Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Lit: More Questions

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Lit: More Questions

Figure 1. Get yr flu shot. Daryl Dixon said so.

Figure 1. Get yr flu shot. Daryl Dixon said so. Get a haircut, too, not that he’s a role model in that, of course


Today’s question:

How do you introduce a dystopian/skewed world to a reader? How do you develop this world?

Easy answer: beats the hell out of me, kid. I don’t write that stuff.

Less dumbshitty answer:

Well, you have to think a lot first. I mean, don’t think too much. A lot of my students think more than they write, and you don’t want that. Because sometimes weird good stuff emerges while you’re writing. But with worlds that do not exist, you cannot fly blind. You should spend a bit of time contemplating and moving the pieces all over the chess board.

What the hell does that mean?

It means that you start with a speculative premise what if all electronic devices weren’t useable? what if we lived under a hellmouth full of demons? – and then you lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling and watch how all the dominoes would fall in those situations.

This is something I’m terrible at, by the way. So I don’t really know. Maybe the process involves tagboard or post-it notes or magic markers or something all whizz-bangy and fancy. I don’t do that mapping-visual-business really.

I can say that the speculation should start with FEAR. Something that grips us by the balls to imagine. A world without electricity, or indoor plumbing, or Norman Reedus, in my case.


Figure 1:  Oh my dear baby, let us not think of it, a world where you are not

Figure 2. Oh my dear baby, let us not think of it, a world where you are not


You introduce the world through the character, walking through the world. Not through telling or info-dumps or set-ups like so:

“So, everything’s awful, right? All the fish in the ocean died and the ecosystem was shot to shit and I like this girl who lives in the next cyber-gulag over, but she doesn’t know I exist…”

No. Don’t do that. That can be in your head but not on the page. You want to be smoooooooooth, you know? That above shit ain’t smoooooooooth, brother. And it’ll never get you that cutie in the next gulag over, see. Too obvious.

Also, remember not to have weird stilted conversations about the world you’re introducing. In our lives, we don’t say things like this:

“Dude, what’s up? Since, as you know, we are tethered to the ground by gravity and inhale oxygen and respirate carbon dioxide; this is how we live on the third planet from the sun. So, want to go have lunch?”

This is sometimes called the old “As You Know Bob” gimmick and you should avoid it. (Careful: don’t fall into the TVTropes hole. Many writers are lost there forever.)

Often we are introduced to the precepts of the new world by watching someone break the rules. This may involve an outsider entering the new world, being a stand-in for the reader.

Think of Hagrid in the first Harry Potter book; he’s kind of an info-dumper on the whole Wizarding world, but he does it gracefully, using his hidden wand in an umbrella, that kind of thing. He’s not just unloading data for the sake of set-up.

This is also true in regular old fiction. The less you give the reader, the better. The reader wants to figure stuff out; she doesn’t want you to spoon feed her the situation. Spoon-fed situation = SparkNotes. Readers don’t want SparkNotes; assholes who don’t read or want to do their homework want SparkNotes.


Figure 3. Suck my kiss, SparkNotes.

Figure 3. Suck my kiss, SparkNotes. Same goes to people who don’t read. Chumps.


The fun is in puzzling things out. Don’t take that away from your reader. Lower your rate of revelation, in fact. It seems counterintuitive, at first, but the idea that readers are unsettled and don’t quite know what’s going on is what keeps them turning pages.

The last bit of advice I have?  Focus on boring ordinary details. Sometimes speculative fiction gets lost in its own epic scope and forgets that readers are still humans who need a hand-hold into the story. We still need people who eat and sleep and have minor problems – flat tires, missing buttons – along with their larger concerns – my wife is cheating on me, the government is controlling my mind through my dental fillings.

What did I miss? I’m sure I missed something.



  • Shaun on Oct 23, 2013 Reply

    The biggest problem I find with most worlds is that the “What if” isn’t well thought out. What if all electronics stopped working? is both great AND plausible. There are a ton of ways to make that work. What if the government started kidnapping all red headed children and send them to an island in the middle of nowhere to hand copy the Book of Revelation until they died is maybe (maybe not) a fun plot but totally implausible.

    I read so many dystopians that have central conceits that simply could never happen. The best ones (Unwind, Oryx and Crake, The Program) start with a question and then spin off that question to its most logical extreme. A cool question isn’t enough…readers have to believe it’s possible.

    I’ll pick on Lauren Oliver because I think she’s a great writer and can handle it. But I never ever bought into the idea that love was something that could or would ever be classified a mental disorder treated by compulsory lobotomy. The writing and the pacing of Delirium were all wonderful, but the central conceit of the story never made any sense.

    • Carrie Mesrobian on Oct 26, 2013 Reply

      I also had issues with the premise of Delirium for the same reasons. I wondered if it was a very small world she was describing and assumed so; haven’t read the other books in the trilogy so do not know. I agree that her writing is beautiful, too!

  • Matthew MacNish on Oct 23, 2013 Reply

    The main thing I try to remember is that I need to know maybe 90% of all the details about my spec world, but the reader only needs to know a fraction of that. When it comes to showing them that, I usually think:

    Action > Dialog > Description > Info-dump > As You Know Bob

    Or something like that. Exposition has it’s place though.

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