Thursday, August 9, 2012

Things to Remember When Writing Post-Apocalyptic by Shannon Lawrence

You've envisioned a world where some large-scale event has wiped out hordes of humanity.  Your characters are alive in your head, probably struggling to survive.  You can see the blighted landscape all around you.  What do you need to do now?

There are a few things that must be part of your post-apocalyptic story, or you have no story.  Let's take a peek.

1. An apocalyptic event That's right, you can't have a post-apocalyptic world without something that got them there.  What will yours be?  Viral, bacterial, natural, man-made, space-related or nuclear?  These are all options, and there are probably plenty more.  Did the swine flu get out of hand?  Was it helped by humanity or just one of those things that happens in nature?  Did the Earth tilt too far off its axis?  Did nuclear Hell flame rain down upon the continents?  There must be a reason the people in your story are stuck in this particular landscape.

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887;
Viktor Vasnetsov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
2. A time frame.  Are they living through the event or has it already happened?  Is it fresh or decades down the line?  You have to know when it happened and what stage humanity is in to really tell your story.  If it happened decades ago, the landscape is going to be significantly different than if it just happened yesterday.  Quality of life will also probably be very different.  If they've been coping for decades, they probably aren't struggling to find food or water sources as much as if it just happened and everything is tainted or burning.  If it's a new problem, there will be mostly individuals and small groups, whereas a length of time may mean there are established towns/cities.

Stalingrad after the battle;
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
3. A fully realized landscape.  World building is important in any story, but you need to build this post-apocalyptic world so that people see your vision of what it looks like.  They must know what your characters' reality looks like.  Are there fires raging?  Or is everything underwater?  Are there bodies everywhere?  Or has nature reclaimed what once was solely hers?  Let us know what it is your characters are looking at.  Make sure it makes sense for passage of time and the particular event that occurred.

4. Strong characters.  We need to believe that these people can make it (or not, as the case may be).  It must be a real struggle.  We have to care whether they can survive, one way or another.  Maybe we hate this guy so much that we question why he survived, when better people died.  Maybe we love this character and desperately want to see her rebuild her life.  Whichever characters you have, we must believe in them, and they must have a mission, of sorts.  Does Evil Guy want to take over what remains of the world?  Find natural resources to survive?  Or just be left alone?  Does Lovely Heroine have a child to fend for?  Is she just trying to find a home she can call her own?  What drives them?  What are they trying to accomplish?  This is important in every single kind of story you may write, but don't get so intent on your world building that you forget your characters.

5. A purpose.  All right, we get it.  The world has ended.  The apocalypse has found us.  Whoopty-doo.  What is so important about this world that you just have to tell the story?  What are we going to take away from this?  I'm not talking about a moral (necessarily), but just a life story that means something to us when we read it.  A violent post-apocalyptic world, where survivors are constantly under siege, does us no good if we don't come out of the story feeling something.  Perhaps you want us to know that humanity will always find a way to thrive.  Or that love will always pull someone through.  Whatever it is, make it part of your story.

The aftermath of Hurricane Camille. Ruins of Texaco gas station with Rambler automobile,
Biloxi, Mississippi, 17 August 1969
There are many elements that are important in a story, but these are just a few of the top ones to keep in mind when writing a post-apocalyptic tale.  Now that those stories are becoming more popular, it's important to keep them high quality.  Want to read a story that takes something familiar and turns it on its head, all the while showing us the strength of humanity and the power of good versus evil?  Read Stephen King's The Stand.  Watch Book of Eli for another viewpoint.  There's also The Road, Mad Max, Water World (hey, I'm not saying these are all good), The Postman, Jericho and The Walking Dead for movies/television shows.  For books, this link should take you to a comprehensive list of classic post-apocalyptic stories.  Of course, The Hunger Games and Forest of Hands and Teeth should be on there.  Also, I recently read Without Warning by John Birmingham, on a whim, and I enjoyed it.  It was more a political/government/military-type book that took on what happened in those facets – so different than I'm used to for this genre, but also quite good.  I don't know how The Marbury Lens and The Maze Runner are qualified, but I'd consider both to be sort of post-apocalyptic.  We really aren't sure with The Maze Runner, but we get a sense something big must have happened, and in The Marbury Lens, the alternative world he visits via the lens seems quite post-apocalyptic.  Both are excellent books, though be aware that The Marbury Lens can be graphic or disturbing, despite being Young Adult.

The short of it is, fully realize your story so we can be drawn into it, feel for your characters, smell the fires, feel a sniffle coming on as everyone dies of the Hulk of flu bugs.  Watch some of these movies or read some of the books (or both) and figure out what you like in them, so you can duplicate that, in a sense.

About the Writer:  Shannon Lawrence is a mom of two, a freelance writer and aspiring novelist.  She lives in Colorado Springs and is inspired by the beauty of Pikes Peak and the Rockies.  After years of letting her writing fall by the wayside, she has recently thrown herself back into it.  Her main focus is fantasy and horror and she has just finished a Young Adult Fantasy novel.  She has also recently discovered a love of photography and enjoys photographing the breathtaking Colorado scenery and wildlife, as well as her children.  She blogs about writing at


  1. All excellent points but esp. #5. SHIP BREAKER is also an excellent post-apocalyptic book - imo.

    1. OOOH I loved Ship Breaker so much!!!

  2. Whoops, here is the link to the list of post-apoc stories:

  3. Great run-down of some must-haves in apocolyptic fiction. Planet of the Apes fits the genre. So does Logan's Run.

  4. mshatch, I will have to check that one out. I hadn't heard of it.

    Mary, oh, those are excellent examples, too!

  5. This is awesome. I have bookmarked this page for future reference.

  6. Great list. If you think about it, most spec fic genres need at least the last four items for the story to work. Take fantasy.

    The author would need to look at the time-frame of the story, a fully realized landscape, strong characters and a purpose. Same for Sci-Fi, dystopian etc.


  7. Definitely agreed on the strong characters side of things. Too often PA fiction is all about the spectacle of the event, and while it's an important part it needs to have strong characters. Alden Bell's The Reapers Are The Angels is a great example of when this is done well.

    Jamie @ Mithril Wisdom

  8. Madeleine, that is wonderful to hear, thank you!

    Misha, thank you! I think you're right, much of it works for other genres, any story, really.

    Jamie, so true. Both the event and the characters need to be developed. For the event, if it isn't really part of the story other than to establish why things are the way they are, the description of it at least needs to be believable and set the background thoroughly.

  9. This is something I would like to tackle oneday - though I think I will wait until I'm a more seasoned writer. Love that you mentioned Mad Max as a shining example (being that I am from downunder)! :)

  10. got to have Blade Runner for a PA movie and read all of Philip K. Dick in another generation or two he will be like A Poe


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