The Dystopian Formula

I’ve been reading a lot of dystopian novels lately, and I think I have figured out the recipe! Check it out below, with examples from 7 different YA dystopian novels/series.

The Giver by Lois LowryMatched by Ally Condie

Start with an “ideal” society, usually formed after a rebellion that no one really remembers:

  • The Giver, Matched: everything is clean, happy, ordered, and mostly colorless
  • Divergent: everyone is divided into factions based on their ideals
  • Uglies: everyone is beautiful, therefore there is no fighting or self-esteem issues
  • Delirium: no one can be possessed by passionate love, which is what destroys happiness
  • Unwind: abortions are illegal, and it’s easy to rid yourself of those pesky rebellious teenagers
  • The Hunger Games: everyone in the Capitol is rich and happy now that the rebellions have been contained

Add in one milestone that occurs during the teen years:

  • The Giver: everyone is assigned their ideal job at age 12
  • Matched: everyone is assigned their ideal mate at age 17
  • Divergent: everyone given an aptitude test and allowed to choose their faction at age 16
  • Uglies: everyone gets plastic surgery to become a Pretty at age 16
  • Delirium: everyone gets surgery to remove the deliria part of your brain at age 18
  • Unwind: everyone between the ages of 13-18 can be “unwound”
  • The Hunger Games: everyone in the Districts between the ages of 12-18 must be put into lottery for the Hunger Games

Sprinkle in some weird rules or customs that no one thinks to question:

  • The Giver: you are given pills to eradicate sexual feelings
  • Matched: you carry three pills with you at all times; one is an anti-anxiety med and the other wipes your memory / no one knows how to write, even though they can read, type, and learn how to draw or paint as children
  • Divergent: there is technology to create serums that give the receiver lifelike simulations which others are able to watch, and yet no one has a computer, phone, or other means of communicating
  • Uglies: children are not raised with parents, and meat is grown on genetic farms
  • Delirium: the government shows them videos of people dying for love as a scare tactic
  • Unwind: you can’t have an abortion but you can abandon your unwanted child, or later basically kill them
  • The Hunger Games: there is technology like giant screens to broadcast the Games, but no one in District 12 has access to a computer

Supplement with a generous helping of invented vocabulary:

  • The Giver: giver, receiver, carer, releasing (killing), sameness
  • Matched: aberration, anomaly (someone genetically “different”)
  • Divergent: dauntless, erudite, candor, abnegation, amity
  • Uglies: littles, uglies, pretties, crumblies, specials, rusties, and lots of slang: bubbly, icy, bogus
  • Delirium: amor deliria nervosa, Invalid (uncured person), Book of Shhh
  • Unwind: unwinding, tithing (giving your 10th child to be unwound), harvest camp, storking, retroactive abortion, clappers (suicide bombers), umber (dark-skinned), sienna (light-skinned)
  • The Hunger Games: tessera (entries into the lottery), tribute (those chosen from the lottery), nightlock, jabberjay, mockingjay, muttation, tracker jacker

Stir a new person who opens the main character’s eyes to the flaws of society:

  • The Giver: The Giver, who transfers his memories of the society’s past into Jonas
  • Matched: Ky, an aberration, who makes Cassia aware that she is not allowed to choose anything
  • Divergent: Four, who teaches Tris about fighting and about being a Divergent
  • Uglies: Shay, who doesn’t want the operation, & David, who lives outside of society and is happy being an Ugly
  • Delirium: Alex, who Lena falls in love with just before her surgery
  • Unwind: Connor, Risa, and Lev meet each other and their different situations and upbringings lead them to a great understanding of what unwinding is
  • The Hunger Games: Peeta?  Haymitch?  Not sure who fits the bill here.

And the flaws are (spoilers):

  • The Giver: no one understands emotion, death, or pain
  • Matched: the government controls everything
  • Divergent: factions create friction (duh!)
  • Uglies & Delirium: the government makes citizens easy controllable with brain surgery
  • Unwind: unwinding is really like murder
  • The Hunger Games: the government is totalitarian and forces children to kill each other

I am hoping to make regular posts where I try to figure out “formulas” for various genres of novels or movies… suggestions welcome!

3 thoughts on “The Dystopian Formula

  1. Alison D. says:

    Ahhh, this is so good. I really like the way you’ve distilled this genre into the formula, in a way that shows the large similarities and small differences between these books.

  2. Jess says:

    Wow. You are insightful in your reading. I have read most of these and although i may have noticed parallels, I wouldn’t have believed the extent of those parallels! Thanks.

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