Posted April 29, 2013 by in New Reads

Advice for Writing a YA Dystopian Trilogy (If You Must)

Have you ever thought about writing a YA dystopian novel*? No? Why not? It’s the hottest trend in YA publishing. I figured I’d help you out by sharing some of the secrets to writing a YA dystopia. After reading dozens of novels in the genre, I’m something of an expert. Using the trends and patterns I’ve noticed, I’ve come up with a few tips on how to make sure your future novel follows the rules and tropes!

YA Dystopian Trilogy

The First Book: Hooking Your Readers

Okay. So. You’re in on this whole writing a YA dystopia thing. You’ve followed my advice and want to pen the next Hunger Games. Get used to that comparison, because EVERY YA dystopia is marketed at “the next Hunger Games.” First things first — your book cannot be a single, standalone book. That excellent plot you’ve got cooked up in your head? Go ahead and divide it into thirds. That’s right! You’re writing a trilogy!

This first book is all about world building. The first half should introduce readers to your oppressive government.  The people should be poor. And unhappy. Once you’ve decided how poor and unhappy, make them even MORE poor and MORE unhappy. This is YA dystopia. They can never be too poor or too unhappy. The people should also be divided into some sort of arbitrary groups, which makes them even more poor and more unhappy.

After you’ve successfully set the stage by building a miserable, miserable world, there should be some sort of sorting, reaping, selection, testing, or matching ceremony. The protagonist is coming of age, and it’s time to get her out of her miserable world and send her to an even more miserable world. Make your protagonist not care that she’s leaving because she has an absent or missing parent. Bonus point if the parent mysteriously “disappeared” and everyone has written the parent off as dead (we’ll deal with that in book 3).

While the questionably kick-ass protagonist off coming of age, she also must have an “awakening” involving this government, realizing the government is corrupt. The previously infalliable government is, in fact, not perfect. And, GASP, they don’t have the best interest of their people at heart. But don’t tell too much too soon. Soften it all a bit by distracting readers with a good love triangle. Readers love a good love triangle. Force the protogonist to have feelings for both the hometown boy AND a rugged, yet troubled, boy from the wilds. Be incredibly biased in your writing toward one or the other so that clever readers can already know which one the protagonist will settle on by book three (hint: it’s the boy from the wilds. It’s always the boy from the wilds).

Wrap the book up nicely, but leave things wide open for the bigger story arc of the trilogy.

The Second Book: A Slow, Boring Quest

Yes! Book one of your trilogy was a success! The writing wasn’t stellar, but your audience was hooked. It’s time for the second installment. All that world building? Yeah, forget that…time to have your characters escape. Your protagonist needs to run away and get lost in the wilderness. She should find a rebel group in the wilderness. A compound of sorts. She’ll learn what life is like without that crazy, oppressive government breathing down her back all the time. Ah! Freedom!

But wait. You need a shocking plot twist: the leadership in the rebel compound is JUST AS CORRUPT as the society the protagonist has escaped from! This is also a great time to mess with that love triangle. Have your character flip-flop love interests as much as possible. Maybe she’s with one, but can’t stop thinking about the other. Yeah. Have her do that, readers love that. Make this book pretty boring and virtually plotless. The characters should just roam around a lot and wait.

Only one thing can save this book, and it’s the only thing you’ll need: a cliffhanger. Since this book probably sucks, you’re going to need a cliffhanger to convince your audience to pay $16.99 for the next installment.

The Third Book: Viva Le Revolucion!

This is the book where all the rules GO OUT THE WINDOW. Dead characters come back. Wait, what? Is this a soap opera? Yes. At this point it is. Remember that dead parent in book 1? Time to bring him or her back. Make sure the reunion is lathered in distrust and resentment.

This is also the point where you should make your characters return from the wilderness. It’s time fight the man! Take down some oppressive dudes! Stage a rebellion! Chaos! Espionage! Anything goes!

It is at this point when the protagonist MUST become separated from the love interest. This is mandatory. Even better if we think the love interest is dead. Remember, this is basically a soap opera. But don’t keep them seperated for long. The separation reinforces ALL THE FEELINGS these two have for each other. Love triangle, smlove triangle. This lady has made her choice. Whew. Reunite with said love interest for some kissing, with a fierce battle in the background. Bonus points for every important, beloved character who dies in this scene.

Okay, so it’s time to bring this sucker to a close. You’ve got two possible endings: (1) We are all scarred, but we made it through! or (2) End the trilogy in the middle of everything, because the readers should make up their own damn ending.

What Are You Waiting For?

Get writing! I’ve given you the rules and sacred secrets of the genre. Governments. Love triangles. Cliff hangers. It all has to be there. Just follow what everyone else has done and cross your fingers for a movie deal.

Because, let’s be honest, even if you do all of these things, I’ll still read your book. And so will everyone else.

What are your favorite “tropes” of dystopian fiction? Can you recommend a book that successfully deifies these tropes?


*If I offend any YA dystopian authors in this post, I’m sorry. This is a sarcastic humor article aimed at poking fun at a genre that I happen to love. No single book does all of these things. In fact, all of the books pictured offer delightful twists and are absolutely worth a read!

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Former middle school teacher and school librarian, current doctoral student in education. Reader of all things young adult. I'm particularly fond of dystopian societies, sassy female protagonists, and clever dialogue. I can often be found asleep with a book on my face. Check out all my articles.