How to write a bestselling YA dystopian novel

I’m in the process of writing 5 YA (young adult) novels. As young adult novels, the protagonist in all of these novels are teenage girls. There may or may not also be some teenage guys involved. Well – there definitely are some of course as romantic interest, but I haven’t decided if they will get their own voice or if I stay with only one narrator for each book.

But I’m also currently reading some dystopian/postapocalyptic novels, like Wayward Pines and Dust and The 5th Wave. And I’m making some notes about how elements I need to include in my novels. And I got a little confused, because while most of my novels play with Armageddon settings (the stakes are high enough that failure could mean the end of civilization), my novels all start from the Ordinary World. So they are actually more paranormal romance than they are dystopian.

And I’m almost bummed out, because it would be so much easier to start after the end of the world. Everybody died. The lead characters are already dead and broken and hopeless, just trying to survive. But they find hope and meaning in their love for each other. That’s a simple plot. And it’s exciting. Start with the action. The first scenes can be gore and violence.

In my books, the first scenes are boring high school stuff. A call to adventure, sure… but I’m showing the ordinary world as a foil; so that eventually the heroine will look back and see how far she’s come. She’ll have something to miss.

That means my books are going to be a little bit slower. I’ll have to work harder to add in some early intrigue. I’ll have to work harder to establish the narrator’s voice and personality. And also show her develop in a satisfying way. In dystopian/postapocalyptic, the character can start out broken. The author doesn’t need to show heartbreak. In my novels, I’ll have to introduce a current or past event that makes them afraid, distrustful, uncertain… afraid to love.

I’ll have to throw a lot of shit their way, to force them to become the strong characters I need them to be by the end. This might not all be able to happen in the first book. Maybe the first book is just about survival. They just have to not die.

There are also some elements of dystopian fiction, however, I’ll see if I can work into my stories. I’ve made a convenient list for you.

Tyrant

A dystopian needs a tyrant, an oppressive government/society without freedom. A place with no hope. Cruel and unjust. A secret conspiracy.

Complacency

Nobody is happy… but they don’t rebel. They walk the line. They don’t have a leader.

Violence

Probably involving teens and kids with guns, and death and gore.

Inciting Event

The protagonist gets forced onto a path of action that’s impossible for her to refuse. She does the best she can. It may involve sacrificing herself to save someone she loves (a family member).

Love interest (x2)
There’s usually at least 2 main love interests.

There’s a lost guy, she gives him meaning and purpose.
He wants to save/protect her.

She wants to be strong and pushes him away. They fight because she refuses to accept help. He can be controlling and overprotective. He’s dark and secretive.

The other guy is happy, confident, funny and friendly. She should like him. He likes her. But she doesn’t feel that way about him. This other guy may turn out to be the bad guy. She has mixed feelings; because she does like him a little. Maybe they kiss. Maybe she’s attracted to him.

A revolution

She becomes a revolutionary hero, and leads an uprising. Her role is more important than sorting out her relationships, so she stalls on that front and ignores her feelings. She won’t let herself be happy until her people are free.

She feels bad about killing, at first, but gets better at it.

YA paranormal romance/urban fantasy

If you took out the “dystopian” part, but kept the YA – you’d still get the love interests. Instead of a tyrant, you’d have an evil force or power – she has something he wants. She’s the only one who can stop him. She discovers she has powers; powers that are mysteriously and abnormally strong.

She has a best friend who’s ordinary (and might have a crush on her… but she doesn’t feel that way about him/her).

Daddy Issues

In any kind of YA, parentage is important. Usually one or both parents are missing – assumed dead. Later we may discover they aren’t really dead. They are in prison; or they are the enemy; or something else happened. The protagonist finds out that through her parents she is irrevocably tied to the core plot. Her father started this. Her mother is the villain. She inherited powers through one of them. Maybe we find out that her parents aren’t really her parents, and her new boyfriend is actually her brother.

Dealing with these revelations is part of the character coming to grips with her new self.

What else am I missing? Tell me in the comments!

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