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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Can cool, fantastical elements hurt a distopian warning tale?

Author Topic: Can cool, fantastical elements hurt a distopian warning tale?
Member # 9398

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I have this idea for a distopian story, the premise is fairly fleshed out, I wrote a kind of impromptu opening then set it aside to ferment while I work on more developed stories.

Today, I had an idea for the addition of a few characters that have . . . semi-fantastical abilities. I really liked the characters within moments of thinking of them and thought maybe they could fit into the story to help the protag. At the moment it hasn't moved beyond a dues ex machina type intervention, but I'm sure it would make sense after I'd really set it down.

But, I'm wondering, since distopian stories (at least this one in particular) are in some ways intended to warn against certain perils, if the addition of something that might be distractingly cool and change the course to one of hope might dilute the warning? Like you have a warning of a real danger and then meet it with an unreal, unattainable, hope/lightness.

I suppose that kind of answers my question, these characters don't belong with this story.

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Member # 5512

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If the story works with it, put it in. If it doesn't leave it out.

Worry about the rules of genre later.

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Robert Nowall
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Go with what works...you're writing about the people in the story and what they're doing, and not directly about the society, at least if you want to write something somebody might be interested in reading...but maybe also you'd be better off if you spelled it "dystopian"...
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Member # 9398

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Dang you and your spellings.

What works is easy to say, but I'm asking for an emotional experience. In my mind, the setting is dystopian, and to carry the weight of that it has to be "serious". I mean its kind of like the difference between Alice and Katniss, in one the fantastical elements are done in a way that do not detract from the harsh reality of regime, in the other its "nonsense fiction."

So I'm really trying to figure out where the line is between one and the other. I know the core of the story is about this harsh reality, but could it remain so with say, five super powered kids coming in and "saving" (at least for a time and in a way) the protagonist in his time of need) without it losing that harsh reality . . . of course it can be done, but what warnings, what signs would be the warning I was headed off the rails?

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Member # 8019

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Stalag 17, 1951 Broadway play and 1953 film, depicts a dystopian situation and is a macabre comedy and farce. I think that drama illustrates there is no hard and fast line about seriousness and "nonsense fiction." Unlike a common dystopian convention, though, the action does to an extent alter the overall social setting. Escape dramas do tend that way. The Great Escape, Escape from Colditz, King Rat, World War II prisoner of war camp novels, films, plays, as the case may be.

Warning signs the storyline is headed off the rails might go something like coincidences can't save the day but they can cause complications, and too much of any character or characters' self-efficacy or self-idealization or self-centrality to a drama can feel like author surrogacy. Maybe also, cool, neato, swift, groovy settings or whatnot that don't come with harsh complications, harsh underlying trouble behind the glory, can be a bit too idylic. Though an argument could be made a utopia is itself a dystopia. Persistent cognitive dissonance feedback loop! Reconciling that dissonance, sweet.

[ August 08, 2012, 08:14 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Member # 9331

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I don't think a categorical answer is possible, it all depends on what *you* can do with the idea.

It's important to remember that one man's dystopia is another's utopia. Dystopias persist because they appeal to certain people living in them, so the protagonist must deal with people who *like* the status quo. The wife in Fahrenheit 451 would rather watch demolition derby on her giant, wall-sized TV (sci-fi stuff in 1953) than to be challenged by books. And eventually the protagonist meets his match in an antagonist who can articulate (usually at great length) the justification for the status quo. Think Winston Smith's antagonist O'Brien in 1984.

Sometimes it's canny to depict what the protagonist is fighting as having some recognizable advantages (giant TV screens). Likewise making the dystopia totally unbearable makes the people following it inexplicable, and weakens the hand of the antagonist.

Readers aren't swayed by how horrible you depict the future as being. They know it's a made-up world. What readers are swayed by is their identification with the protagonist's rebellion against the future, and to make that rebellion interesting the antagonist has to put up a good fight. In 1984, the greatest dystopian novel ever, the antagonist *wins*, thus sealing reader hatred for what the Party represents in the way an overthrow never could.

What moves them is their identification with the protagonist's rebellion. In 1984, Winston Smith's rebellion is totally crushed. He is powerless to resist the state, and is *happy that way*. For the reader that makes the Party irredeemable.

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Member # 9398

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Extrinsic, thanks for the insightful examples. I'd never thought of the Great Escape in this way, and yet it did have both comedy and the harsh tread of reality in the form of the seventy who did not come back, and that would in many ways be similar to this story especially with Hilts (Hills?) and Ives, and the scrounger.

Matt, also very helpful. In a sense the harshness can only be measured by the protagonists struggle against it. To an Orc, Rivendell or Lothlorien could be considered dystopian and yet for lack of Orcs its a paradise to the fellowship.

So really, the presence of fantastical elements would not hurt the harshness so long as they do not alleviate the conflict with the society. Kind of like Obi-Wan's presence didn't take the sting out of the massacre at the skywalker ranch.

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Member # 5137

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Dystopia + fantastical elements = somewhat par for the course now on the YA scene, so I don't think you'll run into too much trouble having both concepts present.

See: The Giver, Lois Lowry, the Gone series by Michael Grant, I think even the Maze Runner books but it's been a while and I've only read the first in the series. There are some cool dystopia/zombie mashups out there, too. And then Scott Westerfeld has some zombie/vampire/vampire hunter kinds of themes in his Peeps series and...something else I think. Not exactly dystopia, but leaning that way (and another of his books but I forget the name of it.)

Even if you want the story to be some kind of lesson tale or moral. But, be warned. Kids are REALLY prickly about being preached to. Just be careful with your tone. Aim for "cautionary tale" versus "instructive moral-based lesson." (and the older your audience is, the more you must lean away from the moral-based lesson, in my opinion.)

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