A Grim Dystopian Future (Or, a brief digression about WordPress categories, three-act story structure, and the reasons why so many of our stories have such bleak settings)

Not long ago I created a new category on my WordPress account and included a lot of my old posts in it.

The category is, of course, A Grim Dystopian Future.

Full disclosure: I included the article “A” so that the category would land near the top of my list, just under the category 10 Lists. Like any of my 10-Lists, this category doesn’t belong solely within any other category, which is why it isn’t a subset of television/streaming, movies, books, comics or video games but includes entries found in all of these others.

Since all of these posts already have a home in a different category, why did I bother to create a new one?

Allow me to explain.

The short answer is that my friend Bookstooge commented on a post I wrote about a television in a doctor’s waiting room bearing a sign ordering the patients not to change the channel from HGTV. He suggested that World War III might escalate from a fight between patients over changing the channel.

To which I replied:

“In our grim dystopian future, someone will offer the theory that WWIII began because someone switched the station from something called Beachfront Bargain Hunt. That person will immediately be branded as a witch and will be stoned to death.”

Amusing, right? If you find potential sources of humor in post nuclear holocaust references where superstition and savagery have once again supplanted science and reason, as if they’d never really left our side in the first place. I do, by the way. Call it black humor or gallows humor, if you will, but I think a sense of humor—even a twisted, inappropriate sense of humor—is a powerful coping mechanism. I would hope it would still survive even in a grim, dystopian future. I’m counting on it, in fact.

The phrase grim dystopian future (is this a phrase, or just a term? discuss this amongst yourselves) lingered with me after I wrote it. I feel that I’ve written similar words and put them next to each other before. Most recently in my review of the first season of the SyFy series Van Helsing.

While this is a “new” category for me, it’s certainly not a new category. As I sat and thought about it, I realized that a lot of what passes for entertainment in my world concerns a grim dystopian future.

Van Helsing was my most recent example, probably, but there are many others. The Walking Dead, Colony, iZombie, Resident Evil, Brand New Cherry Flavor — among dozens of other television/streaming series.

In movies, any of those spawned by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but also including such films as Mad Max, The Matrix, Escape from New York, Logan and Planet of the Apes. Many more of course.

One of my favorite novels is Stephen King’s 1978 The Stand, and it certainly qualifies as a grim dystopian future. So do books such as Nineteen Eight-Four, Fahrenheit 451, Ready Player One, I Am Legend and Lord of the Flies. I’d argue that the James S.A. Corey series The Expanse is another great example.

I didn’t mention The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, or A Clockwork Orange, because I’ve never read these books. When I do, they sound like they will also fit neatly into my “new” category.

Video games aren’t exempt from this category either. The following franchises travel freely into the realm of grim dystopian future. Fallout, Assassin’s Creed, Watchdogs, The Last of Us, Far Cry, Bioshock, Wolfenstein, Horizon Zero Dawn, Mass Effect — I’m stopping this list here because I’m getting tired, not because I’m in any danger of running out of examples.

The question isn’t whether there are enough examples of a dystopian future in our stories (whatever medium we choose to consume them in), because there are a lot. Just by going back and cross-categorizing those among my 900-plus posts that I thought fit the definition of grim dystopian future, this “new” category had the second-highest number of posts after television/streaming. That seems statistically significant.

The question is, rather, why a grim dystopian future is such a popular setting for our stories. There have to be reasons why this is so.

While I let you chew on this question for a minute, I’ll admit that some of my other posts should have been placed in this fresh category as well. Arguably, the entire Star Wars franchise is about a dystopian futuristic society (even though we all know it all happened a long, long time ago). Parts of the Star Trek universe may qualify as grim dystopian future as well. I’m thinking of the newer series such as Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard. The original series—and the TNG-era series that followed—were mostly utopian instead of dystopian. Although the Trek Mirror Universe is another great example of a dystopian milieu.

By the same token, you may argue that some of the posts I cross-filed under this category don’t really belong there. I even argued with myself. My 10-List of favorite Iron Maiden songs made the list. Why? Because I believe heavy metal—and especially heavy metal of the slightly sinister breed—provides the soundtrack for a grim dystopian future.

The television series Supernatural wasn’t really about the future when it was on the air for fifteen seasons. No, these stories were all happening in an alternate present timeline, right? That’s just splitting hairs in my opinion. Sam and Dean Winchester lived in a dystopian universe that was separate from the universe experienced by normal non-hunters. I’ve made my ruling and included the show in the category.

Why do you think dystopian stories are so popular?

You could argue that it’s a question of supply. There’s much more material available about dystopias than utopias. In fact, if we’re experiencing a story about a utopia, some “perfect” place, we already know that something imperfect is happening under the surface. We don’t trust perfection.

Can it really be that simple? We don’t trust perfection; therefore, dystopian fiction is popular and abundant?

That doesn’t sound right to me. If we were given the choice to live forever in a garden-like utopia where every need and want was met or in a Mad Max wasteland dystopia where your life expectancy was lowered the moment you entered, we would all choose the utopia. Well, there may a fraction of a percent of the population who would choose Mad Max and die laughing, but the majority of us would choose paradise over hell.

Perfection is great to strive for and difficult to achieve.

It is also the enemy of story. That’s why dystopian worlds are popular. Allow me to explain.

Think about The Lord of the Rings. At this beginning of this really big novel that we know as a trilogy, Frodo Baggins lives in the Shire. The peaceful, bucolic Shire is a utopian hobbit paradise. If Frodo had remained at Bag End, eating frequently, smoking his pipe, eventually surrounded by fat little grandhobbits, we might have had a pleasant vignette, and certainly Frodo would have remained happy, but it’s not much of a story.

Frodo is required to leave the Shire for anything exciting to happen. Moreover, Frodo’s life has to be in danger, and he will have to suffer during his journey. Not because we hate him. Frodo is our protagonist, the hero of our story. For a story of any kind to exist, bad things are required to happen to him. In fact, things have to get so bad that it looks like Frodo won’t survive the plot. Only then does Frodo get to return to the peaceful utopia of the beginning. Even so, he’s a changed hobbit and no longer belongs in the Shire.

A grim dystopian future is the ultimate “bad thing” happening to the characters in our story. Whether that’s a vampire or zombie apocalypse, a totalitarian state revoking all of our freedoms, a virulent pandemic, or powerful alien overlords. The dystopian elements are what drive the plot and subplots of our story. Without Randall Flagg and Mother Abigail in The Stand, the story of the novel is about how a group of humans survive a deadly pandemic, which is dystopian enough on its own. The inclusion of supernatural elements, and a Good versus Evil battle that’s at the heart of all heroic fantasy, raises the stakes for our protagonists, elevating both their suffering and their ultimate reward.

There’s a quote about the basic three-act structure of stories that’s been attributed to everyone from Vladimir Nabokov to Steven Spielberg. The amazing website Quote Investigator (quoteinvestigator.com) was able to trace the quote to a newspaper article that appeared in the Bridgeport Herald —of Bridgeport, Connecticut— in November 1897. The article, which had no byline, offered guidance to wannabe playwrights.

In the first act get your principal character up a tree;

in the second act, throw stones at him;

in the third, get him down gracefully.”

This predates both Nabokov and Spielberg, who were born in 1899 and 1946, respectively. It seems that this writing formula had already existed long before 1897, however, so true attribution for the quote is impossible. Even Aristotle wrote about giving a story a beginning, a middle, and an end. That was much earlier than 1897.

Before someone else points this out for me, I’ll stipulate that it’s not necessary for your story to be set in a grim dystopian future in order to use the three-act structure.

Jaws is not set in a dystopian future, and it follows this structure. After the boy is killed by the shark and the mayor is forced to shut down the beach, our trio of protagonists —Brody, Hooper and Quint— head out in Quint’s boat to hunt down the shark. During the second act, our heroes get a lot of metaphorical rocks thrown at them as their situation quickly worsens. Hooper goes down in a shark cage that proves to be inadequate for the job and is presumed killed (spoiler: he’s not). Quint gets eaten by the shark (yeah, he’s dead). Then Bruce the Shark sinks the boat. All of which launches us into the third act, in which Chief Brody confronts the killer shark all alone. We know he either survives or he doesn’t, and knowing the tendencies of Hollywood movies, we suspect he’ll come out on top. He does, of course, but it’s still exciting to watch.

No doubt you could name plenty of other movies that follow this structure without being set in a grim dystopian future. Still, you can’t deny that our second act setting almost always grows increasingly grim and about as far from utopian as it can get.

However, it’s also apparent that dystopian plots seem tailor-made for this three-act structure. No one has stones hurled at them in a utopia. In a grim dystopian future, the stones are plentiful.

Some people argue that every story needs an effective villain (or substitute the word antagonist if you’re feeling less judgmental than I am). I find that I’m at least three-quarters of the way into that camp myself. Without villains you can’t have heroes. But your antagonist can be nature or the setting itself. You don’t need a mustache-twirling personification of evil in your story, especially if the chief conflict in your story is between your protagonist and a zombie-infested wasteland.

However, I’d argue that a personification of evil may be the way to go. The main conflict in the movie Titanic was between the ship and the iceberg. We knew from the beginning of the movie that the ship was going to sink. The drama was personified by creating our protagonists in Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), who were directly opposed by Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and his personal valet Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner). This raised the dramatic stakes and made the danger more real, more personal.

Dystopian futures present ample opportunities for heroism and villainy alike.

A grim dystopian future provides the type of conflict that feeds an engaging story organically.

There is another possible reason for the proliferation of doomed future settings. Perhaps we imagine so many grim dystopian outcomes because we can no longer imagine a positive, conflict-free one.

Maybe none of us are optimistic about the future any longer. That’s a depressing thought.

Here’s another: Perhaps we’re already living in a grim dystopian future.

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4 thoughts on “A Grim Dystopian Future (Or, a brief digression about WordPress categories, three-act story structure, and the reasons why so many of our stories have such bleak settings)

  1. I believe that this intense focus on “grim, dystopian futures” might serve as a catharsis for our fears about the real, immediate future: watching the world go through, say, the zombie apocalypse makes our daily troubles seem almost irrelevant. Almost. Because we can always tell ourselves that “it could be much worse”….

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I inadvertently lied in this post. “a grim dystopian future” holds the #3 spot in total posts on my categories list, behind “television/streaming” and “Star Trek.” Not much of a difference, but I have this overwhelming need to be truthful. Or else Superman will be crying by the side of the road like a Native American played by an Italian American who just discovered that all Americans are nasty litterbugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the shout out. Just as an FYI, if you don’t link to a specific page on a WordPress blog, the user doesn’t get notified (hence me just finding this now, hahaha)

    I’ve always viewed this question as one shaped by people’s philosophy, which I categorize as the working out of a person’s theology.

    So for me, because I’m a Christian I believe that people are inherently evil, so of course things are going to go bad.

    I must admit, WHY people like it still puzzles me. Why would someone prefer a story about degradation and despair over one w hope n redemption is beyond my comprehension.

    Liked by 1 person

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