How Dystopia Begins: 50 First Sentences

YA Dystopia
Screenshot from Hunger Games: Mockingjay/Lionsgate

How does dystopia begin?  

Sparingly, it seems:

“I wait.”

“It’s overwhelming.”*  

In a sample of fifty young adult best-sellers—these are the shortest. The average is just over 11 words, with 85% falling between 6 and 16, making something of an industry standard out of the 12 word openings of The Hunger Games and The 100:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

“The door slid open, and Clarke knew it was time to die.” 

 

It takes Jane Austen 23 words to tell us what rich single men want, Twain 25 to re-introduce Huck Finn, Hemingway 26 to tell us how long his old man has gone fishless, and 28 for García Márquez’ Colonel Buendía to wax nostalgic before the firing squad. Forget Dickens (he wasn’t paid by the word, but he more than earned the slight).  

A collage of famous literary first sentences

Of course, there’s Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” And: “Call me Ishmael.” What makes these striking, though, is that this sort of brevity is an outlier. Stylometrics—the elegant name given to studying what is measurable in style—clocks the average between 15 and 25. An average below 15 severely limits complexity; an average above 25, readability.   

Between 6 and 16: high readability, low complexity. Maybe this is just dystopic first sentences, though. A quick glance at ten of the more famous adult dystopias shows similar beginnings to their youthful counterparts, 10 the average. The lowest, Never Let Me Go’s 5: “My name is Kathy H.” The highest at 16, Jack London’s The Iron Heel (perhaps not coincidentally one of the earliest examples of modern dystopia): “The soft summer wind stirs the redwoods, and Wild-Water ripples sweet cadences over its mossy stones.” 1984 is 14: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Closer to the average, The Handmaid’s Tale: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” The best, Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

Perhaps, after the world ends, we have to do more with less. This would be a fitting rationale for a spare style. Though the adult and teen dystopias seem unified primarily by their length and not the kind of information they are conveying: metric similarity against dissimilar meaning. The Iron Heel’s Still-Life with Moss has much more in common with the beginning of Anne of Green Gables—“Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place…”—than the similarly numbered Maze Runner:

“He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air.”  

 

An important component of the adult dystopias is unveiling that the described world is, in fact, dystopic, or at the very least, why it is so. You can see an example of the gradual reveal in one of the first YA examples, The Giver.  Narratively, accomplishing this mystery requires a lot of description. On the high end, where the effect slowly solidifies for the reader, we call this “world-building”: the clock in 1984, the burning in Bradbury. The counterfactual history…how we got here…is woven together with and indispensable for the plot…where will we go.  

On the low end is the literary equivalent of the opening crawl: the “info dump.” History, here, is anything you have to dispense with to get to plot:

Star Wars gif of the scrolling opening   

“It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.”  

This is the beginning of Delirium. Mystery is not a priority. These quantitatively sparse openers are not legacies from the adult dystopia, then, but the function of the YA dystopia’s alignment with a different genre: action-adventure.  Info-dumps serve to provide the reader the bare minimum of information necessary to invest them in the 350 page car chase that follows (or, in the case of dystopic romance, the 200 page car chase interspersed with 150 pages of Twilight).  

“If I stopped running, I was dead.”**

Thus the seamless translation to film. Divergent’s movie version starts with a voice-over info-dump—a war! a wall! a curiously small number of castes!—before showing all the castes sitting around or standing or kneeling. Except this one:

Divergent Gif a group in black clothes running in the dystopia movie

 

A paramilitary caste of elite parkour roofers trailed by a spunky Laura Ingalls Wilder. The pacing, the lack of filler, the full-tilt dominance of plot, the protagonist whose marked difference is her unique qualifications—all virtually indistinguishable from action-adventure.

But not the conflict. In action-adventure, it’s one man against a powerful group (of his former bosses or illuminati or the mob…whatever). If his purpose is to save the world—and it isn’t always—it’s crucial that we never know we were being saved. In the YA dystopia, we have the girl or boy—and some like-minded friends—resisting the world to save it.

It would seem resistance is a hard sell, though, because the largest unifying pattern between the YA opening sentences isn’t that they invite action (though many do) or that they are comparatively short (though most are), but that they share a tone of dread. 72% of the openings fall on a tonal spectrum between anxiety and terror. Between Katniss reaching across a cold bed and Clarke knowing death has come for her.  

How does dystopia for young adults begin? With speed, with few words, and above all—with fear. Analysis of mass literature trends is generally consumed with two angles: classification and resonance. What characteristics mark something as belonging to the trend and why do we like it?  Classification—of tropes, clichés, plot devices, archetypes—spawns the most jokes, which when done well, also hint at meaning, e.g. Dana Schwartz’ YA Dystopia twitter:

screenshot of satirical tweet about dystopia genre. Reads: I'm in love with you okay? I love everything about you, girl who is reading this book! I mean...Val."

Screenshot of Tweet about satirical dystopia. Reads: So many choices to make: wisdom vs. innocence, freedom vs fascism, this handsome boy vs this other handsome boy

The resonance suggested by these tweets is one of a highly dramatized version of some common psychological struggle. This is one of the most common ways of answering the question of what we like about a certain trend, that is, what work it does for us, or, in the less neutral form, what work it does to us.

What’s not satisfying about this type of resonance answer is that there are, in fact, a lot of ways to reflect common psychological struggles, and it’s unclear why this particular form does it better than any other. You can have a teenager choose between an alt-right gamer and a manarchist in a symbolically elevated manner without ending the world. Based on these 50 first sentences, then, I wonder if “what does dystopia do for us” is the wrong question.  

“They called the world beyond the walls of the Pod ‘The Death Shop.’”

“‘There are places you can go,’ Arianna tells him, ‘and a guy as smart as you has a decent chance of surviving to eighteen.’”***

A world beyond the walls where there is slim odds of survival for youth, where there are death squads and perpetual war and instability, where there is a caste system—in fact, a world system –which places people inequitably into a majority who produces raw materials and a minority living off that production…these places exist here and now.  What if the better question is: what exactly is dystopic here? Adult dystopia is traditionally understood to function as a material warning—a narrated slippery-slope of the ramifications of a cultural phenomenon—whereas young adult dystopia is understood to function as an affective catharsis —a way of dealing with the emotional effects of actual material instability. An escape, not a warning.   

This opposition—warning vs. escape—is its own kind of sorting hat: art or entertainment, classics or mass literature, literary fiction or genre, adult or youth literature. The distinction is, obviously, a weighted one. The former does intellectual work while the latter does emotional work. High art challenges; mass art soothes.

 

“I was born during the second holocaust.”



“Ironically, since the attacks, the sunsets have been glorious.”****

 

The classification of serious literature does its own emotional work, of course: the one that assures the literate that their language, their stories, their conflicts are the crucial, timeless ones and that everyone else’s are divisive, unrelated distractions from the Real Problems. Conversely, I think teen dystopias do a kind of intellectual work, that is, that part of what we “like” is that they help us think, rather than feel, through some material contradiction. And I think these beginnings might hold a key: one where the warning is in the form. The dread, the speed, the brevity—they say, here is how it happens: when history is dispensed with to get to action, when what’s past is what we don’t have time for. Here is how it begins.

 

* Wither; Witch & Wizard

**Lockdown

***Under the Never Sky; Unwind   

**** Enclave; Angelfall

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