So You Want to Write YA Dystopian?

Photo credit: mithrandir3 on Flickr
What is it? 

According to, a dystopia is “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.”

If YA Dystopian novels are to be believed, is pretty on the money.

Oppressive (and usually horrible) governments, revolution, disease, poverty, strict laws and an all around unhappy (or soon to be unhappy) society are all markers of dystopian novels. Though that’s really just a sampling of dystopian issues.

Note: Post-apocalyptic and Dystopian novels are not always the same thing. Some Dystopian novels do indeed happen after an apocalypse (making them Post-apocalyptic as well), but not all Dystopian novels are Post-apocalyptic and not all Post-apocalyptic novels are Dystopian as well.

Pros/Cons of Writing YA Dystopian: 


  • Insta-conflict. The great thing about Dystopian novels is conflict is a given—it’s literally built into the society and the setting, so all you need are some captivating characters with a little push to get things going. This means most Dystopian novels make for very exciting reads (and, as it happens, really fun writing experiences).

  • Typically fast-paced. Like I said in the previous point, YA Dystopian novels tend to be pretty exciting to read and write. There’s usually quite a bit of action and the stakes are often hugenormous  with dire consequences if the protagonist fails.

  • Play with worst-case scenarios. So many Dystopian novels are based off What If? scenarios and expanded to extremes. These can be really fun to play with when brainstorming and writing, as characters in extreme circumstances are usually pretty enjoyable to write and read. 


  • Extremely tough market. Like YA Paranormal, YA Dystopian, unfortunately is currently a dead genre. As I said when explaining YA Paranormal, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to sell a YA Dystopian novel right now—it just means it’s extremely difficult due to a seriously overcrowded market.

  • A lot’s already been done (several times over). This is related to the first con, but because the market is so overcrowded and there are so many YA Dystopian novels out there, that means there’s very little out there in the Dystopian world that hasn’t already been done to death. That being said, just because it’s already been done doesn’t mean you can’t write it—it just means you need to make yours unique and amazing in a different way.

  • Lots of worldbuilding. If you like worldbuilding, this isn’t really a bad thing, but it is good to keep in mind. While you’re not necessarily making a world up from scratch like you might in a High Fantasy novel, you are still building a world that doesn’t exist—a world with laws and expectations and a culture unlike our own. 

Recommended Reading: 

I say this every time, and I will continue to do so: you must read the genre you write in. No really. You do.

Knowing your category and genre is key to adding something meaningful to the market. So do yourself a favor and read up on some of these fabulous book. (Caveat: I haven’t read all of these, but I’ve heard good things about the ones I haven’t read).

Helpful Links: 

Do you enjoy reading or writing YA Dystopian novels? Share your experience!

Twitter-sized bites: 
Thinking about writing YA Dystopian novels? Writer @Ava_Jae shares some tips, recommendations and more. (Click to tweet)   
Do you write YA Dystopian novels? Share your experience at @Ava_Jae’s So You Want to Write series. (Click to tweet


Jen Donohue said...

Yay, Camp NaNo! Those are some fabulous links with good advice. I'm so bad with my organization, it seems like I hobble myself.

Best of luck!

Hannah Hunt said...

This post is a beautiful summary of the dystopian genre and what to look out for! I couldn't have said it better myself. :D

Though I feel like the market has a tough time discerning between science-fiction YA and dystopian YA these days due to the overcrowding of the latter. It's frustrating as someone going through the query and submission process because I don't write dystopias specifically (more sci-fi thriller--which I know is close, though not the same), but a lot of my work seems to get labeled as dystopian regardless.

Ava Jae said...

Well Dystopian novels fall under the umbrella of Sci-Fi, because they're a Sci-Fi subgenre. So technically, you could say that all Dystopian novels are Sci-Fi novels (though not all Sci-Fi novels are Dystopian novels). If your work is getting labelled as Dystopian, it's possible that your setting is throwing people off (as setting is a pretty important staple for labeling novels as Dystopian).

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Jen! Good luck to you, too (if you're participating)!

Jennifer Ibarra said...

I had the opposite problem: marketing my novel as a Dystopia, but sometimes having to shoehorn it into Sci-Fi as a category when Dystopia wasn't available to select as a category. While my novel is Dystopia, it's very light on what the typical reader would consider to be Sci-Fi elements, so I'm always nervous that Sci-Fi fans will think it's misleading to call my novel Sci-Fi.

They say to stand out in a crowded field, you have to make your story unique the only way you can--but sometimes it's that effort to give it your own unique spin that can introduce these kinds of, "Well, how do I label this??" challenges :).

Ava Jae said...

I can definitely understand how that could happen and be potentially problematic. My guess is if you have to call your Dystopian novel Sci-Fi, then so does everyone else with a Dystopian novel, so hopefully readers won't get too put off? Dystopia is a subgenre of Sci-Fi so it's not inaccurate...

But labeling in general can be pretty tricky the publishing world.

ecnewman said...

I loved Faking It (the best of the series) and Easy! I'll have to look at the other ones. This is some great stuff, btw.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you! Faking It was my favorite of the series, too, and it remains one of my favorite Contemporary NA reads. Glad you enjoyed the post! :)

Leandra said...

I'm almost done w/a dystopian right now, and sometimes I cringe inside, thinking- What have you done?! Don't you see all those agent websites saying no dystopian? Blegh. But they say to write the book that demands to be written and it was pretty demanding soo...yeah. But after that, I'm going to make sure I write something that isn't overcrowded or all tired out. Like vampires! ;) Anyhoo, great post!

Ava Jae said...

Haaa. Like vampires. Nice one. :D

Thanks, Leandra! It's definitely tough when the book you need to write is in a dead genre (I've done that with paranormal...several times), but the good news is even if you can't get representation for it right away, you can always hold on to it for after the genre has recovered a little! :)

Sabrina said...

Hello, Ava!

I'm currently in the middle of writing a dystopian, pre-apocalyptic story. Thing is, I'm stuck to how I should begin, though I have all the characters and setting laid out for the first chapter. Any tips on how I should make it, say, eye catching on the first word? Thanks in advance!

Ava Jae said...

Hi Sabrina!

So, this isn't going to be hugely helpful advice, but I tend to be a firm believer in not worrying about the details until you've finished the first draft. The important part of the first draft is just getting the whole story down, then you can go back and worry about getting it right.

That being said, I've actually done a critique on a post-apocalyptic opening that you might find helpful: I also wrote a post specifically on where to start your WIP.

I hope this helps!

Kelsey said...


So I've read your post and I've got to say, it helped a lot but I'm still having trouble. I want to write a YA Dystopian like the maze runner series, the hunger games series or Divergent and Matched Series etc... but I have no ideas. I'm trying to make it into a full out fiction, sci-fi and dystopian world but I have trouble figuring out the Society and what it's about.

I was wondering what are your thoughts on what I should do?

Ava Jae said...

Hi there, Kelsey!

So it sounds like your main problem lies in worldbuilding. I've actually got a whole post dedicated to some worldbuilding details that might help you with your brainstorming (you can find it here ). I also wrote a post on the ripple effect of worldbuilding, which you may also find helpful.

As for the actual brainstorming itself, I can really give you ideas, per say, but I recommend you think about what you like about other novels/movies/whatever, take a look at where your interests lie and ask a bunch of What If questions to help determine how you want your society to be (i.e.: for Hunger Games, a What If question might be "What if every year, kids were randomly chosen to fight to the death in a public arena?").

I hope this helps! If you have any more questions, don't hesitate to ask. Good luck! :)

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