There are loads of ways to fictionally destroy the Earth: nuclear holocaust, zombies, alien invasion, plague, natural disaster… the list goes on and on. But no matter what sort of decay or destruction infects the pages of your post-apocalyptic fiction, these five tips should help you liven up what comes after Armageddon. Let’s dive right in!
1. Build a challenging world
One of the most exciting parts of writing a post-apocalyptic novel is the worldbuilding. Once you’ve unleashed your fictional apocalypse on the world, how will the landscape change? How will society adapt? What will be left of the old world, and what will have been lost? What kind of social structures will develop to fill the void?
There’s certainly a lot to think about. But the good news (or the bad, depending on how indecisive you are) is that it’s entirely up to you how you answer these questions. The fate of humanity is in your hands!
One thing to keep in mind when writing any sort of story is that the world you create should challenge your characters. And in post-apocalyptic fiction, the more challenges you throw at them, the better. Readers want to see characters suffer — not because they’re sadistic (I hope!), but because conflict drives a story, keeps the pages turning
This conflict should be fairly easy to foster in post-apocalyptic fiction: the core of the genre is characters fighting for survival against steep odds. But it’s also important to think about the overall goal of your story. The world you create will cause certain complications to naturally unfold, and you want those conflicts to complement the purpose or message of your work. So before you add a new piece of lore, consider: does a breed of zombie bats really add to your story about the perils of consumerism?
Perhaps more than any other genre, post-apocalyptic fiction provides the perfect platform for examining human nature. Your characters will be pushed to their limits by the world you build for them — and this can be done in any number of ways. So think about what you want to say when you create your challenging world, and create obstacles that will force your characters to adapt (or falter) in a way that reveals that message.
2. Climb into your characters’ heads
A natural curiosity about how the world might meet its end, and about the nature of human existence, has drawn readers to dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction for decades. And as I’ve just mentioned, it’s how your characters change and respond to your story’s obstacles that reveals those core truths.
The primary obstacles are usually pretty obvious: How to find food and water? Where is it safe to live? How to fight off these flesh-eating zombies? But your characters will also be tested in more subtle, mental and emotional ways. They’ll battle things like moral dilemmas, fear, desperation, and the quintessential internal conflict between duty and desire.
It’s this intense internal strife that will elicit the most empathy from your readers. When they see a character at war with themselves, in pain, they feel something; they’re drawn deeper into the story because they want the pain to be eased. This is exactly what you want as an author.
To create such internal conflict, you’ll need some kind of debate to occur in your character’s psyche. This might stem from any combination of their expectations, fears, desires, and duties. To get what they want — or even just to survive — they’ll have to make a choice that threatens their morality, or changes the very fabric of their being.
Naturally, this means you need to really understand your characters so that their fears, duties, and motivations are totally clear to you. You can get inside a character’s head in a number of ways. You might try a character journal, questionnaire, or profile — or really invest some time in gradual character development to help you better understand them in any situation.
3. Question where your story begins
Despite the name, post-apocalyptic fiction can start before, during, or after… well, the end of the world as we know it. Personally, I love to watch society fall apart. It’s sick of me, I know, but there’s something so thrilling about a story that starts with the unnervingly familiar: everyone going about their daily lives, until something catastrophic begins to (or all of a sudden) unfurl(s). The everyday is completely turned on its head.
Not only does this make the contrast between the “before” and the “after” even sharper, and the upheaval even more shocking, it also gives us the opportunity to see in real time how characters react and adapt — that all-important aspect of post-apocalyptic fiction we’ve been discussing.
The argument for starting after the apocalyptic event is also quite strong. Doing so makes it possible for you to drop readers in a strange, unfamiliar world from the very first sentence. They’ll have to get their bearings in their disorienting new surroundings as quickly as possible, which will really allow them to empathize with your characters. You’ll also have more freedom to focus on worldbuilding, and perhaps even to take your “new” world further into the future, so it’s at a stage where it starts leaving the “old” world behind and building something new from scratch — reaching the edges of dystopian fiction.
Once again, thinking about the kinds of challenges you want your characters to face should help you decide when your story should start. But regardless of your decision, always start with a bang. I know: it’s a standard piece of writing advice you’ve no doubt heard in tons of articles and writing classes. But I want to reiterate with regards to what I’ve just said…
Even if you kick things off before the apocalypse — in the throes of the everyday — don’t open with your character brushing her teeth and heading off to the office. Start with her waking up next to her sweating partner, then have her board an empty train during rush hour. Torment the protagonist and tease the reader right off the bat.
Similarly, don’t start a story set post-apocalypse with pages of worldbuilding: introduce the main conflict of that world right away. No messing around.
4. Make use of recognizable settings
There’s no denying that post-apocalyptic horror set in the wilderness, the mountains, the desert, or the forest is compelling and creepy. But as I’ve mentioned, one of my favorite things about this genre is watching the mundane everyday dissolve into chaos.
Which is why I absolutely love to see famous cities, recognizable landmarks, and places I’ve visited turned upside down by post-apocalyptic fiction writers. If there were ever an apocalypse novel set in my hometown, I’d squeal with glee.
It seems only natural that the reader being able to vividly picture a story’s setting, either because it’s very well-known or because they’ve actually seen it themselves, would help immensely with bringing it to life in their mind. And what a great opportunity to take the real world and really explore how it would look, sound, and feel in this scenario — either utterly empty of life, or occupied by something horribly dystopian.
A buzzy tourist trap I’ve snapped on holiday suddenly serving as the location of something terrible will always be more chilling to me than any dark woods or barren wasteland. Or even worse, a darkness crawling over the city I live my life in every day.
5. Know where your story will end up
When writing apocalyptic fiction, it can be fairly straightforward to imagine a broken world, full of conflict and danger and the decay of order. You might even know what kind of new world will grow from the ruins of the old, and how your characters will respond to these changes. But one of the hardest tasks for writers of this genre is bringing their story to a close.
Knowing where your story is headed, however, is as important as knowing where your story should begin. Having an idea of where the story is going will keep energy and life coursing through your plot and character arcs across every page.
Unlike the beginning, try not to end your story with a question or cliffhanger. You can leave readers wanting more by deliberately leaving a few small loose ends, and still wrap things up neatly enough for a satisfying ending. Unfortunately, the ending might not be so obvious as it is for, say, a HEA romance or a hero’s-journey fantasy. But aiming to keep things fairly realistic, and perhaps to touch readers with something emotional, is always a solid way forward.
Try to provide a satisfying conclusion to the main plot — one that’s believable and not too easy — then maybe skip forward in time. While things won’t be back to normal, it’s satisfying for readers if you suggest a new kind of normal. And if you want to tease them with a tiny suggestion of more horrors to come, I won’t blame you.
And there you have it! Five tips for making your post-apocalyptic fiction so vivid, it’ll feel like your reader is along for the ride. Here’s hoping they’ve got what it takes to survive!
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and SFF, as well as writing short stories.