is opposed to the post-apocalyptic world of chaos and destruction.
An apocalyptic event can mark ‘the beginning’ of your dystopian world. But don’t spend too much time on it, as writing dystopia is not about the doomsday itself. As an example, let’s look at the difference between I Am Legend and Blade Runner:
I Am Legend as a Post-Apocalyptic Movie
I Am Legend represents a bleak future. Cities have been destroyed, humanity separated and a constant feeling of threat and fear is present in the protagonist as well as the audience. We can clearly see the following characteristics in I Am Legend, which often appear in post-apocalyptic films:
- The ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the disaster. In this case that is the spread of an infection, explained at the beginning of the film.
- A destroyed and nonfunctioning world.
- The hero has to figure out the rules for himself in order to survive.
- The fight of one hero against the infected zombie-like creatures.
- Though realistically possible the events aren’t grounded in a reality we recognize.
Blade Runner as a Dystopian Movie
On the other hand, the dystopian world of Blade Runner has a different approach to an inevitably ‘dark’ future. A new, highly technological society exists. And though it isn’t exactly heaven on Earth, humanity, or at least some recognizable part of it, continues to exist:
- A title card is used to place the audience right into the action.
- There is a fully functioning, though clearly ‘damaged’ society.
- The hero is familiar with the rules and values, being that they are long-established.
- The hero fights for the safety of his world rather than against it.
- Though it is fiction and based in the (at the time of release!) distant future, it has a grounding in our own reality.
In its essence, dystopia therefore is:
- A fictional society set in the near or distant future.
- Has its own values and rules which the audience must learn.
- Dehumanizing and often terrifying, though not necessarily uninhabitable.
- The antonym of a utopia, which is an idealized imagined world.
Having a clear distinction between the two genres will help you stay on the right course when writing dystopia.
Writing a Dystopian World
So in writing dystopia, how do you create the world in which your dystopia inhabits? Creating a clear and vivid story world is crucial to the development of your story and the characters.
To begin with, ask yourself the following questions:
- How far in the future are we?
- Where are we?
- How did we get here?
- What are the rules and values?
- How can you make this world your own?
The Dystopian World of Snowpiercer
The story is successful in the following ways:
- It’s set in a distant future, where in a fight against climate change, humans have inflicted an Ice Age.
- Society as we know it is gone and a new society is built on a train that travels around the globe.
- The organization of the train represents the concept of social class: the poor in the back and the wealthy at the front.
- The train itself is the representation of our own world; we are all ‘stuck’ together going towards the same destination.
- A revolution sparks in opposition to the unjust ‘government’.
- After the train crashes almost everyone is dead. This feels necessary for the credibility of the film, depicting a kind of realism.
- However, the movie adds some optimism by showing us that two children, symbols of hope, have survived.
Snowpiercer is a believable dystopian movie because the rules of the world created by Bong Joon-ho are being respected. These rules are based on concepts we recognize in our own reality and represent issues that the audience can relate to. Therefore, the leaps of imagination the story takes strike as convincing. The story can go wherever it wants because the grounding is convincing in the first place. This is a key element of writing dystopia.
Themes in Dystopian Writing
- Environmental destruction.
- Totalitarian governments and societal injustices.
- Technological disasters.
Central to these narratives is also the theme of survival, loss of individuality and humanity.
These are common because they are true to our own experiences and they reflect our deepest fears and concerns about the world today.
1. Environmental Degradation
When it comes to the environment and the current anxieties about climate change and the future of Earth, dystopia is a great tool to represent the consequences of our habits today.
The plot is rarely based on natural disasters but rather on a man-made destruction of our own environment.
Here are two examples of environmental dystopias that are innovative in their imagination and convincing in their realism:
Not a traditional dystopian movie in that it’s a children’s film, not usually a breeding ground genre for dystopia. However, the elements of dystopia are clear to see:
- In the distant future, the Earth is uninhabitable due to the surplus of trash and waste.
- Society as we know it doesn’t exist and humans live on spaceships circling Earth.
- Robots and humans have to work together in order to restore Earth.
The film is a pertinent reflection on the nature of humans’ impact on the Earth. This largely serves as background, with the primary storyline of Wall-E’s romance with Eve making up the drive of the film.
There is a happy ending, perhaps one not natural to writing dystopia overall. The main characters save Earth’s future and an important message about current human waste in this day and age is conveyed.
On the other hand, Okja serves as an honest representation of intensive animal farming:
This story is original in the way it combines dystopia and elements of eco-documentary:
- It portrays one person’s fight against a corrupt and unjust government. In this case, it’s a global corporation.
- There is commentary on present-day issues with the aim to raise awareness.
- The movie shows technological intervention in our lives through the ‘super pig’.
Bong Joon-ho uses elements of dystopia to create a story with an important message about our current food practices and relationship with animals. In embracing fantasy and creating a unique creature, the movie avoids feeling heavy-handed.
The message would seem more obvious if Okja was a more familiar creature, like a cow, for example. But by getting the audience to invest in a fictional creature, the movie tricks the audience. It makes them think the story world is a unique fantasy, before making the parallels with our own world clear by the end.
2. Totalitarian Governments:
The Hunger Games
The presence of a corrupt, unjust and violent government can be found at the base of almost any dystopian movie or story. The conflict between the protagonist(s) and the ruling group will guide the story and often become a driving point for your characters.
This is seen in the Hunger Games franchise, for example:
- The world is divided into districts, representing different social classes.
- This society is governed by a small group of wealthy people, with President Snow as their leader.
- They hold the ‘Hunger Games’ as a punishment (and warning) to the districts for rising up against the oppressive government.
- It is also a form of twisted entertainment for the masses.
In the first film, the stakes become high for the main protagonist as she volunteers to protect her sister and becomes a participant in the games.
As the story progresses in the subsequent films, Katniss Everdeen becomes the face of the rebellion and brings down the tyrannical government. Thus the conflict between Katniss, her will to abolish the government (which will also see the end of the Hunger Games) and save her loved ones will be at the core of the narrative.
The Handmaid’s Tale
- Society as we know it is replaced by the totalitarian government of Gilead.
- It is based on religious and conservative believes familiar to us, implemented by a closed group of wealthy leaders.
- The rules of this new world are familiar to the characters and discovered by the audience in the first season of the show.
- The leaders of Gilead become the main enemy for the protagonists as they try to claim back their freedom and that of their children.
These stories are engaging because the stakes are high. This is primarily achieved by an elaborate and clear establishment of the rules of the story world. We want to see the protagonist succeed in their fight against the oppression and violence inflicted by the government.
We also might recognize these themes from our own world or from historical precedents. This makes them all the more compelling, creating a strong, frightening image of our potential future. In this sense, dystopia serves as a resonant warning for the audience.
3. Technology Taking Control
Technological advancement has been a central theme for many dystopian movies and stories. Writers have always taken it upon themselves to create worlds where technology controls and overrules humanity.
A great example of an original technological dystopia comes in the series Black Mirror. With cutting edge technology central to the plot of the series as a whole, let’s look more specifically at season 3 episode 1, Nosedive:
- Thanks to technology, in this world people can rate each other after every interaction.
- These ratings impact not only the socio-economic status of the characters but also their psychological well-being.
- When the protagonist becomes obsessed with her rating, she makes mistakes that forever change her life.
- But by dropping to the very bottom she also discovers freedom from her obsession with popularity.
This can clearly be seen as a commentary on society’s obsession with popularity and social media, a result of technological advancement.
Another Black Mirror episode, Shut Up and Dance provides a different perspective:
- Private lives are recorded through webcams on laptops and smartphones.
- People are blackmailed to carry out strange deliveries or risk their intimate (and disturbing) secrets being revealed.
- In the end, their secrets are revealed anyways, which changes their lives for the worst.
- The ‘culprit’ behind these actions is never known.
This episode shows the uncomfortable truth of what our own devices can do to us at the hands of malicious controllers.
Clearly, you don’t necessarily need to go far and beyond in order to create a credible and original dystopian world. The success of your story will not necessarily depend on the complexity of your story world but on your ability to incite emotion in your audience. This typically comes from the way in which you relate the dystopian world to the real, present-day world.
Protagonists in a Dystopia:
Now that you have your world, it’s time to think about your protagonist(s). In a world that is broken, your audience wants to see a hero that is human (or at least possesses human-like characteristics).
An easy way to do so is by including a love object, something ‘good’ that your character can appreciate. For example:
- Wall-E falls in love with Eve, another robot.
- Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games has her sister Prim, whom she tries to protect. When she fails in this, it becomes the final push to her victory.
- In The Handmaid’s Tale, June keeps fighting because of her daughter, Hannah.
This will not only humanize your character but also give them a reason to live and stay alive in this messed up world. No matter the context, we can understand someone’s need for survival and to protect their family.
In general, when creating a protagonist in writing dystopia, think of the values that are important to humanity. For example, honesty, loyalty or strong family bonds. A protagonist with values is a protagonist that the audience can empathize with. This, in turn, will make it easier for them to excuse any morally questionable actions from your hero.
Antagonists in Dystopia:
A strong protagonist requires a strong antagonist. This is the case in writing dystopia just as it is in writing any other genre. And a strong antagonist is never just ‘pure evil’. It may be tempting to write a downright disgusting, disturbing character that will terrorize your society, but you risk losing your audience as a result.
A strong villain has a ‘humane’ side. They have clear intentions, values and flaws and often, they believe that their actions are for the better.
As opposed to other genres, dystopian antagonists are often responsible for the way society is and/or are in control of it. For example:
In Snowpiercer, Wilford, the head of Wilford Industries and the creator of the train, is presented as a cruel, heartless man:
- He is directly responsible for the class organization of the train and the horrible treatment of the passengers by the guards.
- He is hiding behind a giant, metallic door which protects him from the ‘horror’ of the different cars, thus avoiding any kind of responsibility for his actions.
- At the end we realize that he is using child labor to operate his machine and incited the rebellion himself, to control the overpopulation of the poor passengers as well as the rich.
The audience, as well as the protagonists, see Wilford for what he is: a villain. However:
- Wealthier passengers respect him and treat him as almost Godlike thanks to the reputation he has established.
- He builds the train that is carrying around the last of humanity, amidst terrible climatic conditions, which makes him into the ‘good guy’.
- And as far as he is concerned, he is saving humankind and preserves a balance in the ecosystem of the train.
Though he is an awful person, he is a believable villain because he displays human flaws such as greed and selfishness and could even be seen as someone with sociopathic behaviors.
- Mirando Corporation is a multimillion, family-owned livestock company claiming to be eco-friendly. They create the new ‘super pig’ and lie about it being ‘Mother Nature’s gift’.
- However, the animal is genetically engineered and has a sole purpose: slaughter.
- The cruelty of the corporation is confirmed by Lucy herself…
Lucy Mirando: […] “Now, I know, we all know that Grandpa Mirando was a terrible man. We know the atrocities he committed in this space. We know these walls are stained with the blood of fine working men.”
- They force breed and torture their animals.
- And in the end, Okja is saved when Mija offers gold to Nancy, which points at the purely financially-motivated nature of her character.
There is nothing humane or likable about Nancy. This was clearly the writer’s choice to emphasize the anti-human practice of the meat industry. However, Lucy doesn’t see herself as the ‘bad guy’:
- She considers herself to be an environmentalist.
- She’s trying to help stop world hunger.
- She truly believes that the breeding of the super pig is achieved without force, showing her naive side.
- And she tries to help Mija reconnect with Okja, thus helping the protagonist achieve her goal.
Well-rounded antagonists have their own values and intentions, which will work in opposition to those displayed by your hero.
In Writing Dystopia, Show Don’t Tell
‘Show don’t tell‘ is a key rule for any screenwriter, especially so if you are writing dystopia. The temptation is to rush through the introduction of the protagonist and their story world to quickly jump to the ‘good part’, the world itself.
But be careful: don’t just dump everything all at once through dialogue. You risk losing your audience’s curiosity if the first ten pages of your dystopian movie are rushed, wordy and expositional.
By gradually introducing the audience to your story world and its characters, you will create intrigue and make them want more.
As an example, let’s take the opening scene of the first Hunger Games movie:
- A few title cards establish that: there was an uprising, followed by a punishment known as the ‘Hunger Games’. This makes it clear that the government is probably corrupt and cruel.
- A talk show discussing the games establishes the role of the media in this society.
- There is an abrupt cut to District 12, where the protagonist Katniss is cradling her sister Prim after she had a nightmare that she was selected for the Games. This foreshadows the events as well as introducing an element of fear, danger and family values.
Each element is important for creating the base of the story. You can build from there:
- The history behind the Games. Can history repeat itself?
- The ruling class controlling the entertainment and the media. How will this affect the story world and the protagonist’s arc?
- And the less fortunate protagonist and her sister. Will this relationship be central to the plot and if so, how?
The audience is introduced to the story world step by step, without being given too much or too little, ensuring a steady, growing interest in the story.
Writing the Final Scene of a Dystopian Movie
You can write an amazing script but if your story ending is rushed and unconvincing, it will ruin all of your hard work.
In a dystopia, a good ending doesn’t require a happy ending.
Often, there are no dramatic changes to the society and the protagonist may even perish in their fight for justice. But a memorable ending will bring a conclusion to the protagonist’s quest and leave the audience with satisfaction in this regard.
A dystopia will often introduce an element of hope right after everything seems to be lost.
For example, in Snowpiercer:
- After the train is destroyed and everyone on board including Curtis seems to be dead, we see that two children have survived.
- As they go outside, a polar bear looks at them, hinting at the return of life to Earth, hope for humanity and nature’s eternal presence.
The conclusion is brought through:
- The protagonist’s goal to bring freedom from the train being fulfilled, despite his death.
- The destruction of the cruel society, which signals that change is possible.
- And the audience having hope for the future, through the kids and the polar bear.
Another successful ending can be seen in Okja:
- Walking through the super pig farm with Okja, it is a victory for them but a loss for the others.
- Miji returns home to South Korea with her super pig and a little piglet they saved.
In this case, the ending is ‘unsatisfactory’:
- Despite Okja and Miji returning home safely, millions of other super pigs are being slaughtered.
- The peacefulness of their lives is almost disturbing, how could they ‘forget’?
- This hints at the way we close our eyes to our own reality every day.
Writing dystopia requires good storytelling as much as any other movie.
The genre is not just about the ‘predicament’ of a bleak future or destroying humanity. By creating believable story worlds and relatable characters, the writer can comment on the issues we face in our own reality and the consequences of our actions in the future.
In a dystopian movie or TV show, you are the master of this future world. It’s easy to get lost with potentially endless possibilities. Sometimes simplicity is key. Believable story worlds and relatable characters can be the key to a dystopian movie as much as complex and imaginative depictions of the future.
Ultimately, a dystopian movie has the power to capture the audience’s imagination by the way it shines a light on our current world. In this it has all the ingredients of great storytelling, inherently encouraging writers to illuminate the world they live in by exploring the deepest recesses and potentials of their imagination.
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This article was written by Elena Bulatovskaya and edited by IS staff.
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