Sunday 24 February 2013

Dystopian YA endings: too dark, or not dark enough?

by Teri Terry
on special leave from the Writing Cave
"...genre is just a flavouring. It's not the whole meal. Don't get confused by the scenery."  Terry Practchett, 2001 Carnegie speech

When I'd barely begun writing Slated, I kept getting asked: what is it about? What genre box to we put it in? I struggled to answer this when the story was still forming, but would usually say something about it being a future society where criminal young people have their memories stolen. What I frequently heard back was this: that is dystopian.

So...what does 'dystopian' mean? Back then I'll admit I only had a faint idea. I felt I knew what a utopia was: an imagined perfect society. A dystopia was somehow the opposite, defined by the absence of perfection. Since that time I've read many dystopian novels and recently finished a research MA on dystopian YA fiction, so you might think I've got a grasp of what it is meant to be, and how the Slated trilogy fits (or doesn't) in the dystopian box.

What comes next? For many weeks now I've been hiding away in the Writing Cave*, working hard on the third and final instalment of the Slated trilogy (the second, Fractured, is out soon: April in the UK/Australia; September US/Canada).
     *Writing Cave: a lonely place containing one badly dressed author under threat of deadlines, half drunk cold cups of tea, and empty chocolate wrappers. Often in desperate need of dusting.
Confession time: Should I admit that over half way through the first draft that not only have I not named book 3, I also haven't entirely decided how it is going to end? (please don't alarm my publishers by telling them this!). 

As a writer I like to not know everything about what is going to happen as I write. This is the excitement of writing: waiting for the characters to demand what happens next in ways that surprise. It is also the terror...
Has spending too much time on the academic side of things thrown down a gauntlet for the ending of the Slated trilogy?
Before the YA craze, dystopian novels had a specific function. They are set in a future society where things are going horribly wrong; somebody, our hero, fights against the system, but ultimately, tragically fails. The whole point is that of a lesson, a call to action: change the world now, or this may happen. 

The YA crowd of novels are different: endings are often hopeful, ambiguous rather than miserable, or even happy. Literary critics don't like the departures, say the way they end means they aren't really 'dystopian'. And at the same time there are those that argue the entire genre of YA dystopians are too dark, too depressing.

Having had my head under these academic arguments for too long (way WAY too long...!) it is easy to see the end of my trilogy as something that either comes out on one side of this, or the other.

But getting back to the quote from Terry Practchett: genre boxes can serve useful functions. They help booksellers and librarians know where books fit on their shelves; they help readers make reading choices. But I need to remind myself as a writer that they aren't the whole meal.
Ultimately it is all about this book, this story, and where all the characters yammering away in my head want to go. And the story always wins for me.
Terry Practchett's full Carnegie speech can be found here. I'm really excited that we're both up for the Rotherham Book Award: fingers crossed he is there! Though I may be embarrassingly fangirling if he is.


  1. I read them quite a long time ago, but don't Children of Men by P.D. James and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood end on notes of hope? It's an interesting idea that the just an ending - the protagonist achieving or not achieving 'their goal' - can define a genre.

    Congrats on the Rotherham Book Award nomination!

  2. Bloodtide and Bloodsong by Melvin Burgess stand out as YA dystopian (pre-Hunger Games) with truly bleak, devastating endings. It's true, Claire, there probably are a few Adult titles that offer rays of hope (however weak) but I'm struggling to think of Orwellian-dark YA endings.

    And yes, congrats, Teri!