In MY first YA Dytopian novel, animatronic dinosaurs take over and people have to fight the robot dinos to survive. In Space.
I was talking to a friend the other day about all of the recent dystopian novels that have come out and tried to tout themselves as “The Next Hunger Games!” It’s a silly, but understandable marketing tactic, because people are always looking for the next big THING.
The Next Harry Potter or the Next Twilight or whatever THING is going to be the year’s newest break out money-machine. It’s impossible to predict, of course, and the fact that so many dystopian YA novels came out recently is less due to The Hunger Games than weird market trends and coincidence. Besides, the next THING is never the same as the earlier THING (Twilight was not like Harry Potter, really at all).
But it got me thinking about all of the Dystopian Books I’ve read in the last year or so, and why some work better than others. Obviously, this is a list of what didn’t work for me as a reader, and is no way meant to be universal. These are just the same gripes I tend to have with a lot of Dystopian Books (and, sometimes, in the whole YA market). I would love to hear what elements worked or didn’t work for you, especially if any of them are deal breakers.
Book One Lacks An Ending
This is the new biggest sin awful trend in the YA world if you ask me. Not only are lots of books coming out that are super short because they’re the start of a series that could probably be one novel, but they’re coming out with cliff hanger endings that don’t bother to conclude the first part of the story. There’s nothing wrong with leaving some loose ends and unanswered questions, especially in an intended series. I’m talking about books that literally lack an ending. They might as well print the last page with the words “DUN DUN DUN….” It happens a lot in dystopian novels, especially, and this is a problem there for one main reason (besides, you know, the fact that a book has no end):
Leaving dystopian novels with a million questions hanging in the balance creates the feeling of shoddy world building. It doesn’t matter if the author has maps and entire histories for this Awful Future charted out on their wall. When none of the reader’s questions about how, when, why are answered in the first book, it makes the book feel hollow and lacking.
Characters Raised in the Dystopian Society Still Oddly Shocked & Awed By It
This is a personal pet peeve of mine, but it comes up in so many dystopians that it breaks my brain. A character who’s lived their entire life under the Evil Overlord who makes everyone where Pink Sweaters on Tuesdays is not going to be outraged by the fact that mom set out a pink sweater for Tuesday morning. They just won’t.
And yes, anyone might be alarmed when something that happens all of the time to strangers–say, being arrested quietly in the middle of the night–happens to their own friends or family. But when someone is used to drills or spot checks or whatever has a Fit of Righteous Indignation during one of these, I get irked. As a writer, I think what these authors are trying to do is show what a moral center the character is by detailing their outrage at the Bad Guys. But it often doesn’t jive with how the protagonist should react, at least until they have some larger revelation about the world they live in. Say what you will about Matched, but at least Cassia’s mindset made perfect sense given the world she was raised in.
Alternatively, you have characters who, by all rights, should be extremely genre savvy, like kids who have grown up surrounded by zombies/rebels/robots/random bad future thing and should know how to survive in such situations. Like, it’s probably taught in their schools (if they have schools). But then you end up with characters like Mary, from The Forest of Hands and Teeth, who literally cuddles a zombie baby and then taunts the zombies beyond the fence. TAUNTS THEM. I mean…. I just… That is Too Stupid to Live territory from a girl who knows better because she knows what zombies are and how they happen.
A Love Triangle Romance That’s Wedged in Is Really Not Necessary
I know, I know. Romantic tension is awesome and the love triangle thing has worked so well. But really, if it doesn’t happen naturally as you start drafting your characters, and even if it does, you have to ask yourself if it’s really crucial to the book. Because if no one cares whether Lucy ends up with James or Thomas, but are forced to read pages and pages of Lucy trying to decide whether she likes James’ aloof and quiet demeanor more than Thomas’ quick wit and sexy lips, they will toss the book out the window.
I started this section with love triangles, but really it applies to all romances that feel forced or weird, especially when they come at the expensive of actual plot/interesting things happening around them. I’d really rather read about the Robot Army laying seige to the Dragon Lord’s castle than why Sir Allen has the best hair and tastes like strawberries due to his love of fruit gum.
And I say this as a pathetic, full-on shipping fangirl who will sink with the Good Ship Tamani in the world of Wings before I ever accept David might have been the right dude. I like romance! I even like good love triangles! But not when it feels forced in for the sake of having one.
The World Building Does Not Exist or Makes No Sense
Look, a book set in a future where Alien Unicorns have taken over the world and burned all of our technology except digital watches and make us grow rainbow colored hay to ward off the evil SeaHorses who are allergic to the color red might be the Best New THING to hit book shelves. But if the reader can’t believe how the Alien Unicorns took over without opposable thumbs (let alone built space ships), it won’t work. And yes, that’s a ridiculous example, and this goes back to the first point, but seriously. Leaving the entire world situation vague and unexplained does not make it suspenseful, it makes it frustrating.
Eve does this: a generic “plague” decimates the populous and a strange government with a King of America is set up in under 30 years. Despite the pointless years Eve spends in school (until she’s 18) she never even gives the reader the government’s official version of events, and we’re left wondering what happened. (Maybe Once, its sequel, answers more questions, I haven’t read it yet.)
It also has to make sense. Pledge is set hundreds of years in the future and we’re never given so much as a hint about why the only acceptable government leader is a Queen, or how America became divided by class languages. Even just a few lines about the ancient past of our present day would make the experience so much richer, rather than plunking down the system and saying “Eh! It’s in the future. Who knows how it happened?”
The best books, regardless of genre, have detailed and thoughtful worlds built into them to give the story depth, but it’s so important in a dystopia to show how the world of present day got to The Evil Awful Future.
So now you have some of my thoughts. And I am out of thoughts. Time to watch The Glee Project and see if I can avoid crying when whoever is sent home has to do the Sad Walk Away.