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I need help with the concept of my story:

My protagonists live in a mild dystopia. Think of your own country today ;-) They have the opportunity to kill about 20 persons, which will cause a fundamental change in their society that makes life much better for everyone. Imagine the effect being similar to:

  • no one needing to work more than 50%
  • with the prices remaining the same, everyone earning at least twice your current average national income
  • no one earning more than twenty times that
  • free public transport, housing, schooling, health services

You get the idea. No anarchy, socialism, or whatever, just what we have today with less inequality and better social system.

The story can have three endings:

  1. the protagonists cannot decide -- this might make for an intriguing but unsatisfying end
  2. the protagonists kill the 20 -- this be satisfying to the readers, but at the same time morally questionable
  3. the protagonists walk away -- this will be morally superior, but unsatisfying

If I managed to tell all three stories in a gripping and convincing way so that all endings resulted naturally from the storyline and characters, which end wozld satisfy readers most and what end would they expect in a YA dystopian novel?

Edit [2014-05-21]

In comments and answers there has been some complaint that you don't know enough to know what ending readers will prefer. You don't know about my protagonists, you don't know the society or "the 20", so obviously all depends on how I tell that tale. Sure. But that's not what I'm asking.

First, I'm telling you what kind of society it is. My question says: Imagine your own country. So – I hope – you know what kind of society you should consider. As for the protagonists or "the 20" (which is just a random number, not the number of people in my story), they really don't matter to this question, because this question is not about my story, but about genre conventions and reader expectations as they exsit before those readers even pick up this book.

The question is: Given a society like your own, which ending would readers expect or be most satisfied with, disregarding any specific plot. Do readers expect protagonists to kill the bad guys? Would they feel better if the protagonists had moral qualms and did nothing? In short:

Do readers enjoy self-administered vigilante justice? Or do they prefer moral heroes?

In the Seventies there was widespread support and approval among German students when the Red Army Faction killed employer and industry representative Hanns Martin Schleyer. How do readers of YA dystopian fiction today feel about social revolutionary terrorists killing key figures from politics to attempt a change in society?

There is nothing beyond the genre you need to know to answer this question. All you need is familiarity with the genre, current politics, and readers of YA fiction.

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Isn't "less inequality and a better social system" socialism? –  KitFox May 15 '14 at 20:39
Sorry, English is not my native language. I mean whatever the correct umbrella term is for health care, education, unemployment insurance etc. Since the French Revolution, equality (egalité) is one of the, if not the central values of Western culture. I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the US Declaration of Independence that all men are equal and have equal rights. I don't think the USA are a socialist country. –  what May 15 '14 at 22:05
As it stands, I think this is a question that's (1) asking what to write, and (2) very close to brainstorming, both of which are off-topic. Maybe phrasing this in a way where you ask the effects of these endings on the reader would be better? –  Neil Fein May 16 '14 at 4:01
For what it's worth, I view prolonged far-reaching harm through inaction as more morally reprehensible that direct concentrated harm when avoiding either entails the other. –  Mussri May 17 '14 at 23:00
...if you plan on selling in the US. The only way I see that that instant, Utopian outcome you describe would be believable in this market is if those 20 are the government. As to which is a satisfying ending, it's only #2. #1 is no real ending, #3 would work in literary fiction but not in YA. That said, those 20 also need to deserve to die, i.e., they're villains. If you're talking about 20 random innocent people, then pick option #4: Heroes figure out how to fix everything without becoming evil, sociopathic villains themselves. –  Patches May 18 '14 at 2:35

8 Answers 8

up vote 6 down vote accepted

This answer is highly, highly subjective. But I personally dislike almost every YA dystopian future novel I've ever read (they're all the same thing to me and they're all predictable), so I think if you're asking about reader expectations, I might be a good person to answer the question... mostly because I see similarities in all of the YA novels I've slogged through. So maybe I can point out what things I think readers expect. But again, not a fan of YA dystopias.

Also, the links. They are all to TVTropes. You're welcome.

What end would they expect in a YA dystopian novel?

Either the underdogs win or the underdogs win. So, you know. Choice 2.

This isn't to say that this is the best ending, but it is what people expect. If you put a rag-tag team together in real life to battle it out against 20 other people who (assumedly) are a group, then... they probably won't make it if the 20 people are a bunch of rich philanthropists willing to throw money at some crazy plan to all become equal parts Lex Luthor. In a book, though? The underdogs probably win. Even against those odds. It's not even a surprise, it's just something we consider to be true.

Anyway this is still pretty dependent on the 20 people-- if they're the 20 people running the dystopian future, then your heroes going through with it but now having a moral quandary on their hands is expected. We expect Batman to beat the Joker because the Joker is the bad guy doing bad guy stuff and working for the forces of bad. If the 20 people are people working to keep the dsytopia running and they are doing bad stuff to do it, then it is ending 2 is expected. Unexpected is "So then we all talked about what to do and ended up doing nothing" even though that's realistic (based on protagonist age and socio-economic status among other things).

However, you're saying that the description you gave us is basically all the readers get (I think?) in which case we don't know:

  • If the 20 are working together
  • If the 20 are the cause of the dystopia's inner workings
  • If the 20 are good/bad people
  • If the 20 are related (to each other or to the protagonists)
  • If the 20 are corrupt somehow and could be fixed another way
  • If the 20 know each other

And in that case, indiscriminately killing 20 people we know nothing about would probably end pretty badly. Sure, there's a chance our heroes are killing bad guys. But they could also be killing good guys. Or morally ambiguous guys. What do we expect when you're killing indiscriminately with no reason? We expect punishment even if the characters are supposed to be doing "good". Recalling that no matter how awesome you are, CRIME DOES NOT PAY (except for the women and the cars and the money and the Towers of Doom), anyone who is just skulking around killing people should eventually get their come-uppance, unless they're good guys being forced to do such a thing in which case, they will be vindicated.

I will also note that the other two endings are usually routes taken by "weak" characters. In our YA dystopian books/movies that are now popular, the protagonists are always proactive, even if there are obvious downfalls to their pro-activity, and then they get out of those with sheer pluckiness. Weak characters are indecisive and walk away from problems instead of being chipper plucky problem solvers (generalization). Sometimes this is the best decision. But we play them up like they are not. Even if the protagonists act weak (are indecisive) they will come to a conclusion that is generally not of the "go home and suffer quietly" variety.

Which end would satisfy readers most?

This is... kind of reader based. Generally speaking, I think the second ending is the most satisfying, even though it's expected... but that's still not saying much.

Part of it could be that people like to be right-- if they guess that at the end of your book, the 20 people are dead and then... you end the book and the 20 people are dead, they feel good. Harry Potter spent 7 books killing Voldemort and we all knew Voldemort's number was up after book 1. Sure there were probably people wishing he'd live, but I don't doubt most people were aware he couldn't make it past the last book and still be evil. We aren't surprised by the ending itself. The surprise is how the ending is reached, how smoothly it's executed, and so on. So people expect something and thinking they'll be right, they read through and hopefully come to the conclusion that they are right. And being right can conjure up feelings of satisfaction, so long as there are surprises along the way. On the other hand, it can also bring up the notion "this is tired," if the story isn't written well enough for someone's personal tastes. Given that there are multiple types of people reading your story each with different tastes and experiences... there is no surefire way to know for certain what will be the most satisfying.

Judging by the way we have been writing books (and interpreting them for the masses), it is far more likely that you'll reach wider audiences with ending 2. And by reaching wider audiences, you would end up satisfying/letting down a greater range of people. Then it just turns into a numbers game, but with a large audience reached successfully... you would be able to tailor the book to satisfy the majority.

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Thank you. Exactly the perspecrive I expected answers to take. Extremely helpful. –  what May 17 '14 at 6:40

I'm going to spin this around for you.

In Jeffrey Schechter's My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, Schechter suggests that a lot of theme is about the protagonist asking a thematic question, e.g.,

  • "Should I settle for less romantically?"
  • "Can I balance 'ordinary' responsibilities with my secret identity?"
  • "How do I decide who to trust?"

And in opposition, you have an antagonist making a thematic argument on the subject, e.g.,

  • "Give up the puppy-eyed longing, 'true love' with butterflies in your stomach is just a fairy tale for Disney movies!".
  • "Never give up! You true love is out there somewhere, so never compromise on anybody who doesn't feel absolutely perfect for you!"

The antagonist's argument can be compelling, but it should (usually!) be also, ultimately, be wrong. The antagonist's confidence in his argument is what lets him be forceful, aggressive, unyielding. The fact that his argument is wrong (or, at least, flawed) is what lets the protagonist triumph at the end, finding a better answer to the thematic question.

So in the case you're describing, it sounds like a lot of the thematic question is, "Is killing justified if it guarantees utopia for all?".

What will make a resolution satisfying, or unsatisfying, is less which resolution you choose, and more what options you've set up:

  • If you have an antagonist who lets personal morality get in the way of responsibility, then killing the 20 could be overcoming that antagonist's argument.
  • But if you have an antagonist who claims practicality and responsibility override the requirement to act morally, then you'd want to go the other way, affirming morality even at great cost.
  • These are just examples; your question and argument might be entirely different from what I've presented here. Maybe the question is "Is this dull life, filled only with drudgery and hard work, worthwhile?", and the antagonist argues "Make do with what you have, don't wish for more than what's realistic," and then ending it with killing the 20 might be saying "Yes, the drudgery really is so bad that it's worth dying or killing to eradicate it." You can go all kinds of different ways.

Once you have an idea of what the conflict is - the thematic question and the thematic argument - then you'll have a better sense of what kind of conclusion actually addresses the argument, and resolves the thematic question to some extent.

As long as you do that, I think you'll be absolutely fine with reader expectations.

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Thanks and +1. My problem is that the end is a twist on the main plot and that being able to make this decision instead of being forecd one way was the goal of the protagonists. So they have reached their goal but must now make this decision. Which is exactly why they dont know more about the 20 than you know about 20 of your government: the plot built up towards being free of being forced (not to kill the 20, and not by them). –  what May 20 '14 at 19:12
If the antagonist's argument was "You can't be free to make your own decisions," then that's the argument you need to resolve here. But narrowing that argument down might help you find a satisfying resolution. e.g "If you make your own decisions you'll make them wrong" can be resolved by making decisions and guaranteeing that they're right. "If the argument was "You don't have the authority to make those decisions for everybody, we do," then the resolution needs to demonstrate why the protags are worthy of authority and the antags aren't. And so on. –  Standback May 21 '14 at 5:49
But if this is a twist after the protags have reached their goal ("make your own decision") your dynamic changes a little. This is basically the climactic argument from the antagonist - "Look, you got what you want, and look how awful it is." If you can't wiggle out of that and justify the protagonist's goals, or lead them to a greater epiphany, then the antagonist has turned out to be right, and your book is a tragedy. Probably not YA :P –  Standback May 21 '14 at 5:52
Thanks, @Standback, those two comments are really eye opening. They aren't what I was asking (see the edit to my question), but they have given me a spark of insight nonetheless. –  what May 21 '14 at 7:34
Also, there's lots of tragic YA. E.g. in Cat Clarke's "Undone" the protagonist wants to avenge the suicide of her best friend, but in the end finds out that in doing so she caused horrible harm to an innocent person (burning a girl's face) and kills herself. A very harsh and negative, but intrinsically logical (and moral!) end. A YA tragedy. –  what May 21 '14 at 7:39

Which end do readers expect? Either of the ones you given. Some will expect one, others the other

That's why you should choose neither.

You have two obvious options, plus a dull 'no choice made'. That's one point where the difference between a common book and an excellent one is made.

This is where the protagonist should not just decide or fail to make a decision. It's where the protagonist should get off the rails, refuse the choices given, and find a third way.(Warning! TVTropes). It should be a brilliant way that breaks the rules, sets things right, and as a bonus, leaves the one who set the rules out in the cold.

Who knows what it would be. Maybe blackmail them and force them to comply. Maybe show mercy, and when the mercy is taken for weakness, show them his true strength, terrorize them and cow them into submission. Maybe start killing, one by one, until the rest does what he wants. Maybe convince them, through sincerity, or opposite, bluff them into submission. Maybe let them talk in their defense, and then stand by their side. Maybe force them through a trial of fire, that will change them. Maybe recognize they are all figureheads, and kill the true mastermind - possibly finding the mastermind was his sidekick all the time.

I don't know what twist fits your story, but this is definitely the place where a twist should go. Always, see two simple options: choose third.

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That is valuable feedback, but not what I'm asking. Assume all three described endings were equally surprising twists, which one would readers want? This question is mot about plot twists, but about these three alternate endings, none others. –  what May 16 '14 at 14:47
@what: The question doesn't detail how much is known about the 20 in the story, or what kind of group the 20 comprise. –  SF. May 16 '14 at 15:16
@what: If the readers really know as much as I about 1.the protagonist, 2.the society, 3.the 20, then they won't give a crap. For readers to care, you must attach them to the world and the characters, make the world immersive, and the only way to do that is by presenting that in detail. Without that, the story has no depth, and without depth there is no suspension of disbelief, and no expectations. "Meh, whatever." –  SF. May 16 '14 at 16:29
@what: This is more of "how much paint does that guy in Arizona need to use on his fence for the lunch of President Obama to taste right". Killing random 20 people doesn't change the system of a country. It's a contrived scenario with no bearing on the reality. There is no suspension of disbelief, no plot to drive the story, just a set of random, unrelated facts that don't elicit any feelings. I just don't see why these are at odds, and more importantly, I really don't care. Maybe if you explained the connection and consequences I'd start to care and form an opinion. –  SF. May 21 '14 at 8:06
@what: No, there's nothing about the person making some demands to the government, trying to pressure anyone, or any political agenda behind the murder. There's a world of difference between "I've killed these 20 and I'll kill more unless the government yields to my demands and changes the system" and "20 people die. System changes". Do you believe the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades would achieve anything by silently killing random people in random places and never telling anyone, why, and what they want? Actually, I was led to believe it was a sacrifice to a demon to wish the change. –  SF. May 21 '14 at 8:38

I know I’m “bucking the hypo” here (as the law students say), but I have a lot of trouble with the premise that only 20 corpses stand between a mildly dystopian society and something radically better than even the most liberal real-world government can offer its citizens. If those 20 people have been profiting off of the misery and inequality of the society beneath them, then there should be another 20—maybe another 200—waiting in line to replace them.

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20 corrupt delegates in a parliament might have enough influence to force or veto against certain laws. This happened when Obama tried to change the US health system a few months ago and one single Republican stood in his way. It is often a very radical, very small minority that have a huge influcence, because they sit in key positions and have strategic connections. And those waiting in line may or may not be as extreme, so there is a realistic chance of change. Anyway, my question was a simplification of the situation in my novel, and the number is wrong (they kill half the parliament). –  what May 20 '14 at 11:12
Yes, a small bloc of single-issue “swing voters” in the legislature can have power out of proportion to their numbers, but if that bloc is eliminated, the interest groups that empowered them in the first place will look for a replacement. Or the bloc can lose power in other ways. If factions A and B compete for faction C’s support in order to form a parliamentary majority, then faction C has power way out of proportion to its numbers. If A and B decide to form their own coalition (perhaps because both their constituencies are pissed off by previous concessions to C), then C is frozen out. –  Seth Gordon May 20 '14 at 12:51
Perhaps the 20 people are sacrifices to a hungry but highly trustworthy god of the netherworld! –  Standback May 20 '14 at 14:13
+1 @SethGordon. Personally I agree. Which is why option 1 would be my choice ending: in reality I feel something needs to be done, because democracy has been corrupted, but there is nothing you can do, because eventually the greedy and power hungry would work back into place. But as the other answers show, readers want what in reality does not happen: that good wins. –  what May 20 '14 at 19:01
@what: "They kill half the parliament." =8-O Do we need to put you on a terrorist watch list? ;-) –  dmm May 21 '14 at 20:33

Regarding the substance of your question: The maxim that Robert McKee passes along in Story is “give the readers what they expect, but not the way they expect it”.

Your first option, where the protagonists don’t decide, is clearly unsatisfying. Even Hamlet eventually made a choice and acted on it.

The second option, killing the bad guys, makes this a standard thriller plot. If the 20 targets are shown to be sufficiently evil, then that addresses the moral question. To add moral/thematic depth, the characters can lose something at the same time that they win their primary goal: they might discover that the revolutionary government is not as progressive as they originally thought, or they might be forced to suffer the infamy of being assassins because the true evil-ness of their targets has to remain secret, or... something.

The third option, in which they choose to walk away, is unsatisfying all by itself, because if you’ve spent a whole novel setting up how evil the 20 targets are, then you can’t have the protagonists say “actually, never mind”. But they can walk away from their original mission and do something else. For example, I can think of two SF novels from the 70s (perhaps I shouldn’t name them here) where the protagonists were rebelling against a dystopian society, and when they got near the core of The Secret Conspiracy That Rules Everything, a high-level dystopiocrat (I just made that word up) says “Congratulations for having such an independent mind and seeing through the illusions that we have constructed to control this society! You’re just the kind of person we need to join us in the ruling elite.”

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I'd love to learn the titlesof those books. +1 for great feedback. –  what May 20 '14 at 19:07

Your idealistic young heroes kill the 20, thereby getting what's necessary to change their dystopia into a utopia (at great personal sacrifice) -- and then watch in horror as human nature takes over. See: history of communism. See also: history of right-wing dictators.

Utopias are highly unstable. Power corrupts. Everyone lies.

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Ah, just read your answer. Exactly what I meant in my comment. +1 The only problem with this as an answer to my question is that the novel ends with my protagonists' decision and I cannot show these long term effects. I can have them argue about this and decide because of this insight, but that sounds lame and boring for readers to read. –  what May 22 '14 at 7:06

I think readers want a good story, not a particular type of ending.

After writing (or even just outlining) all three endings, you'll be able to decide, better than we can, which is the best. We really can't say without more of the details.

(On those details, though, I will say that: it depends greatly on the 20. Are they a secret society of corrupt leaders who greedily steal most of the society's money for themselves? Or just ordinary people. Why those 20?)

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As my question says: What if all three versions were equally good? This questuon is not about story development, but about reader expextation. –  what May 16 '14 at 12:51

Do readers enjoy self-administered vigilante justice? Or do they prefer moral heroes?

Let me put it this way: A common trope in American popular fiction is the hero who lives by his (or her; cf. The Hunger Games) own moral code, a code that is not necessarily consistent with the law.

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