Why Dystopia Is A Great Setting For Storytelling

Why Dystopia Is A Great Setting For Storytelling

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There’s a very good reason for dystopia being a more prolific genre in fiction than utopia, in fact there are many good reasons. Dystopia is darker by design, a shadowed reflection of what could easily be the subconscious desires of the audience. Put simply, dystopia allows great scope for the exploration of human nature and generates sufficient amounts of conflict in order to get the punters into cinemas or buying a copy of the film to watch in the comfort of their own homes. Let’s face facts – would you rather pay good money to watch Mad Max beat up some tattooed thugs in the desert, or would you prefer to watch someone sitting at home, sipping Earl Grey in a world where nothing bad or even vaguely interesting ever happens?

As a comparison, utopian society is a safe and potentially dramatically boring notion, where everything has worked out as it was supposed to and there is little that could be amended in order to make things even better. This opinion about utopian fiction is of course a very blinkered perspective to take. Just because death and disease has been eradicated, let’s say, doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for some dramatically fulfilling stories. Just take a look at Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Federation are a peaceful society with little in terms of internal conflict or resource troubles. In that instance, with a few exceptions, conflict is provided by external sources that are opposed to their mostly non-violent methods. But it is still possible to have a perfect utopian society in fiction and ask valid questions about existence that are dramatically satisfying. Was the journey towards utopia a worthwhile one? Were shortcuts followed that might lead to it crumbling sooner rather than later? There are still many opportunities for gripping stories to be told, you just need to know what angle to approach it from.

On the other hand it is also a clear indication that as a species we are never happy unless we have something to complain about. Whether it’s a zombie apocalypse that established the dystopian setting, an ecological disaster, the expansion of big business conglomerates that absorb much of the economy, or even simply humanity’s hubris and being the cause of our own downfall, there are many, many avenues to explore, each offering a unique perspective on how people react to these settings. More often than not, it is admittedly an excuse to show the darker side of human nature – just take a look at films like The Road, a world in which there is almost nothing left and where most people have taken a turn towards the dark side – yet there is still some goodness to be found in people despite the bleak circumstances they find themselves in.

I for one will always be a fan of dystopian storytelling. When done well it poses an interesting “What If?” question, asking the audience to step into that situation and think about what they would do if they were faced with the same circumstances as the film’s protagonist. More often than not, I’m sure the answer would be an entirely selfish one.

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