On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, JJ Barnes writes about dystopian stories and what we can learn from them to learn how to write dystopia ourselves.
Written by JJ Barnes
A dystopian story deals with a future where the world has been changed, and not for the better. They are entertaining because they’re high drama, and they’re important because they can teach us something important about our humanity. Dystopia takes away the freedoms of the people, in a variety of different ways, and then explores the consequences.
I’ll explore a few different examples of dystopian stories, what they teach us, and how we can write our own versions using that technique.
A Handmaid’s Tale
A Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian story by Margaret Atwood. In Gilead, human reproduction has become so rare that fertile women’s bodies become state property. This style of dystopian story focuses on the commoditization of human bodies.
When we stop seeing humans are people, and start seeing them just as parts to be used, society will create a tiered system. Humans as property only valued for what purpose they serve the state, rather than for the person they are.
In the case of A Handmaid’s Tale, women’s bodies are objectified to the point of being legally mandated to be incubators.
This story teaches us a lesson about the way the current exploitation of women’s bodies, seen in the shocking rates of trafficking and abuse, could get even worse. It challenges us to look at they way our society is, and to decide whether we want to keep going down this path, or to change it.
How To Write Your Own Dystopian Story Version
To write a dystopian story using this technique, look at our society and look for how groups of people are treated. Groups of humans will be oppressed and exploited by a dominant class.
Patriarchy exploiting female bodies is an easy oppressive system to point to, and a really easy one to grow from. But choose yours. Choose your exploited group of people, a group you care about and worry about, and follow the worst case scenario. If you push the treatment of people in that group to the extreme, what would that society look like? How would it function?
And then, how would the people existing in that system react? Who would fight back? How would they gather support, how would they communicate? Start with the system functioning, the oppressed people being trapped with no hope, and then start to show the cracks. The oppressed people starting to strengthen, preparing to fight back.
Brave New World
Brave New World is a dystopian story by Aldous Huxley. Society has erased human pain and suffering, pills control emotions and feelings. Experiences that can cause pain have been made illegal.
Babies are created in labs, incubated in factories, and raised in a controlled system to function in the strictly regulated society. No woman goes through the pain of childbirth or dies in the process. No parents struggle with raising children and the stress that comes from it.
Society is structured to avoid the pain of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. At birth, people are given their place. Your level dictates your place in the society, what your jobs are, what your access to entertainment and luxuries are. Nobody can fail because nobody is meant to want more. You just are who you are.
Nobody ever suffers fear or sadness, nobody feels physical discomfort. At the hint of any kind of dissatisfaction, anxiety, worry or pain and it’s immediately eradicated.
There is no love, there are no relationships. Monogamy is illegal so nobody experiences the pain of unrequited love. Nobody feels the desperation of a broken heart. Nobody is betrayed by a cheating lover, nobody is too scared to approach somebody who they are attracted to. Everybody belongs to everybody else.
How To Write Your Own Dystopian Story Version
In a world where there is no pain, there is also no joy. Where there is no sadness there’s no happiness. Where there’s no hopes or dreams, there’s no satisfaction.
Women might not suffer through childbirth, but they never know their child’s love. Nobody feels the agony of heartbreak, but nobody feels the perfect joy of a contented and happy relationship.
When you write this yourself, imagine how your society would function when emotions have been removed. Who would force this system to be normal, how would society work around it? How are the pains and feelings removed? Who has the authority and how do they ensure the people below them in the structure obey?
And then, think of the people who do feel. The outliers. The ones who want to keep the vulnerabilities of humanity and value them. How will they try to topple a society that erases emotions? And how, once emotions are felt in a society unaccustomed to them, will the people cope?
1984 by George Orwell is possibly the most famous dystopian story. It deal with the dangers of a dictatorial government, the importance of freedom of speech, and threat of thought crimes
Big Brother oversees the state of Oceania, where state surveillance is ever present. Punishment for questioning the law and rules, or even thinking about questioning them, is harsh. Whatever the government states to be true must be accepted. The people of that society must accept even clear lies as fact, or suffer the consequences.
In 1984, you see the resistance attempting to fight for freedom of speech, freedom of thought. The government attacks anybody who dares question them. There is no accountability. No rationality. By fully controlling what people think and say, the power is kept with the powerful.
Through 1984 we learn about the importance of freedom of speech, how essential it is that the people can challenge the authority. If there is no question, no debate, then society becomes broken.
How To Write Your Own Dystopian Story Version
In our society we are seeing this threat as present, both from the extreme right and the extreme left. It’s not as extreme, of course, but it’s burgeoning. So you can use it in your story by, again, pushing it as far as it can go.
We see moral purity tests being laid down constantly. Don’t “follow” this person on social media or you’re the enemy, repeat this mantra of you’re evil. Do not challenge the people deemed “morally right” by the masses. No question, no debate. So far, they’re not powerful enough to actual break our society of course, but that’s the point of dystopia. You can see what happens if they are.
So take that and grow it. Give the absolute power to one sector of society, what they say must be accepted as right, what they say is wrong must be destroyed. Write how they use that power, how they enforce their law. Who suffers for it? Who challenges it? How is it enforced?
In 1984, Winston challenges it, but is pushed back down by fear. The government retains absolute power. Will the same be true in your story, or can a powerful organisation that controls everything down to your thoughts be toppled?
Dystopia And Humanity
One of the most important things about a dystopian story is what it teaches us about humanity. It teaches us the value of our flaws and freedoms, it teaches us the danger of absolute power.
When you write your dystopian story, push something that we are doing now to the extreme. Look at how we function, what we rely on, what we accept as normal, and test it. Grow it, push it to dangerous levels. And then make your characters respond to that now socially accepted extreme.
In Black Mirror the focus is often reliance on social media. Animal Farm explores the dangers of a strictly enforced class system. In I, Robot, it’s our growing dependence on artificial intelligence and robotic technology. These are things that right now we are functioning with, that have positives we depend on, but when pushed can become dangerous.
What We Learn From A Dystopian Story
Humans need to be able to challenge and think and question. We need to feel pain and we need to struggle. We need to be able to be in control of our own bodies. Take just one of those things away and the world as we know it is immediately changed, with spikes that will then shoot out into every other experience we take for granted.
And we can learn about the resistance. Not all people will sit down and accept societal abuse. People fight back. We can lose our freedoms and our rights, but we don’t actually ever lose our freedom of thought. And as long as human beings can think, humanity will thrive.
Dystopia allows us to examine our society, our laws, our people. It allows us to learn and experience things. And it does it in an entertaining way that, if you’re anything like me, will stick with you and make you question everything. And that is a good thing.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
We strive to keep The Table Read free for both our readers and our contributors. If you have enjoyed our work, please consider donating to help keep The Table Read going!