Sunday, August 21, 2011

"It's always been this way... Back and back and back."

Step 1: Anticipation of rite of passage related to the protagonist's identity and future, in which we learn how things have been for as long as the protagonist can remember.

Step 2: Rite of passage in which something goes awry for the protagonist, suggesting that the protagonist is special, perhaps suspiciously special.

Step 3: Shock among all those who witness the rite of passage, because such an aberration has never happened before, or at least not for a long, long time...

There's a definite pattern to the dystopian novels I've read lately (with some variations, of course; The Hunger Games, for one, has some similarities but doesn't quite fit the formula. But then, Panem is a little different because it never claims to be Utopian). I think the general formula is an effective one, one that quickly shows us a society's conventions and how ingrained they are and gives the protagonist a good reason to start questioning them.

But I'm pretty sure this particular incarnation of the Hero's Journey (Call to Adventure, anyone?) has only been popular in recent years; The Giver is the earliest example that comes to mind. (Feel free to show me up with Biblical, Shakespearean, or otherwise older examples.) There are plenty of earlier dystopias, of course, but we don't observe Winston Smith or Guy Montag in identity-forming rituals gone wrong. The above isn't so much a formula for dystopian fiction as one for dystopian YA fiction, because like much of YA, Matched Delirium Divergent Enclave is about figuring out who you are and how you differ from those who've taught you and protected you.

Only when you figure that out can you set out for the Wilds, for Topside, for Elsewhere.


  1. Enclave? What is this? Good? Just good enough to have bookseller roomie bring a copy home for whenever I get around to it?

    Sadly, writing a dystopia is not as easy as following the above steps.

    You know what's really hard - writing the instigating events that lead to the creation of such worlds. THAT's supremely tricky. Probably why no one's put out anything on the subject. Prove me wrong, Internet!

  2. Oh, I can't imagine that it's easy. One thing I'm impressed with is that each of the dystopias mentioned here does something at least somewhat different with it from the others.

    Enclave, by Aguirre, is about a postapocalyptic underground society. I think I still have the ARC; interested?