7 Tips for Writing Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

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7 Tips for Writing Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 9 “Apocalypse”

 Green Bat 1 by DesdemonaDeBlake

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"It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine."


In recent history, there has been a surge of interest in stories surrounding the post-apocalyptic world and it makes sense. Not only does the genre play off our fears of societal destruction but it also creates some spectacular and brutal worlds where we see the depths of human resolve and emotions. However, movies and books in the genre (not all, but most) have begun to all share the same flavor. This can be disappointing when there are so many fresh ways in which one could approach this genre. Today we’re going to look at some ideas for how you can give your post-apocalyptic story its own flavor.


Tip 1: There are many different types of Apocalypse.

Zombies, nuclear war, sentient robots, prophesied religious events, extraterrestrials, floods, disease, famine, killer plants, and killer animals are but a few of the many ways that a Post-Apocalyptic world could be created. You can take these for what they are, blend them together, or come up with something completely new. The possibilities are limitless. I recommend thinking carefully about all the ways you could conceive of destroying the Earth that have not been popularly featured in stories and using those as a catalyst for your world.


Tip 2: Create a logical connection between the type/strength/timeline of apocalypse and the type of world it creates.

Think about what happens when you burn a fire very hot and very quickly. The fire extinguishes itself rather rapidly; it misses a lot of the fuel that it could have found if it had burned slower and gives plant-life an opportunity for quick recovery in enriched soil. You can create an abnormally large-scale disaster, like a weaponized plague that hits everywhere at once. But this must be carefully considered. Most realistic apocalypse scenarios must burn slow at first and build up, like a fire. And after the disaster hits, the survivors will most realistically thrive with an abundance of resources due to decreased populations. So, you should tailor your disaster to specifically fit the type of world you want to create.


Tip 3: The flavor of your world should be determined by the types of people who survived the apocalypse.

When watching post-apocalyptic movies, I often wonder why bikers who were into sadomasochism were most the population to survive, instead of librarians, veterans, country people, police, and other people with more resources, knowledge, and training to survive under rural conditions. There will be bullies who rise and take things by force, but they will only last until they run out of people to murder and ransack. Additionally, I cannot imagine that good people pushed to their limits to survive will not be as easy victims for biker gangs as what movies portray. The world will be shaped by the people who inhabit it, and the inhabitants will be comprised of those who were able to survive. So, make sure there is logic in what type of people will most likely survive your apocalypse and flavor the world you are trying to create.


Tip 4: Mix up the type of heroes/antiheroes in your story.

Not every hero in a post-apocalyptic world has to be the Gunslinger, from Stephen King's “Dark Tower” series. Don't get me wrong, I think Roland is an excellent character, but the strong, silent, gruff, cowboy protagonist has become a tired cliché in this genre. Try creating unlikely heroes that can be more likely to give us a type of story that we've never seen before. We know what a rough cowboy can do in the wilderness; the interesting story is how an elderly grandmother in a wheelchair managed to survive.


Tip 5: Keep your characters consistent with the time period that they are originally from.

Another cliché and failure of logic that I've noticed, is that post-apocalyptic worlds often become a remake of the wild west, complete with saloons, sheriffs, and cowboy hats. If your world is shattered in 2015, humans will not start back at the stone age and slowly try to get through the historical periods again. They will either try to recreate 2015, immediately or else create something entirely new. And if the first generation dies, they will leave that dream with their children. So, make sure that the type of world that your survivors create, makes sense based on the origins of those characters.


Tip 6: There will be smart and literate people after the apocalypse.

Unless you have a specific apocalypse that goes after smart people, there will be intelligent people who will try to recreate a modernized world. If they don't have the expertise to do something, they will look through old books until they find that knowledge. Humans, especially under pressure, are extremely resourceful. And smart people are not necessarily any weaker than anyone else—contrary to what our culture that reinforces societal roles and attributes to people, may want us to believe. Even old rednecks living out in the country often have engineering degrees or can piece together an engine or windmill from scraps. So, either address that problem if you want a barbaric wasteland or prepare for a humanity that will quickly recreate the world better than what it was before.


Tip 7: Know that your post-apocalyptic story is an embodiment of how you perceive human nature.

Any story you create in this genre will tell more about your personal view of human nature than almost anything else you can write. The post-apocalypse removes societal pressures and pushes humans to the extremes of desperation, forcing you to reveal what you think is at the core of human nature. This can also mean that you have influence on how your readers view human nature. If you think that smart and compassionate humans who would work together are ultimately weak and unfit to survive against people who behave like animals, then it will come out in your story. If you think that deep down there is no nobility to humans, then you will create a world of only savagery. So, keep in mind your vulnerability as well as your level of potential influence when working within this genre.

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In recent history, there has been a surge of interest in stories surrounding the post-apocalyptic world, and it makes sense. Not only does the genre play off of many our fears of societal destruction, but it also create some pretty spectacular and brutal worlds, where we seen the depths of human resolve and emotions. However, movies and books in the genre (not all, but most) have begun to all share the same flavor—when there are so many fresh ways in which one could approach this genre.  

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Tip#7 is very interesting. Food for thought definitely!

InsignificantSpeckk's avatar

This is very good advise! I am writing a post-apocalyptic novel best I can, and this is very interesting. I agree that the silent tough cowboy is a cliche, and zombies are kind of over done. I think my story is creative, hopefully. Thank you for helping me out :D

DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I'm very glad you got something out of it :) Best of luck!
AnonAMauze's avatar
I know the Yellowstone Super-eruption is kind of overdone as far as the movie industry goes.  It makes for very pretty CG effects.  The thing I notice is there isn't much showing the long-term aftermath of such a powerful event.  You catch a few news blurbs here and there in the background on things happening like food riots and high crime but those are happening shortly before or during the eruption, nothing of afterward.  While the eruption itself is indeed an awe-inspiring and terror-inducing thing, it saddens me that so few people take a long look at the long-term effects.  So for your consideration I offer this:  Yellowstone Caldera lies west of the most fertile farmland in the world.  The US produces approximately 65-70% of the world's food supply, particularly grains and corn.  In the aftermath of a Yellowstone eruption most of that farmland will be unusable for decades if not centuries due to volcanic contamination of both the land and the water supply.  For a bit of reference, I point all of you to the Laki eruption of 1796.  On the VEI index it classifies as a VEI 6.  However due to the amount of sulfuric gases it spewed out, it caused what is called in newspapers of the time "The Year Without Summer" in the northern hemispere.  So with that in mind I tell you that the VEI index refers only to the volume of material erupted.  A VEI 6 is any eruption of more than 10 cubic kilometers of material.  I'm not sure how many of you recall the eruption of Pinatubo in 1991, but it too was a VEI 6.  Previous eruptions of Yellowstone all classify as VEI 8, which is a thousand times more powerful than a VEI 6.  So how would the world react to losing more than half of its food?  Certainly the current population would be unsupportable.  I grant you that in this day and age most governments would be likely to try to compromise with other countries, but what will happen when the countries that "have" refuse to share with those who "have not"?  War generally follows in the footsteps of great disasters and we foolish humans now have weaponry capable of destroying entire cities in a single blow.  And this is just the first year or two following the eruption.  Add in the effects of volcanic winter on a global scale, where temperatures can drop up to 10 degrees, and the added result of drastically changing the weather patterns.  And after the stockpile of nuclear weapons is exhausted (or [hopefully] deactivated by some enterprising soul) you can add the effects of nuclear fallout to volcanic winter.  Please note, nuclear winter and volcanic winter are two different things.  I can presume that combining the two would make matters worse.  So why hasn't this been explored?

.... ^.^' clearly, I've done a serious amount of research on volcanoes in general and Yellowstone in particular....
jbraden37's avatar
Writing a great SHTF novel correctly and accurately is important. Yes, you want a great story and you want it to be as realistic as possible, but you also have a few things to consider that I haven't seen spoken of here yet.

Many here may not admit it, but one of the things we want our books to do is SELL! We want to make money at this and maybe enough to one day stop our full time job and just write books! Am I right? With that being said, I'd like to say (As a writer and reader of this genre) that one of the MOST IMPORTANT things to remember is to KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE!

Many if not most of the people who read this type of work are not Prius-driving, PC, softy's. Many are ex or current military, former or current law enforcement, or in some other way, patriots.

What I'm saying by this is that they (your audience) will KNOW many of the things you'll be writing in your book and can make or break you in their reviews! If you have military, police, government things in your book, make SURE you research it completely so you don't sound like an idiot or unbelievable.

And make sure to edit and proof-read your book and have others do it too before you self-publish! One of the biggest detractors from this genre is that many times these books are kicked out so fast that they are filled with spelling errors, bad structure, etc. When I begin to read one of those books, I immediately put it down and go leave a bad (But Truthful) review.

Hope some of what I've said here helps some of you.

HorsesAreMyHaven's avatar
Very helpful tips, exactly what I was looking for. Thanks
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I'm glad it helped :)
Afictionado's avatar
Nice information, especially for a difficult genre!
Darkgenius3's avatar
How about a post apocalyptic world where-

A girl lives in a makeshift town near the ruins of Calgary, Alberta, four years after the Fallout, which disabled every electronic device on Earth, and a plague that prevents the body's production of endorphins (look it up if you're not sure). The town is destroyed by a faction wanting to take control of the survivors. To save the rest of the still rebuilding province, she has to team up with a group of people who are basically nomads, surviving by travelling around on horseback with no permanent home. They have to survive mutant predatory animals created in a lab, trying to find the other settlements and encourage them to take a stand against the faction. Along the way, they all have to face a hard question: try and recreate a world that crashed and burned or make something new? 

 Just an idea. 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Sounds good. So long as it all comes together for you and you enjoy writing it, go for it!
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I'm glad :) I left a comment on your story. 
Jared-The-Rabbit's avatar
I'm thinking of a story that takes place 30 years after the Chaos Emeralds (the powerful gems in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise) shatter, which causes nature to wreck havoc on Earth. Examples of this are:

Constant high-powered earthquakes, causing the streets of coastal cities like Vancouver and Tokyo to crack.
Continuous lightning storms, causing power lines to go down.
Extremely powerful tornadoes, destroying the entirety of midwest USA and central Canada.
Heavy snowstorms, covering cities like Moscow in white blankets.
Heavy rainstorms, which end up flooding cities like London, Winnipeg and Edmonton.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Sounds like a fun story to write :)
Thank you. Do you have a paper for pirates or steampunk?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
No problem :) No, sorry, I have no expertise in either genre. 
That's okay. Thanks anyway.
htfan1246's avatar
I've had an idea where a giant parasitic brain like alien is the leader of an alien race who was searching for a habitable planet. They soon find earth and tried to make peace, but the humans were in great fear of these creatures. That was until the leader made a deal with the president of the era they arrived in.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Cool :) Now all you have to do is write it and see where the story takes you. 
htfan1246's avatar
NyehHehHehOnline's avatar
I was planning on writing a story on an alien-human relationship (species-wide, not between a human and an alien), and thirty years after 'The Great Bondage' (the name of the peace between humans and aliens), a new emperor takes control over the alien race, and declares war against them. Transport ships that were supposedly bringing goods now bring hostile, feral creatures to destroy the human race, leaving the Solar System for the taking. The story will focus on a male human (Johnny Montenegro) who is a technician at SARU (Species And Races United) Robotics for Advanced Living, a male alien (QX3NTN, called Quinton) who was a soldier/officer who had a distaste for the new laws against humanity, so he rebelled, and a female human, (Alley 'Cat' Knapperson), who is a chemist and biologist for the SARU. Is this a good concept, or does it need some reworking?
Mightymog's avatar
Never thought if a space/alien related apocalypse! Cool plan. I often underestimate alien intervention
NyehHehHehOnline's avatar
I took a lot of time into coming up with a concept. I've actually got a cover made and a background for the overall universe!
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