It’s time for another crash course in writing! This time, we’ll be discussing the outline of a dystopian book. Ernest Hemingway gave my favorite description of being an author: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” So set up that typewriter and let’s start bleeding.
Before we begin breaking down this structure as it applies specifically to dystopian stories, a little background on the three-act structure. I’ve written about this structure as it applies to romance and mystery. Most Western novels are written with this structure, which is separated into three sections. First, the beginning, aptly named the Setup, is the first 25% of the story. The second act is called the Confrontation, taking up half the story, 25%-75%. The last quarter of the story, from 75% to 100%, is the Resolution. This is the novel in its most basic form. It’s a good measure of how the story needs to progress, but there’s a lot of wiggle room in such a broad system. Also, what should happen in each of these sections varies by genre, hence this series of posts. This time, we’re going to break down the acts into plot points and show approximately which events should go in each section when you’re writing a dystopian story.
Dystopian novels usually clock in at 60,000 to 120,000 words, so we’ll base the word count on the average, which is 90,000. Though dystopian novels are often turned into series, for simplicity’s sake we’ll work with the idea that this novel is a stand-alone. This same structure can be used on a larger scale for a series if desired, though – just recalculate the word counts appropriately.
This act is about laying the foundation of the novel. This is where your hook should be, right at the beginning. Additionally, the reader should get a glimpse of the main character(s) in their average life and develop a baseline understanding of how the world works. In a dystopian novel, some aspect of society or the world is exaggerated and therefore causing problems for the characters. The main two causes of a dystopia are a man-made disaster or a natural disaster or descent of society. Readers will want to know what caused your specific dystopia to come about and how these events have affected the populous.
At the 12% mark (approximately 10,800 words in), the inciting incident should occur. After the world is established in the reader’s head, it’s time to introduce the crux of the plot. In dystopian books, because this subgenre can be used in multiple larger genres (like sci-fi or fantasy) there’s a lot of room to work with different types of stories you can tell. Regardless of which direction you choose to write in, the inciting incident should affect all the main characters and function as a call to action that they will undoubtedly rise to – whether because they want to incite change or because there’s no other option left to them.
By 20% (18,000 words) of the way in, all the important characters should have been introduced. This goal is a little flexible because worldbuilding takes a little longer in dystopian novels, but you shouldn’t take much longer than this. The other characters will need the remaining word count to really make an impact on the plot! You don’t want to run the risk of a seeming deus-ex-machina solution by waiting to introduce a crucial character only at the critical moment.
The Setup ends at 25% (22,500 words), when the first major plot point should occur. This is where the story starts to pick up and the heroes’ journey begins. They embark on their mission or escape their bonds, or they’ve learned some hint about how to fix the world, or they or someone they know comes down with the illness plaguing the world – whatever needs to happen to move them into the next stage of the story.
This is the meat of the story. It makes up roughly half of the whole novel and includes most of the build-up. Now is the time to ratchet up the tension and help the reader get their bearings in the developing story situation. This part will contain most of the important plot points except the three C’s (more on those later) since, in dystopian stories, the first act is will usually be focused on world- and character-building.
At about 37% (33,300 words) is the first pinch point, and is also usually a good excuse to give a little more backstory. Anything that connects the main character(s) to the main “problem” of the story should be brought up. Were they present when the military rolled through to institute a police state? Was their mother instrumental in the creation of the disease? What does the state of the world now mean to them, and what do they plan to do about it? Clear up some of the past for the readers!
50% (45,000 words) is the midpoint. As in most genres, this is the time for a false high or a false low. A false high would be a point in the story when it looks as though the journey is coming to end, when the characters appear on the verge of being victorious and winning the day only to be crushed under the weight of finding out they’re only halfway done. On the flip side, a false low would be when all looks hopeless until they find something or someone that will help them rise up and take their victory.
Around 62% (55,800 words) comes the second pinch point. This can take a few different forms. It could be another chance for you to reveal the backstory, like a flashback, or, if – for example – you’re writing a romantic subplot, this could be a moment that brings the couple together and increases intimacy. This pinch point should mainly further the secondary plot, whatever thing(s) your character(s) is struggling with beyond the main conflict.
The end of act two comes with the second plot point at 75% (67,500 words). This is when the stakes are raised to an all-time high. We’re approaching the end now and the characters should feel the pressure. Unfortunately for them, this is also when things should go sideways. The worst possible thing happens, but it doesn’t deter them (at least, not for long).
We’re almost done, and you’ve reached the action-packed, fast-paced part of the book. This is where the three C’s I mentioned earlier come in. The C’s stand for Crisis, Climax, and Conclusion.
The Crisis kicks off at roughly the 87% point (78,300 words) of the story. Having overcome the problems from the second plot point that ended the Confrontation, the characters are thrust once again into danger, whether by circumstance or by their own actions. This is also when they often learn a life lesson that will be important to overcoming their adversaries.
The turnaround from the Crisis to the Climax is quick, coming in at 90% (81,000 words). The big showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist, who is usually the perpetrator of the problem(s) plaguing the world. A large chunk of the book should be taken up by this fight, with guns blazing and all the new technology introduced in this world brought out to play.
When reading the Conclusion (the final few thousand words), readers will want to know how the world is after the perpetrator of the suffering has been removed from the picture. This can also be an epilogue if you prefer a more in-depth look at where the characters are now.
And that’s the whole book! The three-act structure outline for a dystopian story has more room for interpretation/changes because it can be applied across multiple genres and scenarios, but that just makes it more fun! Remember that while this is a general guide, you are who makes your book. No one can write the same thing the exact same way you would, and that’s what makes it special. Until next time, happy bleeding!