Writing Dystopia? Try These Writing Exercises First

So, you think you know a few things about dystopia (especially after the last few years), and you’re embarking on the next great novel or screenplay to capture this larger-than-life genre. Fantastic! You’ve come to the right place. However, before committing to 70 thousand words or so, see how you go with the tasks below. Although they seem simple, they’ll help with your insight into creating such a fragile plot-ridden world.

1. First, the easy task: Quickly write three or four dot points on what you believe makes a dystopia.

2. Now, list what you believe makes a world a utopia. Are there similarities in both lists? If so, circle those and use them when answering questions 4 and 5.

3. Now, the easier task: Watch at least two from the following list (preferably that you haven’t seen already):

V for Vendetta (2005) In a not-so-distant British tyranny, a shadowy freedom fighter, known only by his alias “V”, plots to overthrow the government with the help of young and naïve Evey (Natalie Portman).

V for Vendetta.

The Matrix (1999) When computer hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is led into a forbidding underworld, he discovers a shocking truth—that the life he knows is an elaborate deception orchestrated by an evil God-like cyber-intelligence. 

The Matrix

Gamer (2009) In a warning about social media, death row convicts are forced to battle in a mind-controlled ‘Doom’-type game. Convict Kable (Gerard Butler), controlled by a skilled teenage gamer, must survive thirty sessions to be set free.


A Clockwork Orange (1971) In this crime-dystopia, a sadistic gang leader is imprisoned and then volunteers for a conduct-aversion experiment. But it doesn’t go as planned.

A Clockwork Orange

They Live (1988) A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allows him to wake up to an Earth controlled by aliens.

They Live

Divergent (2014) In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris (Shailene Woodley) learns she’s Divergent. Soon, Tris discovers a plot to destroy those who are Divergent so the authorities can maintain their utopia.


4. After watching a movie or two, describe the six dystopia elements listed below. Use examples from the movies watched.

  • Loss of Individualism – Consider the uniformity / sameness / no free will / no independent thought
  • Government Control – Consider the corrupt government / propaganda
  • Technological Control – Consider the segregation/unequal power
  • Perfect Exterior Hides Evil Secret
  • Unexpected Hero
  • Survival

Has anything surprised you? What are the ideological elements of these stories? Which characters do they serve? Use this as the basis for the final exercise. If not, use those elements that stick with and surprise you most.

5. Write these elements or surprises into a 300 – 500-word story using a single protagonist and antagonist. Create a conflict and explore the underside of this world. Don’t drift too far and don’t worry about editing.

By now, you should have a larger understanding of what you believe to be a dystopia and, with any luck, an outline for your next great story. However, a great story always requires a second character (at the very least) that we all love to hate, and you need to understand what makes them tick before presenting them to the world.


6. Repeat Question 5 but become the other; flip the story around to write from the other character’s perspective.

Writing dystopian or spec-fiction isn’t for the faint-hearted. There’s no set rhythm to the story, no real templates other than a crappy world often set in an avoidable future where everything seems hopeless. It’s a difficult genre requiring much insight into the human psyche, forcing the writer to examine their weaknesses. On a human level, this is one of the more difficult genres to explore and requires the author to hold no bias. Anything and everything can happen in this world.

Often, there is no happy ending – Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World are prime examples of this. However, these elements are what make a dystopian tale dystopian. Use these elements wisely, study the greats in literature and film, and make them your own.

Comment below, and the first five authors who complete this task and comment will receive free feedback, including developmental editing for your new dystopian story.

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