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Love, Hope, and the Dystopian Dark

I had one of those dread-saturated 3:00 AM awakenings last week.

The initial panic resulted from a sudden awareness that all the most dire warnings regarding the upcoming election are virtually certain to come true.

The Transition Integrity Project, a nonpartisan group of academics, journalists, and current and former government and party officials, has simulated the four most likely scenarios, and all but one results in widespread violence and a Constitutional crisis.

[Note: I didn’t realize until after I’d written this post that it would be going up on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—but, even so, it remains eerily relevant even in that unexpected light.]

As often happens when one considers the world at the Witching Hour, the Hour of the Wolf—the time after midnight and before dawn when, legend tells us, the portal between this world and the beyond opens up—thoughts that, during the day, would be mere considerations became harsh, absolute reckonings.

Stop being naive, my mind told me. The life you’ve known is coming to an end. The absolute worst that could happen is going to happen and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Spoiler alert: I saw things differently after a while, especially come morning. And though that did allow me to function, I can’t say for certain the haunting, visceral sense of doom I felt is misguided. It’s one reason I’m volunteering for a number of get-out-the-vote organizations—to prevent what I fear will be an unavoidable crisis.

But as I was still in the grip of this initial panic, another sense of dread arose, one related to writing—which is why I’m bringing it up here.

I’ve just finished a dystopian novel and am researching and plotting the next, books that address what I fear will be our future, and soon, if we do not pull back from the abyss.

Lying there in the dark, I felt that terrible shock you get when it seems you’ve made a terrible mistake.

Who will want to read about an imaginary America on fire when the very real America all around them is literally in flames?

I wasn’t worried whether the book would find an agent or if it would sell. I was doubting my own judgment as a novelist—how had I been so self-absorbed not to see the bigger picture?

In wanting to write something I considered important, something that spoke to both my deepest passions and my greatest fears, I’d misunderstood one of the key premises of the genre I’d chosen.

It’s precisely a dystopian novel’s difference from current reality that allows the reader the imaginative space to sit back, reflect, and ask serious questions about the present day.

It was as this second wave of anxiety receded that I managed to settle down and think things through.

Dystopian stories—like sci-fi and fantasy and historical fiction—require a great deal of world-building. And in envisioning all the details, large and small, that will define how different your fictive world is from the one we know and now inhabit, it’s easy to get lost in the footnotes, especially in the early, planning-and-plotting stage of the novel, which is where I am now.

It’s the dystopian novel’s difference from current reality that allows the reader the imaginative space to sit back, reflect, and ask serious questions about the present day.

Those details are crucial, of course—they won’t just add authenticity to the story world, they likely will inspire ideas for scenes, plot turns, maybe even the overall arc of the story. Because the world has become like this, it is inevitable that…

That’s heady stuff. It’s demanding, too, requiring a lot of imaginative thought focused on all the predictably terrible things that might await us in the future—in my case, the not-so-distant future.

In a nutshell, my guiding principle has been the awareness that when anarchy descends, it’s men with money and men with guns who make the rules. And a great example of how that plays out, what happens when corruption, social disorder, climate change, and contagion all coalesce in one grand calamity, look no further than Mexico, Central America, or Colombia, where armed criminal groups have taken over many of the functions of their feckless governments.

My moral theme is this: With the increase in violence and breakdown of social order, everyone has to develop or enlist an armed group for protection. Hopes that your group is more civilized, noble, humane than the others is largely illusory. You make peace with your misgivings, swallow your guilt, find someone to care about, and dedicate yourself to their welfare. When violence takes over, however—and it will—you will need to look past the atrocities your side commits, stay focused on caring for the most vulnerable. Until it breaks your spirit. Then what?

(I don’t want to get more specific than that—I hate talking about a novel I’m still in the process of working out. Bad juju.)

Though the novel I’ve already finished echoes those same themes (the books are part of a series), there is a love story at the first book’s core that offers a sense of promise, even among the violence and chaos. And as I remembered that, I got a better handle on the new book.

By “love story” I don’t mean a romance. One of the principle goals I set myself for these books was to present a compelling story of platonic love in each one. I’ve written about this before here at Writer Unboxed, about the strange rarity of stories centered on devoted male-female friendship. I realized part of my anxiety about this new book resulted from my not having as yet fleshed out how that friendship forms and builds in the course of the story.

Once I recognized that, I saw the story changing. It was no longer just a lot of doom-dark scenes of a future gone wrong. It was evolving into a story of deep personal connection—devotion among the ruins, as it were. And with that, I saw at last a flicker of that curious flame known as hope.

Faith that the future will be better than the present is rendered sterile if that future centers solely on oneself. This is why I remain unimpressed by the idea of individual salvation. What good is an afterlife that leaves my loved ones behind? (As my late wife said as she was facing the inevitability of her death, “I don’t know if there’s anything after this, but if it doesn’t include you and the pups and our home I don’t want it.”)

With this in mind, I began focusing less on the research-driven details and the scenes they suggest and more on how my characters’ fondness for each other renews their faith in a possibly better tomorrow—and how it inspires their will to overcome the brutal challenges their dystopian world inflicts.

I began imagining the scenes that bring them together, the moments that deepen their feelings for each other, and the crises that threaten to separate them. I began to wonder if perhaps their mutual affection doesn’t create false hope, and if so how does that manifest itself—do they recover? Is that even possible in this craven new world?

Yeah, I know—the guy who wrote two books on character finally realized it was all about the characters.


Anyhoo, little by little, the story became much more meaningful, more compelling—more emotionally moving and hopeful, even in its darkest moments.

And as I lay there in the darkness, I realized as well that as in fiction, so in life. It’s precisely my love for my wife and our life together that makes succumbing to fear not an option. Whether the issue is politics or writing, there can be no standing on the sideline. The sideline does not exist.

And who knows, maybe there’s even hope the worst won’t come to pass.

Are any of you writing stories that take place in a story world that mirrors problematic aspects of present-day reality? If so, what provides a sense of promise in that world? How does that sense of promise inspire your characters to act?

What measures are you taking not to scare off readers with the precision or clarity of your fictive mirror?

Given the detail-intensive task of building your story world, how have you managed not to get “lost in the footnotes”?


About David Corbett [1]

David Corbett [2] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [3], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.