YA dystopian books sure have been on my mind lately. As I’m waiting for the CATCHING FIRE movie to come out and I’m reading through the last installment of the DIVERGENT series, I can’t help but wonder about the secret ingredients of a successful YA dystopian series.
What you need, of course, is a great story. The stakes in the genre are higher by default, because of the overwhelming menace of the totalitarian dystopian society. In that sense, YA dystopian books are like regular YA on steroids: the protagonist needs to overcome tremendous hurdles and dangers, and often experiences the death of a loved one. The possibility of discovery–and punishment–by the big-brother government overshadows our character’s journey through the book and keeps us on our toes.
And one of the best ways to reach out to your audience and give them a taste of the series is to come up with a great title and cover design!
A popular way to formulate a good YA dystopian title is to use a single adjective or noun to describe the character’s path in the series, and then heighten that with each consecutive book. This single noun/adjective describes the state of the protagonist in the particular installment, and effectively tracks her emotional, psychological, and physical progress through the series.
Take Ally Condie’s popular dystopian series Matched. It starts off with MATCHED, which presents the premise and the core concept of the dystopia. 16-year-old Cassia doesn’t have the choice to marry for love; society does the choosing for her. So Cassia is “matched” to her chosen one–but what if she decides to spurn the “ideal” marriage and follow her heart?
That book is followed up by CROSSED, where the title gives us a sense that the heroine is at a crossroads. Cassia is on a mission to find her beloved, Ky. She’s started on her perilous journey, left the confines of the family home, and we don’t know how things are going to transpire. The world, premise, and main characters have already been introduced in the first book. Now is the time to really get things in motion and complicate the issues even further: things need to get worse before they can get better in Book #3. (That’s also why the second book in a series is often the darkest and sometimes least satisfying.) As the book description of CROSSED goes, “On the edge of Society, nothing is as expected, and crosses and double crosses make Cassia’s path more twisted than ever.”
And then comes REACHED, the big series finale. The title carries a sense of achievement and gives us a brief preview of the book: Cassia wages a war against the society that oppresses her and her family, and is ready to defend these with all she has. The third book is where the character “arcs” and will use all she’s learned throughout her struggles and travails, and engage the evil forces in a final life-and-death gambit.
The same title formula is used in other popular series in the genre: Veronica Roth’s Divergent (DIVERGENT, INSURGENT & ALLEGIANT), Teri Terry’s Slated (SLATED, FRACTURED & SHATTERED), Marie Lu’s Legend (LEGEND, PRODIGY & CHAMPION) and Lauren Oliver’s Delirium (DELIRIUM, PANDEMONIUM, and REQUIEM).
YA dystopias have some of the prettiest covers out there. They follow the precepts of YA fiction covers in general: gorgeous colors and an image of a girl (when the protagonist is female) on the cover.
The cover works in conjunction with the title to tell a story and grab the reader’s attention. In the Matched trilogy example, we have an image of a young girl trapped in a sphere in the first book. She’s constricted by society, afraid to challenge the status quo she knows to be wrong. In CROSSED, she has broken the bubble: yet there are a lot of shards and rubble around her. Her journey is not over yet.
In REACHED, the sphere is completely shattered, and the poised posture the girl has in this image shows that our protagonist has shed her darkest fears and is ready to stand up against the oppressive regime.
The literalness of this approach to a YA dystopian series might seem simplistic, yet its ability to convey meaning to readers shouldn’t be underestimated. Deciding on a title is the first step toward finding an audience and marketing your book.
You might also like: Diving into YA Dystopian with SLATED Author Teri Terry.