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Dystopian Plot Ideas

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  • #148896
    Noah Cochran
    @noah-cochran

    Alrighty y’all, I love the dystopian genre, and I’ve been wanting to begin plotting a series for a while now, but unique and fresh plot ideas have been escaping me.

    I consider the defining features of a vast amount of dystopian novels to be what I call the Big Three:

    • An oppressive and autocratic government that is usually lying to its people about some big and revealing plot point.
    • A pandemic/disease that is rampant and is often revealed to be man-made in a plot twist.
    • A group or pair of young people who are put in X deadly and/or mysterious situation and have to deal with it. This is often a Hunger Games spin-off in the fact that they are put in a strange place or an arena of some sort and have to work together to an extent to escape or survive.

    So, what I’m wanting is fresh plot ideas–in particular for the villains/antagonists’ plans. What could be going on in a setting like this that isn’t one of the big three?

    Now, here’s the deal. The term ‘dystopian’ inherently means that their is oppression and that the setting is grim or tyrannical in some way. The central way to do this is indeed with an oppressive government. So, if y’all have any ideas for me, I’m fine with that idea including an oppressive government or entity of some sort, but add a twist. What’s different about this government? Is there actually someone else behind all the evil? Who’s the real villain instead of the government? What would the plot of the third book in the trilogy be if it wasn’t overthrowing a evil government? What force is behind it all and what is their plan? What is the history/backstory of the plot?

    If y’all have any ideas for me, I’d love to hear them!


    @r-m-archer


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    #148898
    Elena N
    @elena-n

    Hmm…it is hard to come up with ideas that aren’t solely based on the big three. But I’ll just type stuff and see what happens…. 😛

    1. This isn’t directly what you asked for, but throwing a whole bunch of old people in a situation instead of some young people could be interesting.

    2. The government could be kind of good, but maybe there’s a big mob that controls everything and the government is unable to stop them, even though they try.

    3. Half the government is very oppressive and the other half is really good, and they either are constantly fighting or have this strange and fragile peace (that would probably have bad ramifications…)

    4. Make the current situation of things because of a really ridiculous reason. For example  in my sort of dystopian story I had a world war start over a movie. The crazy thing is that a war could actually happen over a movie with politics and everything… XD

    5. Take something that’s a normal trope and twist it to the exact opposite. The mastermind is usually very evil seeming and smart and seems collected. Make the mastermind a bumbling teenager or something who is entirely able to do what they did, but really doesn’t seem like it. Take the usual reason for motives and change it. Instead of revenge, protection. Instead of love of power, wanting to limit it. (which would probably backfire)

    6. Make the oppression seem like freedom. I don’t know how you’d do this exactly, probably with a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff and propaganda.

    7. Make the rebels the evil ones.

    8. There’s a rampant disease that the government spread, but someone is mysteriously healing it, and the MC works for the government and has to try to stop the healer.

    I could probably come up with more. Do any of those seem interesting/helpful? Do you have any idea of what you’d like to possibly write about?

    When the darkness presses around, the light will shine brighter.

    #148907
    Joelle Stone
    @joelle-stone

    So.

    I do not write dystopian.

    And I have not read the Hunger Games (I know, I know, I’m working on it).

    So I don’t have very many ideas at all.

    But I did have one.

    Have one of the team of young people actually be the villain. If you can pull this off like Brandon Mull did in Fablehaven, then you will have my respect forever. Considering that the Fablehaven plot twist was so insane I didn’t believe it for a few chapters. And I stared at the book with my mouth open. And I may or may not have screamed in rage and come thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to throwing the book across the room.

    So.

    Do it.

    Otherwise, I cannot help.

    But best of luck!

    #148909
    Brian Stansell
    @obrian-of-the-surface-world

    @noah-cochran

    Hi Noah,

    Unfortunately, we are presently living in a real dystopian plot covering your first two bullet points.

    But as to ideas, there is one that is not mentioned.
    It is as old as the Garden of Eden and it is Satan’s lie repackaged.
    “You can have God-like knowledge/power, but you must be willing to give up something for it.”

    St. Paul, writing in his letter to Timothy speaks of the following:
    Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. [1 Timothy 4:1-2 CSB]

    Deception is always working in the heart of those seeking personal power.

    The one thing the doctrine of demons is consistent in is its attempt to get humanity to seek power or authority independent of humility before and trust in God.  This pursuit through human means leads to the dystopian effect and result.

    What would the villain do to get a society to give up something they should give their life to protect for what they perceive will make them have an immediate gain.

    The same model played out between Jacob and Esau:
    Then Jacob gave bread and lentil stew to Esau; he ate, drank, got up, and went away. So Esau despised his birthright. [Genesis 25:34 CSB]

    Satan himself attempted this luring deception with Jesus in the wilderness:
    for forty days to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” But Jesus answered him, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone.” [Luke 4:2-4 CSB]

    So here is an idea.  What if a billionaire offered you the opportunity to participate in an experiment where you must give up a part of your humanity to be made into a genetically modified organism that would give you superhuman traits by making you genetically part of something “other”?  Spiderman was a man genetically altered by a mutant spider bite. The Hulk was genetically altered by exposure to large amounts of gamma radiation.  Others were altered from their human state to be regarded as “heroes”.  We live in an age of Crisper technology and nano-tech that is able to self-assemble and self-repair.  What if you are told that the process would forever alter your genetic make-up.  That the change would make you a genetically modified organism, and that you would join a revolution of the next level of human evolution into a hybrid race, ready to defend and protect the world.  Would your hero do it?
    What if his/her family was threatened by something the hero is told they would need “superhuman” powers to defeat?  What is your humanity worth?
    Did God design your inadequacy?  Are you “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14), or do you need the power of this “One Ring” to meet the challenge?

    It is a twist to refuse such an offer, but it is Christlike to do so.  Paul hints at it in the following passage:
    And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9-10 KJV]

    The ancient world has strange heroes too:
    There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare [children] to them, the same [became] mighty men which [were] of old, men of renown. [Genesis 6:4 KJV]

    Brian Stansell (aka O'Brian of the Surface World)
    I was born in war.
    Fighting from my first breath.

    #148911
    R.M. Archer
    @r-m-archer

    Well… I like the tyrannical government trope, because I think it’s realistic (sadly). And we’re cocky enough to create man-made diseases. And teenagers are the ones with the passion and energy to change things… though their worldviews are also easier to shape into the opposite of what would be ideal, which could be an interesting angle to play with, and middle-aged folk also tend to have a balanced mix of energy to fight things and memory of how things were supposed to be (or times these things have happened before, so they see the patterns and identify the corruption before anyone else has noticed… sometimes to the benefit of others and sometimes only to receive mockery and disbelief in return).

    Pharmaceutical/tech companies are also good candidates to be the bad guys. And media elites. Especially when in cahoots with government officials, so they’re protected by those who could out them instead turning the other way.

    Speculative fiction author. Mythology nerd. Worldbuilding enthusiast. Singer. Fan of classic literature.

    #148916
    Rose
    @rose-colored-fancy

    @noah-cochran

    Everyone has already suggested some awesome ideas! I have one more way that you could subvert it.

    Change the timing. Every dystopia I’ve read starts right before a revolution, through the revolution, and stops right after. It’s implied that all the problems just… vanish. But that isn’t realistic, historically speaking. War just isn’t a solution, and destroying a corrupt government doesn’t solve much. It means there will be a void of power, and someone is going to try to fill it.

    Hunger Games touched on this *Spoiler* by Katniss taking down Coin because she proved to be just as corrupt as Snow. (You’re going to have a really hard time writing a dystopia that doesn’t borrow something from Hunger games, it’s basically the blueprint for the modern dystopia and it covers so much you can’t really avoid overlap.)

    So, my concept was to write a dystopia that starts right after a revolution and focuses on the fallout. There’s plenty of conflict for a novel. The country is trying to rebuild itself after an entire war, there are different groups competing for the void of power, people are scared and angry and prone to overreact. The country could be divided into previously pro-government and the rebels, who probably hate each other.

    It gives you immense room for backstory since your main characters just came out of an entire war.

    If you think about it, it has a lot of potential. You could subvert and examine a lot of tropes. The group of cocky young teenagers are now in their twenties or even thirties, they feel like they’ve lost the best years of their lives to war and are now left with nothing but ruins. What’s the point of rebuilding if it could happen again any day?

    The “Extra special chosen one” who was the figurehead of the revolution (You know the character type I’m talking about, the classic main character.) spent their entire youth developing a savior complex and is now stuck with it. Nobody seems to care about them anymore, they’re just another person now their role is over and they don’t quite know how to handle it.

    This is actually an idea I had a while ago, but more in an “I’d love to read that” than in a “I’d love to write that” way XD It’s pretty dark, though there’s also a lot of room for hope. I’ve never read anything like it, but it would be fascinating!

     

    Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?

    #148921
    Isaiah
    @allertingthbs

    @rose-colored-fancy As a small aside, if you wanted to read a really good series that kinda does what you’re talking about (deals with the aftermath of a government toppled,) Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is a great example. His story telling is really on point and he deals with motivations and mental health topics very well. Highly recommend it.

    "Only a Sith deals in absolutes"
    -Quipmaster 2005

    #148923
    Noah Cochran
    @noah-cochran

    @elena-n

    Thanks for the response, Elena!

    But I’ll just type stuff and see what happens…

    That’s exactly what I’m wanting. Just random ideas you have that I can think on and make new ideas from. 🙂

    Make the rebels the evil ones.

    I’ve juggled around that idea myself–it is definitely something worth considering.

    Take something that’s a normal trope and twist it to the exact opposite.

    A fantastic way to brainstorm that I attempt to use often. 🙂

    8. There’s a rampant disease that the government spread, but someone is mysteriously healing it, and the MC works for the government and has to try to stop the healer.

    That is very interesting. When I first started reading it, I was like ‘rampant disease? come on now.’ But by the time I finished (one should not make hasty judgements, I know, xD), I was extremely intrigued. Having the MC be a person who attempts to stop the healer is a excellent idea.


    @joelle-stone

    Have one of the team of young people actually be the villain.

    My brain is working double time trying to conceive of ways to pull this off. An excellent suggestion, but who would the MC be? One of the young people?


    @obrian-of-the-surface-world

    Unfortunately, we are presently living in a real dystopian plot covering your first two bullet points.

    Ah, come now, it isn’t all that bad–unless you consider the last millennium to also be dystopian. xD

    What would the villain do to get a society to give up something they should give their life to protect for what they perceive will make them have an immediate gain.

    I love this, and it is something I’ve been considering for a while now–both in the real and fictional worlds. For instance, there has always been a struggle between freedom and order, and in many cases, people are willing to give up the former for more of the latter (rise of serfdom in the early middle ages, Octavian’s rise to power as an emperor), but the question is, are there times when order is more important, or is complete freedom always better?

    That billionaire idea is very interesting, I will be adding that to my brainstorm list. 🙂


    @r-m-archer

    And teenagers are the ones with the passion and energy to change things

    Oh, I’m not against teens be the main characters, I just wanted something other than a group of teens who get put in a mysterious/dangerous situation (examples: The City of Ember, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Red Queen, etc..)

    Pharmaceutical/tech companies are also good candidates to be the bad guys.

    One of my favorites. It’s on my list.

    And media elites.

    I think my personal hate for these is too high to write them. Okay, so that’s a little extreme, but you get it. xD


    @rose-colored-fancy

    So, my concept was to write a dystopia that starts right after a revolution and focuses on the fallout.

    Ah, yes, we think alike, Rose. This concept is something I’ve been considering for a while now (though not in the exact way you explained it, so thanks for mentioning it). There is plot question of ‘what would happen if the villains won?’ and making a series about the aftermath of that. There is the plot question of ‘what happens after the protagonists won/got what they wanted?’ which could lead to everything you explained. Fantastic idea.

    The “Extra special chosen one” who was the figurehead of the revolution (You know the character type I’m talking about, the classic main character.) spent their entire youth developing a savior complex and is now stuck with it. Nobody seems to care about them anymore, they’re just another person now their role is over and they don’t quite know how to handle it.

    Interesting. Very interesting actually. I’ve also considered the idea of the chosen one trope where the chosen one turns bad or dies. Lots of room for ideas there.


    @allertingthbs

    That is a high-fantasy government with supernatural entities, but yeah. xD

     

    #148930
    Taylor Clogston
    @taylorclogston

    @noah-cochran

    First, I just realized I have no idea what the Dystopian spread of genres has looked like over the past decade. I grew out of the YA-focused part of the genre a couple years after the Hunger Games series ended.

    Looking through Amazon tells me it probably hasn’t changed terribly much, though.

    So, what I’m wanting is fresh plot ideas–in particular for the villains/antagonists’ plans.

    Dystopian fiction mostly needs a villain if you’re in strictly YA territory. Both middle grade and adult Dystopian have historically been pretty villain-free—at least, the antagonist falls into “man vs nature” and “man vs God” more than “man vs man.”

    The totalitarian governments usually exist as a systemic force, not a villain with a logical agenda which can be overthrown with enough passion.

    Outside of YA, the core of Dystopian is, “The world is brutal and dehumanizing. Knowing this, how shall we then live?”

    People live in brutal, dehumanizing systems every day in cultures around the world. The factory job I used to work felt like a watered-down dystopian nightmare. Plenty of different jobs create the same effect.

    You might also feel the same way in regard to COVID mandates or to government regulation concerning what your children may or may not do or be taught in school.

    Whether any of these specific feelings are reasonable is irrelevant.

    Dystopian tells a reader who has these feelings, “You’re not alone.”

    Dystopian can also warn against a slippery slope of social and political injustice, saying, “If things keep going the way they do, look what might happen!” but they’re still speaking to the reader’s anxiety and frustration at the world around them.

    Historically, one of the core elements of Dystopian has been romantic human connection. It symbolizes an intimate, very internal human bond which an oppressive system cannot control. This obviously makes it easy fodder for YA, but it’s the reason so many of the classic Dystopian books for adults have explicit scenes between romantic partners.

    If you’re trying to find interesting ideas, I suggest you not fixate on a government specifically as your dehumanizing system. You *can* use that, but you might find new ideas by moving away from it.

    Unless you’re deliberately writing for a teenage audience who needs to look at a humanized villain so they can direct their righteous anger at them, I also suggest you avoid a single villain who has a logical agenda for creating a Dystopian society.

    In America’s Liberal Illiberalism, Michael C. Desch says, “Good things do not always go together.” A noble and democratic beginning to a nation or socio-political system does not incentivize it to further develop in that direction, and vice versa.

    A political system can do amazing, benevolent good for its citizens while brutally dealing with its geographic neighbors. A people group which survives attempted genocide can turn around and do the same to another group.

    Like people, systems are neither all good nor all evil, nor must they continue in goodness if they arise through noble causes, nor does allying with evil at one time force them to be cartoonishly villainous themselves in the future.

    The classic, overused example is Hitler and Nazi Germany. Had Hitler died as an infant, someone else likely would have filled his role, because the circumstances leading to Nazi Germany were incredibly complex and due in large part to the perhaps evil, perhaps unwise actions of men who, in many cases, had good and noble intentions.

    Some of my favorite Dystopian stories:

    • The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula K. Le Guin. (PG-13 sexual content)

      An anarcho-communist society was exiled to the moon of their home planet years ago.

      We follow a scientist as he struggles to find a sense of identity and meaning in a society where it’s seen as immature and selfish to claim ownership over your work or over another human being in the context of having a family.

    • The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. (she is *phenomenal* in this genre!) (PG-13 sexual content)

      In the near future, we have far too few resources due to overpopulation and climate change.

      People live in cramped, crowded conditions, only the very rich can afford to vacation in nature, and everyone is given free recreational drugs to deal with the misery of being alive. Our main character suffers what he considers a curse: His dreams manifest as reality, and they always seem to make the world worse.

      He struggles with what it means to be human and to have interpersonal relationships in a world where nothing seems real and his subconscious could rip happiness away in the blink of an eye.

    • The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster.

      The Earth has been ravaged, and humanity now lives within The Machine, a fully automated system which allows people to live in a little room and have all their physical needs met.

      In the first scene, we basically have a character video chat with her son and then make a vlog and watch some YouTube videos. The story says, “If we allow automation to replace our every need, can we retain what it means to be human? At what point does the Machine replace humanity, and what happens when the Machine stops?” The story’s prescience regarding shut-in internet addicts is astounding considering it was written in 1909.

    There are a few more I want to mention, but they’re R-rated enough that I won’t recommend them here.

    In a nutshell, my advice is, “Create a dehumanizing system and then ask, ‘How do we remain human inside it?’”

    Don’t fixate on villains and tyrannical governments in particular.

    #148962
    Joelle Stone
    @joelle-stone

    @noah-cochran,

    My brain is working double time trying to conceive of ways to pull this off. An excellent suggestion, but who would the MC be? One of the young people?

    Ooh, good question. My first thought was yes, it could be one of the young people, but it’s really rare to have a story from the perspective of an older person when the younger people are the drive of the story. Hm…

    #148978
    Noah Cochran
    @noah-cochran

    @taylorclogston

    If you’re trying to find interesting ideas, I suggest you not fixate on a government specifically as your dehumanizing system. You *can* use that, but you might find new ideas by moving away from it.

    Absolutely agree, which is why I listed it as one of the things I prefer to not have–or at least to have it not feature in a big way.

    at least, the antagonist falls into “man vs nature” and “man vs God” more than “man vs man.”

    What exactly do you mean ‘man vs God?’ As for the man vs nature, I’m not a huge fan of that type apocalypse world/diseases/dinosaurs/fill in the blank type thing for the antagonist, but there is a lot of room for ideas there for sure.

    One of your main points seems to be not to have a central villain or government that is clearly completely evil and the whole point is to take it down. If that is your main point, then I cannot agree enough. In all of my writing, I try to show multiple antagonists, the right and wrong in both the antagonists and protagonists, characters with dark sides achieve results through immoral ways, clash of bad against bad, etc.. Having one system that is clearly and completely bad is not usually realistic, and thinking of story telling as presenting human nature makes for very interesting characters and plots.

    In a nutshell, my advice is, “Create a dehumanizing system and then ask, ‘How do we remain human inside it?’”

    This is a great point. I will add it to my jumping points for brainstorming.

    #148985
    Rose
    @rose-colored-fancy

    @allertingthbs

    Oh, thanks for the recommendation! I’ve been looking at it!


    @noah-cochran

    Ah, yes, we think alike, Rose. This concept is something I’ve been considering for a while now (though not in the exact way you explained it, so thanks for mentioning it). There is plot question of ‘what would happen if the villains won?’ and making a series about the aftermath of that. There is the plot question of ‘what happens after the protagonists won/got what they wanted?’ which could lead to everything you explained. Fantastic idea.

    Ohhh, that’s a great idea too! It would be really interesting, just seeing how they’re trying to hunt down the rebels now. That has a lot of potential too! You could easily combine the ideas to a certain degree. I’d absolutely love to see what you do with it, keep me posted on the dystopia idea!

    Interesting. Very interesting actually. I’ve also considered the idea of the chosen one trope where the chosen one turns bad or dies. Lots of room for ideas there.

    Honestly, I don’t care much for the chosen one trope, but any subversion of it is absolutely fantastic. I accidentally wrote it into my story, and it’s surprisingly one of my favorite elements of the first book.

    Basically, it’s a chosen one that isn’t the main character. It’s almost as though the story is told from the perspective of a side character, and it gives really interesting dynamics. It’s an idea that’s always intrigued me and I’m planning to write even more of it in the mystery story.

    Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?

    #149008
    Noah Cochran
    @noah-cochran

    @rose-colored-fancy

    Basically, it’s a chosen one that isn’t the main character. It’s almost as though the story is told from the perspective of a side character, and it gives really interesting dynamics. It’s an idea that’s always intrigued me and I’m planning to write even more of it in the mystery story.

    Oh, you have this is your trilogy? What’s the trilogy called again by the way?

    #149022
    Rose
    @rose-colored-fancy

    @noah-cochran

    Oh, you have this is your trilogy? What’s the trilogy called again by the way?

    Yep! It worked its way in accidentally and I actually really like it XD

    Welll…. I may or may not be stuck on a name for it XD My mind is an endless waste of desert with one tumbleweed and no ideas XD I’m currently just referring to it as the “Gilded Blood” trilogy, after the first book. I need some collective title but I can’t come up with anything XD

    Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?

    #149045
    Inkhorn
    @inkhorn

    @noah-cochran

    Hi! It’s nice to meet you!

    So while I’m not an expert in writing dystopian books (or any other books for that matter 😬),  I do have one idea inspired by the French Revolution. It goes something like this: the rebels truly wish to do what is best for their society, but in overthrowing the government, they lose sight of their original goals of freedom, equality, etc. and get swept along by the violence of their revolution. The story can revolve more around them trying to find out where they went wrong and trying to fix the damage that they caused than around the actual revolution.

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