The author is an online writer and novelist who loves sharing advice with readers.
Dystopian Clichés Plaguing Your Story?
Dystopian plots are very popular these days, whether in novels, short stories, or films. Who wouldn’t get at least a bit interested in a glimpse of the human race striving in a terrible world? On the other hand, writing dystopian stories enables authors to immerse themselves in unlimited plot possibilities and let their imagination loose based on what-ifs. It allows them to formulate their own world—a world that will eventually clash and test the spirit of their characters. However, despite this freedom, a lot of dystopian plots that arise today seem to conform to a tedious pattern. The readers might even turn out confused about which is which after reading a lot of these said stories. Falling into plot clichés is never good for your writing. Readers often are drawn to fresher ideas, not severely rehashed ones.
Coming up with an original plot in this genre is increasingly hard to achieve. However, you could still accept the difficult challenge of turning away from the usual devices and avoid these dystopian plot clichés:
1. Oppressive Government
Contrary to what is typically found in the genre, not every dystopian story requires this trope. The meaning of dystopia itself tells us about a place where everything is horrible as it could possibly be. There are still a lot of imaginable roots that can turn a place into a dystopia, not just government oppression. It isn’t even specified that one could only use countries, cities, or towns as a place of dystopia. You could always use entities such as corporations, unions, or even schools to build your dystopia around as long as it is also contained in a livable, physical setting.
2. Hell-Sparked Wild Post-Apocalypse
I already couldn’t count how many dystopian stories I’ve found that have some kind of a prologue about the setting being a post-apocalyptic society. All of those fictional worlds always have their roots related to some apocalypse survivors rebuilding their civilization with their fear of turning it into a totalitarian abyss.
For all the unexplored possibilities, there are a lot of other ways the world could go rotten and not because of something this clichéd.
3. Utopian Façade
A two-faced dystopian setting is already a common find. On the outside, the locales are shown as perfect places, looking so built-up and prosperous. However, on the inside lies a system that thrives on being rotten. All the people within are made ignorant, frightened, or desensitized of the obviously filthy cogwheels up until the brave persecuted emerges and snaps them out of it. The same old t-shirt worn, laundered, hung, and worn again.
4. A Persecuted Protagonist as the Brave Hero
We already have the oppressive government, and now what’s next? A persecuted hero breaks his own chains to fight and trample the domineering tyrants. His efforts will soon be noticed by the common people, and eventually, many of them will join the resistance sparked by their symbol of freedom. Hand in hand (not really, the focus will always be on the gutsy hero), they will force the evil overlords and their system to its knees.
Please, do yourself a favor and stay away from this plot. It has already been forced into the readers’ palates over and over again.
5. The Protagonist Is a Limited Edition Designer Baby
He would have skills verging on superpowers, blessed with an advantageous mutated genes, or created to have a powerful genetic makeup. All of these might be the outcome of an extensively covered-up accident or a deliberate toying of human lives to create powerful living tools. Delving into the deepest roots, the protagonist’s angst would always come from his miserable experience at the hands of mad scientists.
These atrocities all started inside an extremely unethical laboratory... likely run by guess what? The government.
Can't our protagonist simply be a mere loiterer on the street?
6. A Great Divide
Rich-against-poor, the elite-against-the wretched slaves, government-against-citizens, alpha-beta-omega—a terrible place cannot be more terrible if there are no equal rights for all. This great divide is helpful to show how close to hell your dystopian society is like. However, you don’t have to make it the main point of your plot. Making it your character’s main source of suffering will only bland your story into being so ordinary.
7. Manipulation of History
This is good ol’ historical negationism and really does exist beyond just fictional worlds. It is where governments distort or revise historical records and destroy the existence of anything that might spark a “harmful” ideology. In fiction, this is often used as a method to conform to society’s collective way of thinking. It is not that bad to use this point per se, but it is still cliché nonetheless.
8. Relatively Happy Endings Where the Dystopia Topples or Will Topple Over
Most dystopian plots lead to an ending with a very predictable outcome of everyone destroying the reins. It would either be the end of a full-blown revolution or the certain beginning of it. Should all dystopian stories end this way to make sense? No, I think not. The dystopian genre never held authors to resort to this type of resolution. I’ve read a few better ones where the end didn’t promise a better place to live for the characters. One of those stories even finished with the dystopian setting worsening than ever before.
In closing, dystopian stories are fun but are never easy to write. One day, you think that you’ve already found a perfect original plot formula to drive your story to success but the next day, you discover that someone had already been there and done that. Never fret and read a lot. It can always inspire and at the same time, help you find a lot more clichéd plot patterns to avoid. Soon enough, you’ll find it easier to uncover your distinct voice.
Foolish Post on October 18, 2019:
Do you do grammar?
Jeff Dunham on December 03, 2018:
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld had almost all of these. God that was a terribly boring read.
I ALSO DONT AGREE on September 27, 2018:
i like all of theses.
theses cliches wont bore readers to tears.
Don't agree.... on September 23, 2018:
I'm sorry but I can't take any "author" seriously when there are as many grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure errors as those in this article.
Not only do I not agree with the content, but I found it very difficult to get through with the amount of errors in it.
Putting all of that aside - you propose not falling afoul of the 'tired cliches' of a certain genre by removing its foundation - its skeletal structure so to speak. Every single genre has what you call cliches. That makes them neither tired nor candidates for complete withdrawal. What would you call a cliche in a crime drama? The loner detective? The dysfunctional psychopath killer? The bumbling police force? I don't suspect that anyone would want to read a story where the detectives just plodded along in their day to day taking years to solve a murder.
Authors who write in a certain genre need to learn how to embrace those cliches and make them speak to the reader. It's all about the way you present it.
Whilst I can appreciate what you've written here and why you felt it needed to be said, I would urge you - as someone who calls themselves an author - to not just critique but also advise.
Galinda with a GAAAAAAA on May 18, 2018:
Some of these could still be used but changed so they aren't as so cliche. This was super useful, though! You make quite a few good points, and I'm so tired of the Mary Sue protagonist. (Side note: has anyone read a dystopian novel in which a female protagonist did not have a love interest? I'm so tired of the "you aren't like all those other corrupt girls" or whatever cliche.)
This isn't a good name on April 13, 2018:
You bring up some very reasonable points about the cliche story plots, I just think it's very limiting and the possibility of manipulating these ideas to form something slightly different or original would be fair (though rather difficult to do, hence my point of a lot of the ideas being chucked out the window). Lol I don't even write, I just research when I'm bored ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
Robert Sacchi on November 02, 2017:
Those are good points Chris Mills. Many story lines are thousands of years old and people still like them. New and original could easily end up being weird and stupid.
Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on November 02, 2017:
This is one of the things which drives us to look for fresh ideas. The fear of writing the same old thing that has gone before is like hiking a well-trodden path into the forest when what you want is to explore. But I am also going to agree with the core of nothingnewunderaredsun's comments if not the delivery, that some of these "overworked" themes have been overworked for centuries in literature. That is because they resonate with common people. Your encouragement to avoid cliches should not mean that we ought to steer away from proven storylines but that we blend them with creativity of our own. The main plot of the story I am currently rolling out on HP is an overworked plot. But I've worked hard at adding my own, original twists and turns. I agree with you that as writers, we should be on constant alert to falling into staleness that is a result of laziness.
??? on November 02, 2017:
this was soooo helpful thank you so mutch
nothingnewunderaredsun on September 24, 2017:
So, "Protagonist as a Brave Hero" is right out, eh? Preferrable, I assume, would be "Protagonist as a Coward who Does Nothing Throughout the Story" - "Protagonist Who Doesn't Much Care What Happens in This Story" - "Protagonist Who Does Stupid Things Which Are Boring" - just curious how you envision a whole plethora of original pieces that avoid one of the common themes that bring people to the page in the first place? And, what's the point of writing an apocalyptic environment only to have do-nothing Dostoevskies and Louisa May Alcotts walking around painting their fingernails with motor oil? It's like you're suggesting Star Wars should have kept its focus on the moisture farm for two hours.
Robert Sacchi on May 14, 2017:
JD brings up a good point. A dystopian future as a political critique it seems wouldn't use the same cliches, or hallmarks. A valid political critique of America in 1967 may be a dated critique in 2017. If people from 20 different coutries give the same dystopian vision it may be a good political critique for some of them, but the others are probably using a familiar formula, a cliche.
jd on May 13, 2017:
this article reads like a parody. while well intentioned, it kind of ignores how dystopian fiction is not just a pulp genre, but a form of political critique. before it was coopted into teen romance fiction, it was originally written to oppose governmental oversight. a lot of the things you say are 'cliched' are hallmarks of the genre. instead of exercising these aspects, perhaps we should question if we really need to make a story dystopian if it has nothing to critique and instead wants to use the backdrop of human suffering as window dressing for an action / adventure / romance.
bleh on January 21, 2017:
I understand what you are saying, though I admittedly don't see these as cliches. These situations are things to base your plot around, and also mark general features of the dystopian genre; what you DO with your plot determines whether or not it's cliched.
Joss on November 17, 2016:
You say clichés, I say generic conventions.
Kylyssa Shay from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on June 04, 2015:
I enjoyed this list of Dystopian cliches. The rise in popularity of Dystopian novels has brought a lot of them out to play. The cliches and blunt oversimplification of human issues found in the genre are reasons I write Topian fiction instead.
Robert Sacchi on October 22, 2014:
Interesting points, although it would seem a story could have one of these cliches without being boring. I can't write the same for a story that uses all eight.
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on October 22, 2014:
Hi there Rained-- congratulations on HOTD.
You have done a fine categorization of the various cliché pools for the dystopian theme. I agree with Catherine Giordano that it is likely that dystopian-themed novels are pumped out like romance novels because there is a ready market of readers (and obviously, movie-watchers) who demand the familiar and predictable way of expressing anger, frustration, angst, loneliness, alienation, ?? against the powers-that-be. Just as the theory exists that 'childhood victims' of vile sexualized crimes sometimes gravitate towards predators and pedophiles in an attempt to gain a sense of mastery, perhaps those with a great sense of being wronged by governments, the elite, etc., are attracted to the dystopian novel with its happily-ever-after endings. Real life doesn't tend to order everything quite so positively.
Look forward to reading more of your hubs to come! ~Cynthia
Laura Smith from Pittsburgh, PA on October 22, 2014:
This is awesome. I'm a terrible fantasy writer, but I do love dystopian stories. I'm adding this to my Facebook author page.
MICHAEL Belk from New Albany on October 22, 2014:
Congrats on Hub of the day. Dystopian is a little scary for me because I could not see myself wondering around seeing no one. It is hard to imagine a World without anyone for miles and miles.
Elizabeth from U.S. on October 22, 2014:
Nice article. In my opinion there is too much oppression nowadays by the Governments controlled by the elite bankers.
Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on October 22, 2014:
Very interesting summary, but it seems like there is nothing that you don't consider a cliché. Dystopian novels may be like romance novels in a way--the readers like and demand the clichés.
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 22, 2014:
Very interesting and thought-provoking. There are so many cliched dystopian settings and themes for books and movies today. I agree with all your points. But, in all honesty it is difficult to find originality as neatly every book / story written has been done before . Nearly everything I read I have read before. Even the fiction on the New Yorker magazine is basically the same. I think dystopian writing as a genre has peaked and we do need something new in writing. Congratulations on HOTD!
AnitaDRussell on October 22, 2014:
I really enjoyed reading your article. When I was much younger (my teenage years, specifically) I was fascinated in general by books and movies about the future, like This Perfect Day, Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange. It's funny because that dystopian genre of today holds considerably less interest for me...to your point, much too predictable. Thanks for sharing.
Daniella Lopez on October 22, 2014:
While I love a good dystopian novel, I totally get what you're saying. The traditional dystopian cliches do get old. I think this is why The Matrix irritated me so much. It was a film just filled with cliches. Awesome read. Thanks for sharing!
Hannah Moskowitz from New York on October 22, 2014:
jack o' lantern on October 22, 2014:
I agree with #1 and #2. Very informative article. By the way, congratulations!
Sara2901 on October 22, 2014:
Interesting article. Totally agree with #2 and #3. Congratulations on getting the Hub of the Day.
Rained (author) from Philippines on October 22, 2014:
Thank you everyone for the comments. I never expected this to get "Hub of the Day", since that I've just decided to give my thoughts a try just recently. I'm very happy if this could somehow inspire writers to think deeper and discover fresher ideas.
Stacey from Fife, Scotland on October 22, 2014:
Very interesting hub. I agree, I see these kinds of plot lines a lot. If written really well I don't mind sometimes, but it would be great to see something new and unexplored. Congrats on hub of the day :)
Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on October 22, 2014:
This is a very informative hub. Voted UP and extremely useful!
Lionrhod from Orlando, FL on October 22, 2014:
Great article and major congrats on the Hub of the Day! I do think we've got so many books with #1 because of frustrations with our own governments, and a potentially logical extension of what they'll do next.
David Livermore from Bakersfield, California, United States on October 22, 2014:
I actually don't mind these at all. Sure, you know what will happen, but it's still interesting to read or watch.
Carl Richardson from Midwest USA on October 22, 2014:
I found this list of dystopian plots interesting. It explains a great deal.
Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on October 22, 2014:
This is a very interesting article. I write a lot of flash fiction. I read one story in which the hero was a youth who lived in a burned out car in a post apocalyptic world. Creativity and originality are hard work. Thanks for pointing out the pitfalls of cliché plots.
Kimberly Schimmel from North Carolina, USA on October 22, 2014:
Certainly interesting. I've read both excellent dystopian books (e.g. 1984) and lame ones (Matched) as a librarian.
Pinky de Garcia on October 22, 2014:
Congratulations for having the Hub of the Day recognition! You are right, dystopian stories are not easy to write. The twist and tweak of two-faced worlds are hard to connect. Only brilliant authors can successfully write an interesting dystopian stories.
mySuccess8 on October 22, 2014:
Excellent selection of dystopian plot cliches in this article. With present day digital technological advances in films, we now see these same plots with awesome special effects in graphic, sounds and visual recordings, making them more entertaining. Congrats on Hub of the Day!