Narrative Strategy in Dystopian Fiction
I have been thinking about the kinds of questions writers of dystopian fiction would need to ask themselves when choosing the most appropriate narrative strategy for the short story or novel they are planning to write. Many of these same concerns would apply for other genres, too, but, at present, I am focusing on narrative strategy in dystopian fiction and the particular demands of that genre.
What is Dystopian Fiction?
It is a genre of fiction which tells of a time in the future when there is a collapse of some sort or the other caused by some major event(s) in the world with a corresponding collapse in the economic, social and political world globally. A nuclear war, dramatic and ongoing climate breakdown, widespread famine, complete financial and economic collapse and the resulting wars for resources, and so on, are bringing about or have brought about a dramatic change in the world as we know it now. Human survival is uncertain and possible extinction is staring us in the face, i.e. the end of the Anthropocene era could be near! Those human beings who have managed to survive the catastrophe need to find a way to cope with the immediate, dire situation. Survival is paramount and it is uncertain whether regeneration is even possible.
A Brief Overview of Narrative Options in Fiction
The three basic forms are: first-, second- (fairly rare) and third-person narration. Each of these major forms can take several iterations.
- could take the form of a straight forward telling of the story;
- or it could be more reflective in nature with the narrator-character trying to make sense of his/her life experience;
- or it could be more reminiscent in form where the narrator is thinking back to an earlier time, often childhood or a time when life was good, (often looking back through rose-tinted glasses, remembering only the good things and completely overlooking anything bad);
- or it could take the form of stream of consciousness where the character’s thoughts and feelings seem to pour out in a ‘stream’, often in a seemingly random and unstructured way in an effort to mimic the way the unconscious mind works.
Second-person narration (the ubiquitous ‘you’) is a far less common choice of narration by writers. It’s tricky and limited.
- the narrator could be all-knowing (omniscient) having the full history of the characters’ lives and historical events at hand, including pre and post the novel’s time frame; “Ever since he’d been very small, the boy’s first reaction to trouble was to get angry and screw up his face …”
- or the narrator’s stance could be objective in the sense that he/she only describes things from the outside because what is going on internally in the character (what s/he is thinking and feeling) is treated as if it is not accessible to the narrator. EXAMPLE: “The boy’s face contorted into a cruel sneer and he hissed angry words at the louts who were trying to climb over their fence. He seemed to be afraid,too. ”
- Another variant of the third-person form is third-person subjective. Here, the narrator moves in and out of the character’s thoughts and feelings freely, describing the character’s inner life without any trouble. This subjective form of narration ensures that what is being presented is from the character’s point of view. EXAMPLE: “The boy felt his face curl into an angry sneer and he wished his brother was home to help him drive away the louts who’d been tormenting him for weeks. He felt very afraid.”
An author adopts the form of narration that best serves the type of fictional world s/he wants to construct. Sometimes, the writer opts for more than one form for the novel, for example, one of the significant characters could be used as a first-person narrator throughout alternating with the narrator who may choose to adopt a perfectly modulated third-person objective stance where the story is told without any ingress into the character’s consciousness. To help the reader and to avoid confusion, the convention writers generally follow is to mark a change of narration with a new chapter.
In deciding on a narrative strategy in dystopian fiction, the notion of agency also needs to be taken into account. If a writer wants to emphasise how much a victim of external factors his/her characters are and if he wants to reinforce their sense of powerlessness, then a writer may opt for third-person omniscience. However, even if the external world is in an absolute state of collapse and even if the characters are also victims of circumstance, should a writer want to show that his/her characters, despite their current situation, have a measure of agency and want to act to try and change things, then a different form of narration would be called for, perhaps third-person subjective or even first-person narration.