1. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I could use help with dystopian plot details

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Mallory, Jun 27, 2010.

    Hey all,

    I could use some help refining/brainstorming/working out a plot.

    I've written loads of short horror stories and satires, and I'm trying my hand at writing my 1st dystopian story/novel.
    I know that it will be a govt-gone-out-of-hand in a setting 30 or 50 or 100 yrs from now, but I don't think I need to set a specific date/time period. I'm going to use all of the elements of propoganda, non-transparency, commanding everyone to blindy "trust" the administration w/out question, etc that were present in stories such as 1984. Only one, govt-controlled, news station and other types of control.

    I know that my main character will be an investigative journalist, but who would work in an area very non-controversial (such as determining the safety of particular foods) because nothing about the administration or official policy can possibly be questioned, explored or reported on.

    At one point, the character would be giving an instructional speech about her job or something, and someone would ask a question such as "what is msnbc" (or cnn, fox etc) that leads her to do some deep-digging research and realize that the gov is using huge amounts of propoganda to cover up something.

    The details of this big secret that the gov must cover up is the part that I'm a little bit stuck on detail-wise.
    Like maybe for some reason, the admin was desperate for allies/monetary aid/etc so they made a foolish and naively-trusting deal with an outside source that they don't know much about, who turns out to be a group that now has the ability to take over or otherwise oppress people.
    Or something where the people in charge themselves are the most sinister ones.

    I'm really not sure what to do. I can easily manage the setting in the beginning, but I'im not quite what "the big disaster" will be or where the dystopia will go as it progesses.

    Any help and ideas would be greatly appreciated! thanks!!
     
  2. lovely
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    lovely Member

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    Although it definitely could be, a "big disaster" doesn't have to be what sets it off. A simple government change could do it. I think that your best bet would be to read other dystopian novels to get a feel for how they do it. Off the top of my head:

    1984 - George Orwell
    Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
    Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
    Anthem - Ayn Rand
    We - Yevgeny Zamyatin
    Animal Farm - George Orwell (Although slightly different, it has many of the same elements)

    If you have already read these, try looking back over them and examining the ways they built their world. I'm not suggesting that you use their ideas, but it might spark some creativity that can help you come up with your own ideas.
     
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    On the reading suggestions, I'd add the movie Soylent Green and the book it's based on, _Make Room! Make Room!_ And then I remembered _Children of Men_. (I've only seen the movie, not read the book.)

    Re:

    "I know that my main character will be an investigative journalist, but who would work in an area very non-controversial (such as determining the safety of particular foods)"

    I'm inclined to think that even investigating food safety would be too much - surely the fabulous perfect controls-all government would assure that all food is safe? Surely a journalist suggesting that the government fell down on that job would cease to exist?

    I'd think that an "investigative journalist" would only be permitted to investigate the enemies of the government, or, really, pretend to investigate them.

    For example, suppose some organizations are allowed to run independently, without detailed government control, because the government knows that public opinion supports the organizations, and they fear backlash if they acted against those organizations. I don't know what they'd be - businesses, arts organizations, clubs or associations, universities, something like that. Or maybe they're small new organizations, like maybe labor protesters, that the government isn't quite comfortable openly destroying.

    The "investigative journalist" would probably be obligated to find or concoct a reason why those organizations are Bad and Dangerous, so that the government could save the day by destroying them or taking them over.

    So, in other words, your investigative journalist is almost certainly an agent of the government. And I'm not sure if he'd actually be doing any _investigating_, and therefore if he'd have any investigative skills. News in your world is probably mostly a fiction and propoganda-writing exercise, not actually news.

    So to have a character with actual investigative skills, I'm wondering if you'd instead need a policeman or something of that sort? (And I realize that I've stolen the policeman idea from Soylent Green, but so be it.) It seems more plausible that the government would allow real investigation of violent crimes, murders, and so on, than that they'd allow real journalists to investigate anything at all.

    Even violent crimes would probably be rewritten - for example, if a loyal government official murdered someone and it couldn't be covered up, no doubt evidence would be concocted to undermine the "loyal government official" identity. But finding the murderer still might be permitted.

    Alternatively, if there are other countries that have some semblance of a free press, you could have a citizen of your country quietly gathering information for news stories that will be pubished in the other countries. He'd officially have some other job, though.

    I realize that I haven't even touched on your actual question, but I'm concerned that the existence of an investigative journalist who actually has any investigative skills seriously undermines the concept for your dystopia.

    So. What did the government do? It's presumably something that's (1) bad, and (2) clearly and undeniably seen to be bad. Something that can't be propogandized into something good.

    So what do the people in your society very strongly love and value? Or what do they very strongly fear? Or what have they worked themselves to the bone for, so that a threat to that thing will inflame them? What _won't_ they be sweet-talked into closing their eyes to? In Soylent Green, it was a desperately hungry world. In Children of Men, it was a world without children. What else is there? A threat to a well-loved public figure, or a threat to some cultural icon that's existed and comforted the population for centuries? That's all I can come up with, right now, but there must be dozens of others.

    ChickenFreak
     
  4. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    Oh I loved Soylent Green. :) Now on to your brainstorming...

    The only issue here is whether or not you want people to be totally ignorant of how things used to be. You either have to have it go on long enough for the original generations who knew different to die out or have some way of severely brainwashing the masses. If you want it to be where they don't know better that is.

    Sounds good. In order to keep control ignorance is key. Like in 1984. If people are knowledgeable to know there is better out there they will do everything within their power to attain it. If they know no different then they won't care and accept it at face value.

    On the other hand though even if people know better they can still be held back by fear of retribution. I imagine a government that powerful wouldn't hesitate to kill for their cause. Power can easily corrupt.

    I suppose you could have more than one news station. If you wanted. It would all need to be run by the same people (obviously) if you did. I would suggest having them cover very bland non controversial topics and have a lot of government officials giving speeches.

    I'm with ChickenFreak on this one. It would be controversial to the government because it would be questioning their ability to do what needs to be done for the public. Which could potentially open pandora's box on all this. If your main character is an investigative journalist it would probably be best for him/her to be underground with that aspect of their career. I would suggest have him/her appear to be a normal every day reporter to the government.

    Wouldn't there be some major repercussions for the person who asked this? I'm assuming based on what you said people aren't supposed to know that there were ever other news networks. Also wouldn't the government be watching your main character very closely after this? What about the group (I'm assuming there is a group here) of people who also heard this? Not saying this is a bad idea. Just try to find another way for your MC (main character) to find this information. If you decide to go with this direction that is.

    It will come to you in time. I never totally map something out before I write it. It can box you in. Let the story go where it may. :)

    All of these are suggestions and questions to get your mind going in that direction. It's your story so you make it how you want it to be. Believe in yourself and it will show in your writing. Best of luck.
     
  5. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Thank you so much for the help, guys. I appreciate it so much.

    Lovely, I've read most of those books, as well as other dystopian stories such as Atlas Shrugged and V for Vendetta (I know that one was a movie but still). I saw the movie Soylent Green and it was really good. :) I get what a dystopia is, but I"m just a little confused as to where my own will go.

    ChickenFreak, thanks for pointing out the flaws of the investigating food thing. I can see that the MC would have to be more undercover about it, I was thinking maybe a reporter/journalist who covers bland topics but then starts investigating by herself when she realizes that something bad is going on.

    Terra, thanks for pointing out the issue that you mention in the last paragraph. I wouldn't have thought of that one on my own.
    I just need to find a way for the (previously brainwashed) MC to wake up and realize that something isn't right.

    Also, another idea of mine is that early on in the story, certain people will go off to "federally sponsored sabbaticals" that they look forward to going to. Not much information will be provided as to what this actually means, but later on, I want it to turn out that the people are being walled off from something. Not necessarily like a holocaust, but more like getting everyone to move to a particular state or region and then walling off the rest of the country and trapping them there.

    I think that I want my big "gov.t secret" to include some kind of trade-off with another force who they really don't know that well, who then turns out to be evil and oppression-seeking. Either another country who wants to take over, or something supernatural (I'd have to be careful with aliens because I don't want to rip-off of "V"), or maybe the gov would have a bad motivation for getting the people "out of the way" that doesn't include an outside force at all. But, if everyone is moved to a denser and smaller location and then walled in, then they'd have very little control over what happens to them and would be "easier to manage."

    Not sure what the details would be, I just like the idea.

    Any more advice, or expansion of ideas/bouncing off new ideas, would be greatly appreciated.
     
  6. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I'm not sure I buy the investigative journalist aspect. I would try something like having the character working as a reporter for a state newspaper or news network or something, being fed stories from his superiors who are in turn supplied with acceptable, possibly fabricated, material from a government department. Maybe he eventually becomes dissatisfied with this, or gets an unofficial lead from another source and decides to clandestinely pursue it.

    The idea with having the government becoming reliant on this outside force is promising. Personally, I wouldn't make it supernatural, but its your story. It also gives you a lot of scope for potential agendas for this group, whether its racial, economic, religious, whatever.

    But you have to be careful with having people segregated into "ghettos"...it's fine to use things like Nazi Germany as inspiration (for want of a better word) for your dystopic government, but you need to be careful when you're making a direct reference like that. Not because it might offend people or anything, you just need to make sure that it's appropriate given the tone of the story.
     
  7. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Thanks for posting!! I really appreciate when you guys help me bounce ideas and give feedback. :)

    Arron, I see what you mean about the investigative journalist thing, because such a setting wouldn't have room for people who investigatively report as careers if the gov wants to control/hide everything. I am going to modify that aspect, instead having her be a reporter/journalist who writes topics given to her by the gov. until some other clue leads her to clandestinely do detective work on her own.

    I've decided that I want any outside force to be an enemy nation that's grown in power without the average citizens' (non-govt) knowledge. The nation where the story will take place (haven't decided between futuristic U.S. or somewhere made up) will have reached a low where it's desperate for money or allies, and will do anything for support. So the gov accepts a "charity bailout" because it's the only way to get taken over, but it's not really a bailout -- it's a macabre deal of some kind that gives powers to the other nation.

    The other nation would have some type of requirement for their end of the deal, but it would be something really bad for the featured setting. Something like biological/radialogical experimentation that creats diseases, or national-security secret information that makes it easy for the enemy to take over.

    Arron, Can you clarify about being careful with the ghetto thing? I'm not trying to debate it or anything, I'm just wondering why it might not work or what exactly I should make sure to not do. And I wasn't exactly thinking about segregating people, just moving them in such a way that would make them easier to find and access....but now that I think of it, I can do that in other ways, like by implementing new rules and regs about info you must give the govt. :)
     
  8. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    I think the whole government sanctioned sabbaticals are and interesting element to add. I like the idea of there being something more sinister at play than a simple vacation.

    I wonder why a government so bent on control would ever surrender that control. That is the only issue I have with them handing it over to anyone else for any reason. An alliance seems more likely than a total hand over. Even then it would probably be tenuous because they would (probably) know the so called sabbaticals weren't so innocent. Then again they could also have something on the other government they are allied with. Mutually assured destruction is a very good reason to keep quiet.
     
  9. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Terra, I'm having the same issue you are. The reason why the gov would be willing to surrender their control.

    Maybe:

    If they don't, they will have no bailouts and the country would crash (not that a bailout would solve problems but you know, they could stall longer). Somehow such a crash would reveal their consipracies, lies, etc and the people would revolt.

    Or perhaps the other nation has dirt on this nation that they'd use for bad purposes if this nation doesn't comply.
    For example, as blackmail they could threaten to enable an ally (of the enemy) to also take over, and the current country would have 2 major threats instead of 1.

    Or -

    The gov doesn't allow the enemy to take away *their* control, however, they do hand over control of citizens who have been deemed a "threat" to the main gov's power. What the enemy gov would do with these citizens remains unknown.

    are any of these convincing?
     
  10. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Re: the ghetto thing,

    If you write about an authoritarian government forcing a group of people into a segregated, closed area, then you are writing about the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, whether or not that was your intention. It's such a universally known and hugely important moment in human history that it will override anything else you are trying to do with the scene. So if you are actively trying to create that parallel, then it will work if you treat it respectfully, but if its actually something completely different to what you are trying to convey, then you need to be aware that people may read it in this other way.

    As for examples of authoritarian governments surrendering control to external powers, you need only look at the US-backed Juntas in South America in the 1960s.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have some trouble with this, because to me your country's original government is already evil and oppression-seeking. So this feels a bit like, "Oh, no, a different set of dictators might take us away from our old familiar dictators!"

    Now, you could possibly go with that as a gray area - maybe it would be _better_, not worse, if this corrupt deal went through? Maybe the other government is less evil? But if you don't want a gray area, then I think that what should be taken away should be more clear-cut.

    For example, one scenario:
    - Your government imports a lot of food from big farms that it owns on another continent.
    - There have been food shortages for several years, and the government keeps planting news stories about crop failures.
    - It turns out that, no, the government is making some other use of that land, a use that cements their power. Maybe they're selling the food to other countries, maybe they're leasing the land to other countries in exchange for promises of mutual defense, maybe... well, something.

    This isn't complete, because what's the something? But the thing that's being taken away from the population - food - is something that the population absolutely wants and would be angry to lose.

    (Hmm. This is feeling a bit like the Irish Potato Famine. Oh, well.)

    ChickenFreak
     
  12. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Arron, thanks for the clarification. I see what you mean now. :)

    ChickenFreak, thanks for bringing up that point. I can see that sticking with the gov. already there as the antagonist may be the better idea.

    I"ll start writing the first few pages today when my classes get out and see what I can come up with.
     
  13. Aeschylus
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    Aeschylus Contributing Member

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    What you have to remember is that a truly totalitarian government maintains power by exploiting people's fears, glorifying the military, and, most importantly, erasing a person's individuality. That last bit is the key; the first two are means to that end. They make the person feel alienated unless he is part of their "big picture," and they create or invent enemies so that the people will have someone to hate.

    The less the main character knows about the government, the less individuality is aloud and the more faceless the government is, the more ominous it will appear. I personally doubt that the government would let just anyone be a journalist; the journalist would probably have to undergo tests and be further brainwashed. So the main character should already have undergone testing, and refuses at first to accept the reality. Why should she report what she sees if the all-knowing government sees it differently? The government creates its own reality. It would take something more than a simple question to make the journalist doubt her government.

    Alternatively, the main character could be someone who WANTS to become a journalist, and in the process of being authorized as one and learning how to be one, becomes aware of what they're doing to her mind; she can't pass the training if she has these doubts, so she has to confront them. Or maybe she's already a journalist but for a small-town paper or, as you said, assigned to boring issues. So when she decides to move up the ranks, she has to be a part of censorship and propaganda for the first time, instead of just seeing the result.

    If I were writing this, I would go for something even more tragic: the main character goes through her life never realizing what she's really doing, or the suffering she causes through her job. It's only the reader who sees the evil she is inadvertently doing, while she herself believes the lies till the very end. So when her superiors praise her and she moves closer to her goals, the reader alone is disgusted with her, knowing that it's not her fault but hating her all the same. But you sound like you want a character who opposes the system instead.
     
  14. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    You're welcome. I'm sure it will come to you in time. Just start writing it. :)

    True. Good things to keep in mind.
     
  15. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Aeschylus, thank you so much for those ideas. You gave me some great stuff to think about today.

    The idea about someone who wants to be a journalist (instead of who already is one) is great advice. Then I can also play with all of the bureacracy that she'd have to deal with trying to switch careers before the gov decides to allow her to consider it -- or maybe they don't allow her to switch, so she does independent journalism and keeps it a secret, sort of like the MC in Anthem secretly building the light because he's not allowed to be a scientist.

    Oh, and I like your Ayn Rand signature. Atlas Shrugged is one of my favorite books of all time. =]

    Terra, thanks again for all the help that you've given me so far on this thread. I appreciate it all! :)
     
  16. Aeschylus
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    Aeschylus Contributing Member

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    You're very welcome, Mallory. Anthem is definitely a source for inspiration, but it's a different type of dystopia; the government is as brainwashed as the people, believing all its own propaganda.

    Ayn Rand is probably my favorite author; The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are my favorite books, other than George Orwell's 1984.
     
  17. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I love A.S. If I ever have a daughter then I'm naming her Dagny after Dagny Taggart. She is the strongest female protaganist I've ever come across in a book. 1984 was great too, and I could relate to his rat phobia since I have a similar cockroach phobia.

    Anyways. my story...

    I've started some concrete outlining today. SO proud of myself for getting started. :D I'm having different aspects of the setting, such as 1) the government "babying"/weakening/dumbing down people, (2) propoganda techniques, (3) fascism/dictator-style rule enforcement, etc. I'm mapping it all out right now. Then I"m going to do a bit more work on characters and then make some kind of general timeline as to how I want the story to move plot-wise.

    I don't feel like I'm stuck anymore. :cool:

    You've been a lot of help to me Aesch! What kind of stuff do you write? If you ever need help with your own writing then please feel free to PM me or something. (I usually write regular horror, and satire.)
     
  18. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    Great! :) Sounds like it's coming along nicely. You're welcome. Helping other people helps me as well. Gets the creative juices flowing. :)
     

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