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Building worlds with words, writing exercises from dystopian author Amy Lilwall

Last month we held a masterclass with novelist Amy Lilwall, where we learned how to build worlds, characters and scenes through our creative writing. By doing so, we explored the space between an imagined future and our present reality. Here are the exercises that Amy created for the session, so that you too can embark on your own trip.

Exercise One

Made Up Worlds

The opening scenes of The Year of The Flood introduce us to a character through describing a day in her life. The novel is set in post-apocalyptic America and the character seems to be the only resident of an abandoned street. She has evidently become very used to surviving in this apparently lawless world. In dystopian fiction, it is common to start the story in the midst of the problem that has engulfed humanity. Very rarely does the story start at the moment the world changes for the worst. Think of your favourite dystopian tales: The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go, The Carhullan Army – all of these stories begin when the dystopia is already established. Atwood starts The Year of The Flood in the same way that she starts The Handmaid’s Tale, by showing the character in their ‘normal’.

I’d like to take you through an exercise in which you will do the same thing. You will write a short scene that will start with you waking up. The scene will end with you noticing something that means, for whatever reason, that today might be different to all the other days. It’s a world-building exercise and, for maximum effect, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes and listen. 


Imagine you are waking up in your normal (whatever that may be). What is the first thing you see? Are you inside or outside? What surrounds you? Look at your surroundings closely. Think about how comfortable you are. Are you in a bed? Or in the grass, perhaps? Are you in a sleeping bag somewhere? Wherever you are, you are not surprised by your situation. It has been this way for so long that you cannot remember what the old normal was; the new normal has completely consumed it…

You sit up. What kind of surface do the soles of your feet touch? Carpet? Sand? Tiles? The inside of your sleeping bag? A mattress or quilt? You think about how your body and mind feel this morning, taking your time to consider your limbs, your head, your heart. Are you still tired? Are you bursting with energy? Are you achy? Blurry? In pain? Shivery or sweaty? You do something to prepare yourself for getting fully up. What is that thing? Do you yawn and scratch your belly? Do you reach for a gun? Do you breathe into your hand and smell your breath? Do you check your watch or a clock? Think about your movements. Are you slow and clumsy? Or quick and agile? Do you have to hurry to get up? Perhaps you are late. Perhaps you are frightened. Perhaps you are bored… 

While you are getting up, you take in your surroundings. Consider the furniture, if there is any. Consider the source of light, the source of warmth, the smells in the air. Consider the objects that surround you. Consider the people around you, if there are any. Perhaps there are animals. Perhaps there are robots. Or perhaps there are stuffed toys. If you are alone, are you being observed? Are you frightened of being observed? Maybe you have to be quiet as you move around your space. Maybe someone tells you to be quiet. Maybe you switch on the TV/radio/shower and don’t think about how much noise you’re making…

You start to prepare yourself for the day. What does this entail? Do you dress? Do you wash? Do you light a fire or pack your sleeping bag away? Do you do press-ups on the floor? In the midst of all of this, you think about your stomach. It is breakfast time, are you able to eat? Are you too late to do that? Too early? Or will you have to wait a while before your next meal? Where will your food come from? A delivery? The garden? A small hatch in your bedroom door? What does it look like? Taste like? Are you looking forward to eating it? In your mind, you form a picture of what would be your favourite thing to eat, right now. What is that thing? Describe how it looks/smells/tastes. 

Now you take a moment to reflect upon your place in society. Maybe you start to think about the people at the top of this pyramid. Maybe you think about those at the bottom. What do these people look like? Are there any people you avoid? Or do you long to find other people? What does the world think about you? You are considering this when you hear something. What is it? Is someone calling you? Is it the wind outside? Is it a footstep? Or the sound of a vehicle stopping outside? How do you feel about hearing this? Happy? Anxious? Repulsed? You decide that you need to leave your sleeping area, now. Perhaps that’s due to the noise you heard. Perhaps it isn’t. What will you do? Whatever it is, remember that this has been your routine for some time. Do you look after someone else? Perhaps your children or family? Or do you have to grab your things and move on to another place? Do you have something to clean or sew or sharpen? Do you have to hunt for or forage your food? Do you have to leave to go to work? Whatever you go on to do, describe what you are wearing in order to do that thing. Describe what your hair is like, what your body is like. Are you worn out? Wounded? In perfect shape? Describe how you feel today and every day you are made to lead this life. Take a moment to round up what the next few hours of your day will entail. Will you be travelling? Fighting? Looting? Running away? Will you have to work in a factory? Will you spend your time in endless Zoom meetings? 

You now notice something that makes you think of a goal you have in life. What do you see? Is it a baby? Is it a nice car? Is it two people in love? A social gathering? Is it fresh fruit on a tree? Is it simply the outside? Would having this thing help you obey the rules in this society or encourage you to escape them? This makes you think about before. What was it like during the old ‘normal’? Can you remember the world before, or have you been told about it? 

You will end this section by seeing something you don’t normally see, something that confuses or intrigues you. You stare at the thing, if it’s safe to do so, and decide how you are going to react to it. Approach it? Write about it? Eat it? Shoot it? Or just keep the memory of it in your head so that you can study it later. 

Open your eyes. 

Now write down what you have just imagined, from the moment you woke up, to the moment you noticed the ‘thing’ (whatever that might be) at the end of the passage. Focus on describing your story world. 

Exercise Two

Made Up Words (did you see what I did there?)

There is some new language that has emerged from this pandemic. Words such as ‘furlough’, ‘proning’, ‘R-number’, ‘Covid’ are terms that we weren’t particularly aware of even five months ago. Atwood’s The Year of the Flood is notable for its use of made up, futuristic words. Each one adds another brick to the story-world wall. Manipulation of language is a key tool for the writer of dystopian fiction, as it signals a way of life that is alien to our own. In Sci-Fi, language might be used to describe futuristic technology that can’t be described with the language we have to hand. In dystopian texts, people might be given names according to their rank in society. Certain practices and procedures might require definitions in order to show that they are unlike our own. New entities might also require a label. Clones for example, which commonly feature in dystopian fiction, might be described as ‘fabricants’ (as in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas) or ‘replicants’ in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

As a short exercise, I’d like you to invent something that we might find in the world you have just described, then give that thing a name. It could be a tool, a procedure or the name of a group of people, for example. Think about what this new thing is, name it, then write it down in the style of a dictionary definition. 

Exercise Three

Splicing Emotion

The ability to craft emotion is one of the most powerful skills a writer can have, but it’s very difficult to get it right. Putting emotions next to each other can sometimes enhance their power. One of the best ways of doing this is to create a character deserving of hope, give them that hope, and then take it away. What awful people writers are! 

In apocalyptic fiction, there is often a focus on nature and landscape. You may have an image in your mind of a scorched, arid land or even a land overgrown due to lack of human intervention. What both of these images seem to suggest is that man no longer seems to have any power over nature. 

At the beginning of the pandemic – you may not remember as the UK, to some extent, has returned to its more recognisable rhythm – there was a real focus on nature. The news presented us with images of animals repopulating areas newly undisturbed, sightings of birds that hadn’t been spotted for years, graphs showing how air and river-water had become cleaner, statistics indicating fewer cars on the roads, etc. Although this has been a catastrophic time for humanity, nature has had a chance to breathe. I’d like you to imagine the world from the perspective of a non-human entity, a real one, who has been enjoying the world for the first time in its life. I’d like you to think about its new vision of the world and the changes that allow it to lead a freer, safer life. Then, I’d like you to portray the change of emotion; a shift from happiness, to despair, when it realises that the world will go back to the way it was.  

Tip: Try to convey this emotion through story, rather than explaining how the creature is feeling. What happened to it that shows it is happy? What was the event that brought it back to despair? 

Exercise 4

Making the World Smaller

It’s funny to think that, in many ways, home is the new dystopia. Many of us probably giggled at the campaign to keep our bottoms on our sofas whilst weathering the pandemic. Of course, this meant sentencing many others to months of loneliness from which some are yet to emerge. This has, unavoidably, led to the necessity of bringing our homes outside. What’s interesting about this is that we can now spy into the personal recesses of people’s lives which, I believe, has somehow brought us closer together and made us realise that we are all pretty much the same. We all seem to have sofas, don’t we?  And a wall with bookshelves and/or a cheesy family picture. We are now able to see inside celebrity homes, our colleagues’ homes and our teachers’ homes. This sometimes reveals weird and wonderful things about them that perhaps makes us reflect upon the people they are when they don’t have to be professionals or sparkling personalities. 

This thought leads me to my next exercise on characterisation. 

I want you to imagine a character. An extreme character. Someone with quirks an’ all. Think of someone you could potentially know but (most importantly) not so well that you have seen the inside their house. This could be a sports coach, a teacher, a work colleague, your boss, or a friend. It could even be a celebrity.

Once you are able to picture this character, try to answer these questions about them:

  • What are they wearing?
  • How old are they?
  • What is their name?
  • What does their voice sound like?
  • What is something that they would typically say?
  • What is something they would typically do? 
  • Do they have a distinguishing accessory? A bag? Headphones?
  • What do you like about them?
  • What don’t you like about them?
  • What do they seem to like about the people they interact with?
  • What don’t they like?
  • What relationship do they have with you?

You will now write a piece where you describe this character in the real world. Think of what they wear, the gestures that typify them, their facial expressions. If they are really bossy, for example, they might wave their arms about as if directing traffic. Above all, make them unique. Then I want you to imagine that, for whatever reason, you see them (on screen) inside their house. Perhaps you have an online class. Perhaps you are watching a celebrity on the news. Perhaps your boss has organized a meeting with you. I want you to picture an object you have seen inside their house that completely changes your opinion of them. Start your passage by describing the character, in detail, then reveal this object at the end. This will be like a ‘twist’. 

Exercise Five

Summaries of Strangeness

A summary, in this context, refers to the way writers bring the reader up to speed on a given situation. This technique avoids heavy explanation of backstory. If you’d like to imagine an example of a summary, think of the beginning sequence of the film Up! Those of you who have seen it will know exactly what I’m referring to. We see the lives of a couple, from their wedding day to old age, through a sequence of images. There is no dialogue or voiceover, the images connect in such a way that we are able to clearly trace the key events of their lives that make a complete picture. The whole sequence lasts around four minutes. In my opinion, the best way to create a summary when writing, is to adopt exactly the same technique as the producers of Up! Think of your narrative trajectory, then plot it with a few key moments that happen along the way. 

The past four months have been extremely weird. We call it ‘the new normal’ which actually highlights its abnormality. Many things have happened that have changed the way we live our lives. An image that will stay in my mind forever, for example, is the first evening we clapped for our carers. What I’d like you to do, is think about the current situation and the way it has been since February. I’d like you to imagine that you are describing it to someone who has no idea what has been going on. Perhaps you can imagine yourself explaining the pandemic to your grown-up children in the future. Using the past tense and first-person perspectives (I and we), pick out the details that have been most significant to you and write them down. Try not to include any reflection (I thought this, I noticed that) and avoid any information dump. Simply show the images as you see them in your mind. 

That’s it for the exercises, but for more writing tips, support and workshops, follow us @theliteraryplatform

P.s. Fancy a bit of extraterrestrial extracurricular? 

Here’s a great listen from Possible Podcast on science fiction literature and what it predicts about our post-pandemic society: 

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