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  1. Whitepaws
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    Whitepaws Member

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    Starting a dystopian

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Whitepaws, May 10, 2015.

    I'd like to discuss the dystopian plot.

    I'm writing one, and my plot starts off atmospheric, with minor action but it isn't full on car chases or anything like that. My main character is walking to work in a suppressed society, and there is lots of society impression and organisation described.

    The fact is, a dystopian novel - in my opinion - tends to start off constricted because of all the suppression going on automatically.

    I know some people say to weave in the action- which I have done - but I've noticed dystopian novels I've read do start off "slow" because of all the suppression going on in the world of the book. So, it's kind of hard to start with bang-on action unless the main character is planning his suicide or something equally bleak.

    Or, maybe there is even more suppression slapped down on the populace as an opening scene.

    What do you think?

    Can you cite examples of blistering action or conflict in the first chapter of a dystopian novel?
     
  2. Komposten
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    Komposten Insanitary pile of rotten fruit Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Just because something hasn't been done before, it doesn't mean it can't be done. There are no rules in fiction, only guidelines.
    With that in mind I'd suggest you go ahead and write your novel the way you imagine it, rather than letting the world around you set limits. It will still be a good book as long as you believe in it.
     
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  3. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Good! Dystopian fiction often feels the need to start with heavy description and world building for the reader because they a) need to formally present the world the story is set in, it is a strange new world after all, and b) they need to emphasize the regular day to day experience of the dystopia - creating a contrast that can be exploited for emotional effect later in the story. It's why Nineteen Eighty-Four is split thus:

    Part 1 sets up the world and shows Winston Smith's place in it.
    Part 2 starts the actual plot, and the love affair with Julia.
    Part 3 shows the end of the plot.

    It's been a good while since I last read that book, but as well as I remember, parts 1 and 2 are about as long as each other. There's no car chases or twilight, back-alley struggles against The Party - that sort of thing is really quite naff. In Brave New World, the first chapter exists only to show how the World Government ensures it's stability through the 'Bokonovski process' (may have spelled that wrong, it has been a while since I read that book to) which is a combination of cloning and eugenics. Suppression outside of media isn't required, because people are conditioned from birth to like certain things, and dislike certain other things.

    Cyperpunk novels as well as I know follow the examples of both these novels. I mean, what place would a car chase or a shoot out really have in a Dystopian novel outside of a society where the government has very limited control over certain areas of the country - something like Half-Life 2? I think that if you started with this then it has very serious implications about the threat your government imposes. Can I assume your work in progress is dealing with a broadly-encompassing totalitarianism?
     
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  4. Whitepaws
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    Whitepaws Member

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    I loved 1984 - thank you for bringing it up. The first chapter is so atmospheric that the setting is a character in itself. The whole first chapter is mainly about the environment, and the fact that Winston has a diary (or was it a book?) that he is hiding under his pillow. That's the entire first chapter.

    Some might say that was written in the 40's when audiences had a higher tolerance level for atmospheric novels. The Trial by Kafka is another example. Another one I loved - mainly for its absurdity. But then I look at the contemporary models of dystopia (Hugh Howey's Wool) and the the main character is walking up the spiral staircase and reminiscing about his time in the Silo throughout the first chapter. Granted, we get a glimpse of his life in that he had a wife (now dead) and was under some kind of pressure for the past year, but that's about it.

    Anyway, now writing one, I can certainly understand why first chapters of dystopians are so atmospheric. It's challenging to set up atmosphere/social structure amongst heavy duty action. Something will get lost in the that kind mixed of unfolding.
     
  5. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Some might say that. They'd be wrong. A fleeting glimpse at the novels of even someone like Murakami show that people have just as much of a tolerance for atmospheric, world-building chapters. George R.R. Martin spends entire pages describing food. I don't believe people have shorter attention spans now - and if some people can't sit out a few chapters of introduction then ... .

    I don't think it's impossible that a good dystopian novel can start off with a heavy action sequence. However, please don't ever feel pressured into it. I'm not quite sure why you seem to think you might need heavy action at the start. You could lose more than you could ever hope to gain back.

    I mean, imagine if you started with a car chase, and some plucky band of rebels are firing machine guns at state police who are returning fire with shotgun and pistol rounds. Ok, it's dramatic, but where do you go from there?

    Say your plucky band manages to somehow escape and hold up in some abandoned warehouse, say. Well, what kind of inept despotic government wouldn't be able to find them? One that wouldn't really be much of a threat, it seems to me. And also, if you start with the rebels running away - how did they get into a position where they needed to run away? And what does that further imply about the ineptness of the government? If this story starts early into the repressive state then would that even qualify as a dystopia?

    You can have a story, the only way such an opening would make sense that I know of, where the government is in control of the cities, but not the countryside. But that itself isn't much of a dystopian government, where would the practical things come from to sustain the people repressed? Like food and resources? All the rebels would need to do then is just make sure the government doesn't get enough territory to grow food and bam - the rebels have the government besieged, which doesn't make for a very threatening dystopian government.

    The reason why Big Brother is so unnerving is because he seems so strong.
     
  6. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    (This all assumes you're looking to write a "popular" novel as opposed to a work of Great Literary Art. If you're trying for art, do what your muse demands, or whatever. If you're trying for a book that lots of people will want to read, I think this advice applies.)

    You don't need to start with actual ACTION, but you should generally try to start fairly close to where your story starts. Instead of having your character notice things about his society while he's walking to work, have him notice things about his society while he's doing something plot-related.

    What's the central conflict in your story? If it's an internal conflict, the MC gradually realizing that he can no longer live in this oppressive regime, then the novel could start with him walking to work and observing things, but the REAL story would be what's going on inside him as he walks. If the central conflict is external, try to introduce whatever THAT is as soon as possible.

    In general, words are a luxury, and you want to make sure your words are working as hard as possible, doing lots of different jobs at once. A whole chapter of just world-building? That's not efficient. Try to stack a lot of different purposes on top of each other.
     
  7. Whitepaws
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    Whitepaws Member

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    Because I've been reading too many craft books that all talk about the need for a strong hook in the first chapter. What better hook than strong action.

    I'll put my books down and just follow my instinct :)
     
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  8. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    No it doesn't at all if you mean I'm talking about 'Great Literary Art'. Both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are by their nature egalitarian and democratic, not fine caviar for the literary elite. To think otherwise is plain ignorance.

    Or are they now Modernist art just because I'm talking about them. ¬.¬

    Always follow your instincts. :) If all these people who wrote 'How to Write' books knew the secrets to writing good fiction, I don't think they'd be writing 'How to Write' books - they'd keep that stuff secret. The only one I know of is Stephen King, and his advice amounts to never use adverbs, don't use too many words, and keep it nice and focused on the story. The rest of that book is an autobiography.
     
    Last edited: May 10, 2015
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  9. Whitepaws
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    Whitepaws Member

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    The central conflict is the MC realising she doesn't want to just survive in the oppressive system. Her tipping point is an external one - she finds a close friend murdered (crime is soaring - which is a method that the oppressive government uses to keep people in fear and in line, but they don't know it). She wants to ask questions, but simultaneously fears the repercussions.
     
  10. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd actually say that "strong action" isn't a very effective hook at all. Until we know and care about the characters, action tends to feel empty, at least to me. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't start your story with plot.
     
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  11. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Obviously you know your story better than I, but based on that brief outline, I'd be tempted to start the story with her finding the murder. It's the thing that starts everything off, right?
     
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  12. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    A strong hook can be a problem or character concern. It doesn't have to be a car chase or a gunfight.

    What is one element of the dystopian society that could be portrayed by the character confronting (or avoiding) in the first chapter? Other elements and observations can be spun off of that, and the choices the character makes...and the resulting consequences. Desperation can be a need for food or medicine or alcohol, or searching for a missing friend in a soup kitchen. It can be knowing that the neighbor in the protagonist's apartment complex is doing some thing illegal, and if they get caught, some form of contraband might be discovered in the protagonist's apartment.

    Don't confuse conflict with action. Conflict can be internal. It can be man vs. society, and much more.
     
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  13. Whitepaws
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    Whitepaws Member

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    Good point, and could be something quite small but that gets an urge going in her.

    Love these details you come up with. It sparks my own imagination and gets me asking these questions of my MC. Ultimately, she's after the freedom to seek the truth but I might represent it by something a bit more concrete as the recurring motif. Thank you ;)
     
  14. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    My self-published debut is a dystopian novel and actually does start with a "bang", quite literally so lol. It opens with the female protag running through the complexes of the city to stop a bomb from killing the hundreds of people gathered in a square.

    I can say that several people have read it by this point, 1 unknown reader from goodreads, and a number of members here on WF. On the whole, it seems most people had no trouble being hooked - they tend to start and then just keep reading. I don't think anyone's told me they've struggled to keep reading or finish the book. In general, readers seem to enjoy it.

    Having said all that, one thing I learnt based on some feedback I got, is that the setting and timing of things have to be very clear - and that's pretty darn difficult when things are set in a dystopian society where essentially much of your world/society is unknown to the reader. You have to establish when in time this story takes place. You have to establish just where the characters are. You have to establish why your character is doing something or reacting a certain way. The way your dystopian society works impacts directly on these basic questions.

    Aaaaand... it seems me and my co-author didn't do such a great job there. My dad explained it pretty well (he's read about 100 pages so far) - it's simply not clear where things are happening or why, and the things the characters are revealing about the world don't quite add up immediately because the action's going so fast. Nothing makes sense cus the reader has no idea how the world works yet in the story, but there's no time to stop and digest it because the speedy action doesn't give you room for it. This leaves the reader quite confused for several chapters. Dad tells me that's too long to be left in confusion, and while he's not a writer, I would agree with him. The world is eventually explained as the book goes on - but the way I have it simply doesn't make for a strong, or good, opening in this sense.

    So, considering this, and considering your observation that dystopian novels tend to start off fairly slow and atmospheric, I'm inclined to think what I said above might be why. Precisely because in a completely foreign world and timeframe, the reader needs to be given time to properly absorb it, understand it, before they can begin to understand why the characters would do what they do and therefore allow the reader to sympathise with them.

    I don't say this to discourage an action-packed opening for a dystopian novel - I rather enjoyed mine - but it does seem to be quite hard to do well, to do it so everything is clear from the beginning, so these drawbacks are just some things to keep in mind.

    I'm now writing another dystopian novel - it starts with kidnapping and blackmail, but this time I'm careful to make sure the immediate location and basic why's of things are clear. The world hasn't really been seen in the first scene yet though - I've left writing alone for a bit while I do more planning on it - however this time I would definitely be much more careful about how I deliver my world to my readers. It's not that everything must be explained right from the beginning - but the reader must know enough to understand the present situation.
     
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  15. Whitepaws
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    Whitepaws Member

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    This is a very useful question - thank you!

    I have been debating on whether the dead body should be the opening scene, but as I consider it more deeply, I am now seeing it as either the first plot point or the inciting incident. Because there is so much crime in this city (it's a method of control being used by the oppressive government, unbeknownst to the MC or to the people) would a dead body change anything? Victimhood is the norm in that society. So, a dead body is nothing special.

    This particular murder is a tipping point (probably inciting incident) because it's someone she knows personally. Up until then, she knows someone who knows someone who's been murdered.

    As the story progresses, the MC eventually finds out that this murder victim was searching for info connected to government - which sets the MC off on her own point of no return (first plot point?) and this is what changes the course of the story. I know I have to strengthen her reasons for risking her own life to start searching for the truth, but so far that's what I've got.
     
  16. Whitepaws
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    Whitepaws Member

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    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It's a tough one to decide - action vs atmosphere/setup. As I discuss it here more and more, I'm beginning to consider something that TWErvin mentioned. The opening doesn't have to be an in-your-face action scene, but it does have to be a very strong intrigue that opens a dystopian in order to help the reader be curious so that they stick around.

    Orwell's first line: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." is just masterful in that regard. Simple, intriguing and set up - all in one. WOW.

    Here's one by Ray Bradbury: "It was a pleasure to burn." Talk about intrigue. Geeze.

    Send me a link to your book on Goodreads :)
     
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  17. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yup, I think the key is to make your reader ask questions. A simple one will do :) And yes those are indeed brilliant opening lines! But don't get too caught up with it either - I once read, and I do think I agree, that not every book lends itself to a powerful opening line like those you quoted and that's okay too. What's important to keep in mind is whatever you promise with your opening, you live up to that expectation and deliver the promise. Cus otherwise the great opening line becomes a gimmick and the rest of the book fails to live up to the expectation it's set up.

    From this, I concluded that it's better to open your book in a tone that you intend to continue for the rest of the book. Eg. if it's a slow, ponderous book, then don't start with an exploding rocket that ends up attracting action-lovers who are gonna find your ponderous book deathly dull, and at the same time put off all the readers who love a good old ponder cus the opening gave them the wrong impression :D
     
  18. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Wonderful. ^.^ The best advice anyone can give you is to go your own way, and ignore nonsense like the idea that anything that does not start with a car chase is high art.
     
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