YA 101: The ever popular “Dystopian”

I must confess I have used this word to describe books that are not dystopian.  While dystopian stories are very similar to apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, they are truly two different beasts all together.

“Dystopian” seems to be the catch-all phrase for novels that take place in the future after some disaster, survivors fighting against some horrible event.  It’s easy to confuse the two because a dystopian society can rise from a post-apocalyptic event; however, that doesn’t make it a dystopian story.  Here is how I would like to define the differences.

A dystopian society is one where  “social perfection” is obtained at the expense of something else, such as enslavement, loss of personal freedoms, or the surrender of some aspect of human nature.  The plot tends to focus on the slow process of societal change, or an abrupt change to a cataclysmic event.  The society that is in place is stable, strong.  That doesn’t make it a good place to be.  In fact, what’s in place is usually sickening and appalling.  There are usually two warring factions:  those in control and those who are oppressed.  It’s utopia turned upside down.  There also doesn’t appear to be an explanation as to why the current society grew the way it did; it is simply a story of the character’s struggle against an oppressor, whether it’s a government, enslavement or both.

In an apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic story, the plot focuses on the instability of a society during/after a cataclysmic event shatters society.  The small society that is left is usually isolated and threatened.  There is usually very little hope, the future is bleak.  Humanity and existence is endangered.  These stories explore man’s struggle to battle Earth’s shattering events.  They take the reader on the characters’ quest for survival.  These types of stories explore the hows and whys of the apocalyptic event, they show the rebuilding of the society, who is put in charge and why.  There is nothing utopian about it.   It’s nitty, gritty and intense.  The world is in shambles and folks are trying desperately to survive and rebuild.

Examples of YA Dystopian novels:


Samples of Apocalyptic/Post Apocalyptic


22 thoughts on “YA 101: The ever popular “Dystopian”

  1. Have to say my favourite genres are Dystopian & Post Apocalyptic . . . thought I’ve branched out slightly lately to include some Zombie ones, then on the other hand I love YA contemporary, Sci-fi, fantasy etc there’s just so many fantastic books but so little time to read them in!


  2. I would point out that part of Dystopian fiction its contrast, or opposition, to the Utopian society as set forth in its pages. Utopian fiction tries to imagine or depict what an ideal society could be and how a perfect society would handle ugly stuff like crime.

    In Dystopian fiction, the society is often set forth as Utopian, only to be revealed as Dystopian. The jarring contrast of truth and illusion drives these stories. So part of the excitement in the first Matrix movie was that shocking “reveal.”

    I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that teens enjoy Dystopian because the illusion of their parents being all-wise and infallible gets torn down in the teen years. The family, Utopia to a young child, becomes the teen’s Dystopia as they separate themselves and make their own stab at Utopia.


    1. That’s quite an intriguing observation. How very true, I think back and remember times when my world was shattered when I realized my parents weren’t super heroes. Living with the fact they were human was disturbing to me at such an early age.


  3. Thanks for the clarification. I haven’t read much of either, but am one of those who thought they were pretty much one in the same.


  4. Ah this is such a cool post Jen! It’s funny cos I never thought that I liked dystopian until the hunger games! Then recently someone reviewed my own novel as dystopian and I realised how broadly people can refer to te genre 🙂 I think you’re right though that people can be a bit broad lol

    Great post!


  5. I find my self drawn to this genre both in my reading and writing. I am outlining a trilogy in the genre and will dive in as soon as I have my YA mystery ready to submit to a publisher later this summer.


    1. it is fascinating. I know when I was writing this post, I had several ideas come to mind. I jotted them down. I need to finish my fantasy trilogy though.


  6. Hello! Thanks for linking to my review of ‘Divergent’ 🙂 And that article on K-pop is SO INTERESTING. I wonder what’s driving this massive preoccupation with dystopian and apocalyptic scenarios.


    1. I asked a teen that not too long ago and she said to her, the dystopians mirror our own society now (that was a very interesting conversation). She said that kids her age feel helpless in being able to stop the problem. With dystopian literature, kids her age have solutions. They can make things happen that they can’t make happen in reality. She fears our future. I was very much intrigued by our conversation. I know she doesn’t think for all teens who like these types of stories…but for one, reality is too close to fiction. Kind of scary and sad if you ask me.


  7. Thanks for clearing up the confusion. I was one of those who thought that Dystopian and Apocalyptic/Post-apocalyptic were basically the same. I now see the difference. 🙂


    1. It’s a very easy ‘mistake’ to make. A few agents (a handful to my knowledge) have expressed slight irritation that authors don’t know the difference. I came across one agent a while back (don’t remember name) who had it written on his website how important it was for the author to do their research the difference and make sure they mark their queries correctly or he would reject the ms if he asked for it. :/)


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