The Key Elements of a Dystopian Novel

By Kathryn O’Donnell

Times are weird, there’s no doubt about that. The government is ordering citizens to stay at home. Traveling is limited. People are walking around grocery stores with masks. Businesses and universities have shut down. Places that have never shut down in their history are closed. Honestly, things have never felt more dystopian than they do now. 

With all the time I would have been spending out with friends, I’ve started to reread some of my favorite books from my childhood. Ironically, many of them are set in a dystopia, such as The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. While reading, I started thinking about why they became so popular, and what aspects of the novels turned them into such a success. What better time to analyze what drew so many people to these stories than when it feels like we’re at the beginning of one?

A History

If you’re writing your own dystopian story, the first step is to determine why your dystopia came to be. Was there a war that eliminated the majority of the land’s resources? Did a changing environment force your story’s population to adapt? Was there an alien invasion that took over the country?

The catalysts for dystopias that are the most successful for me tend to be realistic. Something that’s already a potential threat. For example, in The Hunger Games, the country of Panem comes to fruition after North America experiences fires, floods and various other environmental changes. By creating a realistic chain of events that connect present day to the time in your story, the audience is more willing to believe the setting. 

Still of Panem from “The Hunger Games” film

A Reliable (and Relatable) Narrator

The best narrators are the ones that readers can root for. The audience sees the world through the narrator’s eyes, so it is essential for your protagonist to be able to recognize the flaws in their society, and to convince the readers of those flaws. To help your audience trust your narrator, they should be reliable. A great way to establish reliability is through Murphy’s Five Determinants of Reliability

While your narrator may not have to follow every aspect of Murphy’s determinants, they can help you frame your narrator in a reliable way. Another way to ensure your audience trusts your narrator, and their judgement, is by making them relatable. Develop a character that your audience can see themselves in, who would question the unjust elements of their society the way the reader would.

A Catalyst

Quite possibly the most important element in a dystopian story is the catalyst that sends the protagonist on their journey to freedom. The most exciting catalysts include threats to the protagonists safety, conflicts between them and other characters and challenges they must overcome. For example, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, many women are unable to bear children. Many times, characters in a dystopia find a way to resist or escape the injustices in their society.

If you’ve found that spending extra time at home gives you space and inspiration to write more, keep it up! If, like me, your anxiety has made itself more prominent, creating your own world (or reading any book that is comforting to you) could help you escape the news in our society. 

Kathryn O’Donnell is the Long River Review scholarship contest chair and a fiction panel reader. She can be reached at

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