Elana Johnson: Creating a Dystopian Setting


Today The Bookshelf Muse is sharing real estate with a YA Rock Star--debut author and self-professed Bacon Aficionado Elana Johnson!

Elana's Book POSSESSION is a technology-driven action ride following Vi, a headstrong and resilient teen as she faces the ultimate choice: control, or be controlled? Officially a week old and being devoured by readers across North America, the futuristic POSSESSION gives readers a 3D view of a world enveloped by technology and mind control.

We absolutely had to snag Elana for a post on how to create a compelling Dystopian Setting that engages the reader's imagination while conveying authentic realism.

 ELANA: So creating a whole new world for the future sounds like a daunting job. And it is. Here’s my advice: Don’t do it.

I know, counter-intuitive, right? Right. I think the smarter thing to do is use what you’ve already got. Take a location in the world right now, and reshape that into your dystopian setting.

Here’s why this works better than completely creating something from nothing:

Familiarity.
When we read, we want to be able to imagine the scene. If you write about a forest, chances are every reader is going to picture something different based on their experiences in forests.

You can use the familiar locations that exist in today’s world, and build your world from something people can easily imagine and relate to. And that’s already better than anything we don’t already know, no matter how richly described.

Think of your dystopian world as this one made of clay. And then mold and form and pinch and push it into something different. Some tips on how to do this:

1. Technology. Think of the films you watch. Things like GATTACA and THE FIFTH ELEMENT and MINORITY REPORT. Those movies almost always have advanced technology that we don’t. You can put some in your world too, and then use appropriate vocabulary to describe it so we can relate it to something we’re familiar with.

2. Language. Every new world has to have it’s own unique language. And I don’t mean like, French or anything. I mean the way things are described. I think a great example of this is in BIRTHMARKED by Caraugh M. O’Brien. She calls what once was a lake, an “unlake.” So much description rides in that one word.

Another example is MEMENTO NORA by Angie Smibert. She uses the word “glossy” to describe a feeling or if something is popular. It’s a familiar term, but new at the same time, and unique to the society she built.

I think every good world-builder considers the language they use that goes toward establishing their world.

3. Senses. These should not be neglected in your dystopian world. Are things clean or dirty? Can you describe it with sight and smell? Are things straight and angular or bent? Can you use touch to say so? Or perhaps the emotion that stems from seeing something twisted as compared to having everything in it’s place.

Senses are always important in all settings, but can really be utilized to help establish your world.

Basically, you’re going to take your good writing skills and put them to use in building a world. Do more with them than simply tell the story.

What else do you do to build a world? Any other tips? 

(Wow, thanks so much, Elana!)

BIG NEWS! Don't forget to grab your hover boards and zoom on over to the POSSESSION fan site for her virtual launch party this Thursday, June 16. There will be giveaways galore and a feast of awesome, including a live chat at 7 PM Mountain Time. Don't miss it!

21 comments:

Natalie Aguirre said...

Wow, Elana, this is amazing advice. You break down how to create any new world and make it sound so easy. Thanks for the advice. And I'm so excited for your debut.

Matthew MacNish said...

I've actually done this exact thing in my own novel. By basing it in a setting where I have actually been, I can write much of it from memory, and therefore not have to do as much research (or try to remember where the bathroom was in chapter 3).

Also, I think the best part about this post is that this doesn't only apply to dystopias. Elana's advice could apply to any setting.

Andrea Mack said...

These tips are spot on, Elana! This is exactly what I did to create a dystopian world in my latest novel.

Laura Pauling said...

I agree with Matthew. This can be used to almost any setting and world building. Great tips!

Christina Lee said...

Great tips, EJ!! And of course, I'll be at that virtual party (rock on)!!

Heather said...

This is excellent advice on drawing from familiarity. And congrats to Elana! I can hardly wait for my copy to arrive!

Martha Ramirez said...

So awesome to see Elana here! I just left a message on her blog. Great tips:)

Lisa Gail Green said...

Yay!! Love those tips. :D I whole-heartedly agree. That's probably why I gravitate toward urban-fantasy or paranormal as opposed to high fantasy (though I still enjoy a good one).

Becca Puglisi said...

Great advice, Elana. It's so smart to use an existing place and build from there, like in Ship Breaker and The Forest of Hands and Teeth series. I'll be checking out your book to see a great new example of this technique. Thank you so much for sharing!

Emma said...

Hey, I like it!

I'm abusing this comment room a little bit to note something; The setting thesaurus has many places, some even stranger then others, but there is not something as mundane as a living room. Weird, right?

Jeff King said...

Awesome advice... thx.

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks so much Elana! I agree, this is great advice that can help anyone with world building! Great stuff!

Angela

Janet Johnson said...

A lot of this works for the other direction, too (past). Great suggestions and no wonder your book is doing so well!

Ava Jae said...

Excellent advice! Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I'll definitely be referring back to this one in the future. :)

Kelly Hashway said...

I love the advice to start with what you know and reshape it. It makes a lot of sense. Creating a completely knew world seems very overwhelming.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Creating a whole new world for the future does seem daunting, but this post makes it seem much more do-able. Thanks for the great tips and advice.

Brittany said...

Great post, Elana! I like reading dystopia but I haven't tried my hand at writing it yet, but I'll definitely remember these if I try it.

Leslie Rose said...

Love the breakdown! I'm at the 70% Kindle mark in POSSESSION right now and starting to be sad it'll be coming to an end. The world of the book is incredible. I find myself trying to put a real world template over it and see how the world of POSSESSION morphed out of our world.

Julie Musil said...

Excellent advice, Elana! We are all shaking our pom poms for you, girl.

Diana Ligaya said...

Excellent advice! I also like to think about the food as a background thing. Yeah, sorta strange, but the food people eat and how the eat can tell a lot about a society.

Sue Santore said...

Good points. I like the "use familiar things with a twist" idea. Thanks for your post.

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