I'm writing a short story for my english final - I'm a junior in high school; we've already taken our AP exam, but our teacher wanted to finish the year with something meaningful.

Anyway, I have been jotting some notes down on a phenomenon very personal and familiar to me. I would like to express this in the form of a short-story. I think it would be excellent practice for me as a writer to produce something both creative and insightful. And of course, make it enjoyable to read!

I would like feedback for my world-building work; I've described my complete process and the outline I've produced so far. What do you guys think of this world I'm thinking about? Really my only concern is that it resembles some already renowned literature (1984, for one). Do you think what I have going so far is a good start?

The unit I need to respond to is adaptation. The thing is, we can choose to respond in any way we see fit. So, taking the word at face value and applying my own experience has resulted in me noting the following:

Lack of purpose => Apathy => Failure to adapt => Vicious cycle

Message: With no ultimate purpose, one enters a vicious cycle where apathy replaces drive - and an inability to cope with this newfound apathy spawns more apathy rendering one a hollow shell of one's former self.

Life becomes a game. Not your game, but a game in which you let yourself become the controlled.

Going through the motions the way life is supposed to be "played".

Origin of the lack of purpose?

Is it effected as a result of society?

Or, if entirely void of society itself, would a lack of purpose still be prevalent?

Next, I attempted to construct a world that would facilitate the delivery of such a message:

Time Period: Post-Nuclear Holocaust (in the not-so-distant-future)

Setting (specifically): A totalitarian society (founded by the Great One [Magnus] Post-Nuclear Holocaust to prevent the "tragedies" of Pre-Nuclear Holocaust society) [Opatia] advocating free choice - paradox? With overstimulation, rejection and dissent ensues. Leading us to our protagonist.

Protagonist (Salim): Overwhelmed by so much freedom causes him to lose his mind. Additionally, he sees through the façade of freedom that Opatia (and Magnus) advertises. He understands that in reality Magnus is a corrupt leader who uses his control over the Opatians to gain capital in the still-existent "real world".

Narration: Third-Person Omniscient. Allows reader to be privy to the thoughts of others besides Salim. This also facilitates occasional blatant theme poundings.

Tense: Present. Past (although also implying a story worth telling) in my opinion implies an afterthought. Present tense also effects reader suspense if solely for entertainment purposes (à la Amusing Ourselves to Death).


Here is what started out as a description of Opatia, but turned out to become a general overview of the short-story:

Opatia is a realm devoid of natural life. It is founded on irony. Despite claiming to protect its citizens by granting them “liberty”, it revokes them of this very promise through a strict and brutal totalitarian regime. Its endless choices (in the very few sectors where choice is provided like job “opportunities”) lead to a massive decision that must be made at an early age (satirizing the current educational system). Additionally, once one selects a job, one must keep this job for the rest of his or her life with nothing but a mere superficial promotion as an incentive to continue one’s work; this further negates Opatia’s claim of choice and liberty (further satire). This all becomes too much for Salim, and living within these constraints becomes unbearable. Unable to creatively express himself, (a fundamental impossibility considering what Opatia demands with its concrete definitions of jobs and lifestyles) Salim must either conform, or rebel and sacrifice the inevitable rejection he will face from both his peers and society as a whole, especially, Magnus. Salim decides to live a life of quiet desperation where his former youthful passion and energy is replaced by apathy (must show Salim’s dynamism in order to achieve this effect; perhaps time period shall range from Salim’s adolescent period to early adulthood). After some time so bogged down with his own cognizance of his failure to adapt, his situation once again becomes unbearable. Therefore, as a result of his cognitive dissonance - a mental breakdown (and possibly ultimate suicide) ensues.

  • 1
    Note: We'd ask for more specific questions about the work if this question were asked now, as per our critique guidelines. However, the question is nearly a year old, and has been asked and answered, so am leaving this here for historical reasons. May 12, 2012 at 16:23

3 Answers 3


Don't worry about "it's been done before." Your goal is to do it your way, and never mind what anyone else has done.

Your theme (Lack of purpose => Apathy => Failure to adapt => Vicious cycle) is interesting, but I'm having some trouble connecting it to your précis. How does "too much freedom" equate to "lack of purpose"? I think linking it to "Amusing Ourselves to Death" is closer to the mark — "too much entertainment with nothing to strive for," like the Buy 'N' Large folks from WALL•E (taken seriously rather than for laughs).

I don't think having too much entertainment would cause the protagonist to lose his mind. Lose his will, perhaps. What I would focus on is the spot between three and four: why does everyone in the society have no ambition, no competitiveness, no ability to come up with their own life's purpose? Why is "life purpose" an outside force imposed on the individual, which when missing is not replaced by an inner drive?

You also call it a "newfound apathy," but if everyone in the society is choked with ennui, then it's not "newfound," it's the way things are. You're not describing people who used to have a purpose and now don't; you're talking about an entire culture of slackers. That's not a vicious cycle.

I think your story has potential; I'm just picking some nits which I think need work. :)

  • The pecking party is much appreciated! I think I am juggling a few too many ideas for one short-story. I have been doing some more brainstorming and am working towards a clearer definition of what I'd like to say. Is it alright to update my op's content?
    – Qcom
    Jun 1, 2011 at 2:10
  • It's fine by me. I would add the edits below the original so the thread isn't lost. Otherwise people will wonder what my and Indoril's comments are referring to. Jun 1, 2011 at 11:49
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    It looks to me like you're doing a lot of world-building for a short story. Which is fine, but be wary of letting it eat into your deadline. You don't need to address every aspect of society in your story, just a few. Or one. The decision about the job looks like it's important. One other thing: you want to write the story as a tragedy, (Which is fine!) but it's not clear to me ~why~ Salim's fate is sealed. What would have to be different for the story to end happily? You don't need to write that story, but I think you need to know the answer.
    – patrick
    Jun 1, 2011 at 16:28
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    Take 1984. It's a tragedy because Winston betrays Julia. It wouldn't be a tragedy if he didn't. Winston doesn't need to overthrow Oceania or even live, he would just need not to betray his love. That's the crucible, the single moment that captures all of the books themes at once. Is Salim's decision about his job that moment? Or is it something else?
    – patrick
    Jun 1, 2011 at 16:48

Given your paragraph description, I have to admit to being somewhat unconvinced along a few points.

  1. You set up a direct connection between the regime's oppressive control of its citizens and a lack of purpose, but I think you need to nuance that connection more closely. The currently much-analyzed phenomenon of the quarterlife crisis among middle and upper-middle class American 20-somethings and all the talk of emerging adulthood surrounding the same group provides a strong argument that an undirected, unconstrained ability to choose anything actually leads to a lack of purpose. Some amount of constraints - in the form of societal expectations or religious beliefs, for example - can be essential for some in finding purpose. Your initial notes for world-building included the idea that your protagonist is "overwhelmed by so much freedom causes him to lose his mind." That idea is different than what your paragraph conveys, and I think you need to nuance the final product to include an interplay between the two ideas.

  2. In other dystopian works in which totalitarian regimes control the day, the hero(ine) often finds his or her sense of purpose in opposing that regime. Because that is the literary expectation set up by books such as Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World you may need to work on providing a convincing reason for Salim's apathy. Is it a weakness of character (something that can be written to make him extremely easy to empathize with)? Is it the sheer brutality of the regime? Is it the lack of any peers who will stand with him? Why won't he fight his situation, which fight would actually provide the sense of purpose he craves? This central tension here is what makes the story potentially extremely fascinating, but so far I haven't seen how you'll tease it out.

  3. Many thinkers, from the authors of the Jewish Bible (see this part of the book of Joshua and this section of Psalms) to those of the Christian New Testament (see this section in the book of Matthew) to modern writers such as David Brooks and even some advice columnists point out often that the best way to find a sense of purpose is not within in expressing one's own creativity but to look outside. People tend to feel better when doing things for others, when they feel like they are serving gladly. What keeps Salim from finding purpose in doing things for his family, friends, or true love? Is it selfishness? Is it the entire social structure stacked up against what he feels is his true calling? If Salim's purpose is simply self-expression it's going to feel weak. If you show a struggle to either find a purpose in a purposeless society or express a purpose when the odds are too great, it'll be more compelling.

Looks like there are some interesting ideas here worth honing, but the philosophy has to be something the reader will identify with. I think you're well on your way there.

Also, on your note on tense, you would be well advised to read up on this discussion on present versus past tense. A lot of modern fiction is being written in the present tense, and there has been some backlash against it when it is not done well and for a good reason.


I think that the "lack of purpose" is a welcome mindsed of our civilisation. (At least, thought mainstream is declaring it.) Those who feel an urge to be trumpeting out that "there is no purpose" do not seem to be apathetic. So I am afraid that your setup is a little bit unlikely.

But I must admit that someone who is forced to accept the "no purpose" mindset sometimes feels unbearable discomfort. This can lead to various (negative) results in their minds.

It should help to become familiar with some fiction (and non-fiction) literature dealing with nihilism, particularly with "existential nihilism" (e. g. F. M. Dostoyevsky, J. P. Sartre, A. Camus, P. K. Dick).

  • I don't see how this really answers the OP's question. Jun 1, 2011 at 13:34
  • @JSBangs: Just one word: believability.
    – Nerevar
    Jun 1, 2011 at 13:53

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