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I'm writing a teen dystopian adventure/thriller/romance novel. I've been thinking about the plot for awhile. I've got an idea I want to develop: a dystopian world where the government has gotten rid of crime by drugging food and drink with a drug that suppresses negative emotions, like hate and fear. The plot would revolve around a 17-year-old female protagonist whose boyfriend knows about the drug, rebels against the government, and has been imprisoned.

But I'm having trouble deciding whether the drug is something the government keeps secret, or something everybody knows about. This seems to make for two very different stories:

  1. No one is aware of this drug and in general they think that their world is perfect and safe. The female protaganist's boyfriend (she's 17) finds out somehow about the drug and tells her. However, he is captured for being a rebel and she must rescue him while also trying to escape the drug's influence.

  2. Same scenario, except everyone knows about the drug and accepts it because they believe that it makes their world better and safer. The boyfriend is still arrested/kidnapped for wanting to get rid of the drug.

How can I decide who knows about the drug?

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Hi Lucy, welcome to Writers.SE! Your original question was a little problematic, since we can't tell you what you should be writing about. Rest assured great stories could be written for either scenario! But I think your core question is a very good one - the difference between a "secret" premise and a "well-known" premise. I've edited, I hope you like the new version! If not, we can talk more here in the comments. –  Standback Jul 1 '12 at 5:11
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If you do keep it secret (from the characters and the reader), then you'll have a mystery-element card to play. So long as you do it right and keep the reader wondering what it is, then it's a good plot device. Beware, though, that the reader has to get hints about it if it's the central plot piece or else the story will be only about discovering the secret; not very interesting. –  Mussri Jul 1 '12 at 9:22
    
@Standback, we two have different definitions of "premise" that's for sure. I totally misunderstood the question just reading the title. –  John Smithers Jul 1 '12 at 10:37
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What's the key bad thing about the drug? Scenario 1 will only really make sense if the drug has some insidious and drastic side effect. In scenario two a smaller side effect makes the revolution trickier to sympathise with. –  One Monkey Jul 2 '12 at 9:32
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I gave the title another go; I think this one is clearer. –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 2 '12 at 10:05
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4 Answers

Have you already considered flipping a coin? I'm not kidding.

Ok, the answer "your story, your choice" will not help, even though it is the best answer for your question. So I'm telling you the real question behind your question:

"How could I overcome the resistance to write?"

Oh, you won't like the answer to this one either: Just write.

If you want to learn something about resistance, there is this excellent book you should read: The War of Art. Every writer should read it.

Now, how do you decide what to write? Imagine both scenarios. Which one scares you more? Are more anxious to write one scenario than the other? The pick the more scary one. And stick to it. Your resistance is showing you your way. The bigger it is, the more you want to do it.

I know, you say "It's equally scaring!" Or "They're not scaring me at all." Just flip a coin.

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Both scenarios have lots of potential for great storytelling. When choosing between them, consider what kind of story you'd most like to tell, and which of the two is going in a direction you find more interesting/compelling.

Let me throw some light on the primary differences between the two avenues you're suggesting.

Conspiracy

If the drug is a secret, then your tale is one of conspiracy. The story will necessarily revolve around the pursuit of truth - finding out the truth about the drug, fighting the government which tries to cover it up, trying to bring awareness to the population at large. In your specific case, you have a very nice twist, in that the population - including the protagonist - is drugged to reject the conspiracy theory, and not to fight against it. That's an additional obstacle to overcome.

There's an implicit assumption here that people would oppose the conspiracy if they only knew about it (otherwise, it wouldn't need to be secret). A conspiracy story provides a clear division between good guys and bad guys - the bad guys are the ones secretly manipulating everybody; the good guys are the ones trying to fight back.

Another consideration to take into account is that conspiracy provides natural outlets for exposition. Explaining a central SF-nal concept is always a challenge; a conspiracy tale lets readers understand the concept right along with the protagonists, as they uncover it. You've still got your work cut out for you - you've got an insidious drug to develop, a massive conspiracy, and a whole society thrown out of whack! - but since your story's primary focus is finding out more about what's going on, you've got a lot of good opportunities to explain important information without breaking pace.

Revolution

Your other option is that your SF-nal element has already been accepted as the status quo. In this case, your story becomes one of revolution. It's a story that revolves more around argument, persuasion, and a deeper understanding of why and how the society believes what it does, and why this society is fundamentally mistaken. It's likely to be a story focused on the society, not only on plot and action. This is because what you're describing is a huge change to society - everybody knows that society has changed drastically; just describing everyday actions will need to make considerations of how different this new society is. It's a change that's too big to ignore, so it'll probably get a fair share of the spotlight.

With conspiracy, I mentioned a natural good/evil conflict. Here you're going to have to work harder for that, because either you've got a nation of morons supporting something blatantly stupid (which is seldom fun or interesting...) or else the opposing opinion is semi-legitimate, and gets at least some measure of sympathetic portrayal. In other words, the conflict here can be more subtle, with more shades of gray. (In your particular example, you add a nice twist because the question of agency arises - to what extent can you argue with people drugged to be content? This can come into play in both versions, but the social-oriented one might take the question farther and deeper, addressing it in more complex ways, and not as a mere obstacle.)

And when it comes to exposition, well, you're trying to portray an unusual but oblivious society - that might be pretty tough, but can be very rewarding! Here you've got less excuse to focus on exposition than you do with the conspiracy version - you don't have the easy inroads. But a story focused on social elements will have advantages of its own - you might decide to focus on more character interactions, on relations within the society, since that's more appropriate to the social focus.


So, in conclusion, I think you'll find a conspiracy is a more straightforward, conflict-based story; a revolution is subtler and more complex. Of course, these are all generalities - e.g. you could have a conspiracy story that dealt heavily with the society created by the conspiracy, or you could take the story in a completely different direction than what I've outlined.

But these, I think, are (some of) the immediate considerations that arise naturally from this particular choice. Hope this helps!

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Whoa. That's hefty. –  Aerovistae Jul 1 '12 at 21:08
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Yeah, Standback is good for that kind of response. Thus the name... "Stand Back, I Leave Large Answers." :) –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 3 '12 at 11:58
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@LaurenIpsum: Writers.SE is secretly my personal project to write a writing book without writing any actual books. :P –  Standback Jul 3 '12 at 13:09
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@Standback, hey, that was my idea! How else could someone write a book about writing without doing any writing? Seriously though, by the rate you're going, I can safely say that you're well rigged for thought experiments even if no one sees your writing... –  Mussri Jul 3 '12 at 14:42
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Hmm. In situation A you get to work with the theme of a government lying to its people "for their own good"-- security vs. freedom is what that is, and you get to use the secrecy of the drug as a plot device-- who will the girl tell; who will believe her? Who else will find out, and who else already knows?

In situation B you get to work with the theme of people being afraid of themselves-- man vs self, essentially, our own fear of human nature, and possibly the theme of people coming to accept themselves and finding other ways to fight their dark side rather than using science to neuter their mind. And you get to use people's opinions as a plot device: Who's in favor of keeping the drug? Who's in favor of getting rid of it? What will each side do to win?

So what do you think?

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I think it needs to be kept secret, scenario 1. Otherwise, curious citizens might have already tried resistance, stopped eating and drinking to see the effects of being off the drug. In either scenario, the drugged population would be apathetic about getting rid of the drug. Their emotions would be suppressed, so they wouldn't rebel, and (in scenario 2) people would complain about the cost of switching food and drink for undrugged materials; they wouldn't see the point. At least with the first situation your protagonist has a secret that she thinks will be a big reveal.

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