Elana Johnson: Creating a Dystopian Setting

Today The Bookshelf Muse is sharing real estate with a YA Rock Star–debut author and self-professed Bacon Aficionado Elana Johnson!

Elana’s Book POSSESSION is a technology-driven action ride following Vi, a headstrong and resilient teen as she faces the ultimate choice: control, or be controlled? Officially a week old and being devoured by readers across North America, the futuristic POSSESSION gives readers a 3D view of a world enveloped by technology and mind control.

We absolutely had to snag Elana for a post on how to create a compelling Dystopian Setting that engages the reader’s imagination while conveying authentic realism.

 ELANA: So creating a whole new world for the future sounds like a daunting job. And it is. Here’s my advice: Don’t do it.

I know, counter-intuitive, right? Right. I think the smarter thing to do is use what you’ve already got. Take a location in the world right now, and reshape that into your dystopian setting.

Here’s why this works better than completely creating something from nothing:

Familiarity. When we read, we want to be able to imagine the scene. If you write about a forest, chances are every reader is going to picture something different based on their experiences in forests.

You can use the familiar locations that exist in today’s world, and build your world from something people can easily imagine and relate to. And that’s already better than anything we don’t already know, no matter how richly described.

Think of your dystopian world as this one made of clay. And then mold and form and pinch and push it into something different. Some tips on how to do this:

1. Technology. Think of the films you watch. Things like GATTACA and THE FIFTH ELEMENT and MINORITY REPORT. Those movies almost always have advanced technology that we don’t. You can put some in your world too, and then use appropriate vocabulary to describe it so we can relate it to something we’re familiar with.

2. Language. Every new world has to have it’s own unique language. And I don’t mean like, French or anything. I mean the way things are described. I think a great example of this is in BIRTHMARKED by Caraugh M. O’Brien. She calls what once was a lake, an “unlake.” So much description rides in that one word.

Another example is MEMENTO NORA by Angie Smibert. She uses the word “glossy” to describe a feeling or if something is popular. It’s a familiar term, but new at the same time, and unique to the society she built.

I think every good world-builder considers the language they use that goes toward establishing their world.

3. Senses. These should not be neglected in your dystopian world. Are things clean or dirty? Can you describe it with sight and smell? Are things straight and angular or bent? Can you use touch to say so? Or perhaps the emotion that stems from seeing something twisted as compared to having everything in it’s place.

Senses are always important in all settings, but can really be utilized to help establish your world.

Basically, you’re going to take your good writing skills and put them to use in building a world. Do more with them than simply tell the story.

What else do you do to build a world? Any other tips? 

(Wow, thanks so much, Elana!)

BIG NEWS! Don’t forget to grab your hover boards and zoom on over to the POSSESSION fan site for her virtual launch party this Thursday, June 16. There will be giveaways galore and a feast of awesome, including a live chat at 7 PM Mountain Time. Don’t miss it!


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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21 Responses to Elana Johnson: Creating a Dystopian Setting

  1. Sue Santore says:

    Good points. I like the “use familiar things with a twist” idea. Thanks for your post.

  2. Diana Ligaya says:

    Excellent advice! I also like to think about the food as a background thing. Yeah, sorta strange, but the food people eat and how the eat can tell a lot about a society.

  3. Julie Musil says:

    Excellent advice, Elana! We are all shaking our pom poms for you, girl.

  4. Leslie Rose says:

    Love the breakdown! I’m at the 70% Kindle mark in POSSESSION right now and starting to be sad it’ll be coming to an end. The world of the book is incredible. I find myself trying to put a real world template over it and see how the world of POSSESSION morphed out of our world.

  5. Brittany says:

    Great post, Elana! I like reading dystopia but I haven’t tried my hand at writing it yet, but I’ll definitely remember these if I try it.

  6. Creating a whole new world for the future does seem daunting, but this post makes it seem much more do-able. Thanks for the great tips and advice.

  7. I love the advice to start with what you know and reshape it. It makes a lot of sense. Creating a completely knew world seems very overwhelming.

  8. Ava Jae says:

    Excellent advice! Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I’ll definitely be referring back to this one in the future. 🙂

  9. A lot of this works for the other direction, too (past). Great suggestions and no wonder your book is doing so well!

  10. Thanks so much Elana! I agree, this is great advice that can help anyone with world building! Great stuff!


  11. Jeff King says:

    Awesome advice… thx.

  12. Emma says:

    Hey, I like it!

    I’m abusing this comment room a little bit to note something; The setting thesaurus has many places, some even stranger then others, but there is not something as mundane as a living room. Weird, right?

  13. Great advice, Elana. It’s so smart to use an existing place and build from there, like in Ship Breaker and The Forest of Hands and Teeth series. I’ll be checking out your book to see a great new example of this technique. Thank you so much for sharing!

  14. Yay!! Love those tips. 😀 I whole-heartedly agree. That’s probably why I gravitate toward urban-fantasy or paranormal as opposed to high fantasy (though I still enjoy a good one).

  15. So awesome to see Elana here! I just left a message on her blog. Great tips:)

  16. Heather says:

    This is excellent advice on drawing from familiarity. And congrats to Elana! I can hardly wait for my copy to arrive!

  17. Great tips, EJ!! And of course, I’ll be at that virtual party (rock on)!!

  18. I agree with Matthew. This can be used to almost any setting and world building. Great tips!

  19. Andrea Mack says:

    These tips are spot on, Elana! This is exactly what I did to create a dystopian world in my latest novel.

  20. I’ve actually done this exact thing in my own novel. By basing it in a setting where I have actually been, I can write much of it from memory, and therefore not have to do as much research (or try to remember where the bathroom was in chapter 3).

    Also, I think the best part about this post is that this doesn’t only apply to dystopias. Elana’s advice could apply to any setting.

  21. Wow, Elana, this is amazing advice. You break down how to create any new world and make it sound so easy. Thanks for the advice. And I’m so excited for your debut.

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