Thursday, 17 January 2013

Writing Post-Apocalyptic Fiction - My Top 10 Tips

THE CLEARING, Book 2 in my post-apocalyptic series came out this week and I'm already scribbling away on Book 3. Hoping to release it this summer if I can.
I'm really enjoying writing it. there's something about this genre which I find compelling. It sends shivers down my spine but despite this, I love to immerse myself in those terrifying end-of-the-world situations.
A few weeks ago I blogged about writing dystopian and post-apoc fiction over on Author's Anon. I've reposted it below for those of you who missed it:

My personal top ten elements for writing a great post-apocalyptic novel:
1. Make your setting original.
There have been oodles of futuristic New Yorks and Londons and a plethora of abandoned dystopian ‘facilities’. We’ve had kids battling to the death in arenas and gory zombie apocalypses. Worlds have been divided into ‘Factions’ and ‘Areas’, ‘Districts’ and ‘Zones’.
Put your own personal twist on the fall of society.
2. Sanctuaries
Locating them, getting into them and saving them from destruction. That’s all part of great post-apocalyptic fiction. Along with finding food, medical supplies, clothing and other survival gear.
3. Struggle
Decide whether your story is about struggling to save and change the world or whether it’s about a character’s struggle to adapt and survive within that world. It can be both, but have a clear idea about it before you go in. Do they succeed in their struggle? Or does everything unravel?
4. Why is your character special?
Did they get lucky? Are they equipped with specialist survival skills? Are they a victim? Why did they make it when everyone else died?
5. The Threat
Who or what is it? A person? A creature? A hostile environment? Are there multiple threats?
6. Authenticity and continuity
There are two main types of post-apocalyptic fiction. There’s gritty reality - the ‘what if’ scenario where life-as-we-know-it ends. And then there’s pure fantasy – zombies and dystopian societies etc. But whatever you choose to write about, make it as authentic as you can. If you’re writing about zombies, set parameters for them. What can they do? How can they harm you? And remember to never ever call them ‘zombies’ – there are ‘walkers’, ‘deadheads’, ‘the unconsecrated’ and a gazillion other names for the undead. Make up your own. Be consistent and make your world totally believable.
7. Technology
Does your world have any? Or did it all die with the end of civilisation? Or is there now even more advanced technology? Either way, talk about it and show it or the lack of it. What are the implications?
8. Atmosphere
Create a distinctive atmosphere for your novel. Whether it’s dark and claustrophobic or menacing and suspenseful, try and keep that feeling running through the story so your reader gets a real sense of being in another time and place. Perhaps it’s a world of extremes where you have luxury and decadence in the face of poverty and oppression. Either way, make the scenes ooze with atmosphere.
9. Before and After
What was the world like before the fall? What is it like now? Was it the same as the real world or was it something else? I want to know details. I want to see landscapes or cityscapes. I want to picture the before and after.
10. Hope
Even if everything is bleak and horrendous and it all seems futile, you have to plant a tiny nugget of hope somewhere in the story or we might as well all lie down and die.

Feel free to let me know if you think I’ve left anything out . . .

More online resources:
Writing Apocalyptic Stories
Apocalyptic Fiction Authors Beware
How to Write a Post-Apocalyptic Story
Best Post-Apocalyptic Novels


  1. This is a brilliant post, Shalini! I've always loved dystopia fiction... ever since I read Z For Zacharia as a kid, I just fell in love with it. In fact, years ago I wrote some notes about a scary dystopian future that one day I'd like to use for a new novel. There are so many ideas in my head!! xx

    1. Thanks Suzy. Let me know if you ever decide to write it!

  2. you make really good points and this will come in real use

  3. I'm struggling with writing an antagonist, i keep ending up with the classic water world 'smokers' or the petrol heads from mad max 2! It all ends up a bit homo erotic! haha. at one point it nearly went mad max 3! i know! I think the secret is keeping the antagonist human, or real. they need to want the same thing as the protagonist in order to make the conflict believable. The only trouble is trying to figure out what they want?! everything is gone!

    1. Hi Zak, Nothing wrong with a bit of Mad Max, lol! I guess you need to think about the antagonist's life as a whole. What has his/her life been like up till now? Parents? Siblings? Experiences? Even if you don't include this info in the story, it will help you shape his/her character. Was it a single event from their past which changed them? Or a series of things which gradually chipped away at their humanity?

      Also, I wouldn't worry about what has/hasn't been done before. As long as your character is real, their interactions with other characters and situations will help make them unique.

      Not saying I'm an expert in the subject, but that's my take on things anyway :)

  4. Very helpful (: Thank you. I'm working on my first post apocalyptic short story right now, and I really am trying to avoid the classic, nuclear war, or zombie scenario.

  5. Fist of all thanks for the post :)
    But how did you channel your ideas, because I have created my post-apocalyptic world with characters and everything. But I dont know what scenario to thrust them for it has been 40 years since the "end" so there are factions now, and because I haven't really made the characters black and white they will react differently for each scenario idea I have, so I don't now which one to follow. So basically how did you whittle your ideas down to one ?

    1. I actually worked the opposite way - I had an idea for a story with a wicked twist at the end and decided to set it in a post-apocalyptic world. So the world came after the idea. But there really is no wrong or right way!!

      If you have several ideas and you're not sure which one to follow, maybe you could try plotting each one out in rough and seeing which one inspires you the most.

      Do you have a main character or characters? What is their background? Their personality? Jot down notes about them and maybe your story idea will grow out of this. A strong character is a great place to start.

      Or start writing a single random scene. This too can spark an idea for the whole novel.

      Good luck! I hope this helps x

  6. Thank you for the advice :), it has really help me cross off some of my story strands.

    And I do have most of my main characters fully planned out (some of them just need a tweak to there backstroy to make it more in line with why there personalities are like that) I was just struggling to get decide what my main conflict should be, but your advice has really helped me see which one flows best and norrow them down already :)

    1. Yay! Glad I could help a little. Keep me posted :)

    2. Hey it has been a while but I have finished my short story.
      Even thought my post apocalyptic idea went down hill for I was still struggling with the whole character design and what scenario to put them in.
      However using your advice about the idea coming first then building the world around it I have completed a short story in the Sci-fi dystopia genre :)

    3. Woohoo!! That's great news. Really pleased for you. Do you have a link? I'd be happy to tweet it out :)

  7. Nice article.

    Do they struggle to survive the environment or do they struggle to change it? Great question, which leads to more questions. How will they change the environment? How will the struggle to survive affect their morals and outlook on life and their fellow man/woman?

    The thing I love about this genre is how the harsh conditions force characters to adapt and change, assuming its a character driven story.

    As for technology, that's a huge issue. If we lost our access to energy, life would be difficult in ways most can't imagine. Whatever technology is used would need to match whatever energy they're using. Would society attempt to recreate what was lost or would they seek a better way? Would we drill for oil/mine coal, or would we attempt to use clean alternative energy? Or, would we step back to pioneer technology, using animal power or maybe even steam power?

    We need an ongoing series that chronicles the fall of civilization as well as the rebuilding of society. Start the characters as children and allow them to grow up as the series progresses. We would watch the changes over the years as the characters struggle and change.

    My opinion on this fantastic genre.

    1. Yes, there are so many issues to address and ways in which to tackle this genre. My 'top ten' only really skims the surface. The energy issue is an interesting one and could be written from all kinds of angles and I think it depends if you were going to write from a realistic perspective or add in a more fantasy element. Realistically, I think it would be back to basics with pioneer technology.

      I agree, I would love to read an ongoing series which chronicles everything from the end/start. Hugh Howey's 'Wool' and 'Shift' Series are an interesting take on things - scarily so.

  8. I am finding this article useful as I type up my notes on a post apocalyptic short story I am working on. The only issue I have when writing this genre is that it has been done many times before and as a result I always feel as though I must not have any similarities with other popular forms of dystopian fiction, however they are a huge influence on my writing so it can be very difficult.

    1. Originality is always the aim. But I do believe that many readers enjoy an element of familiarity as long as there is an original twist. And there are ways to do this by making your characters unusual, or the setting unique etc. I think it's almost impossible to write a completely original piece of fiction. Someone somewhere has probably done something similar before.

  9. I see by the above comments, I'm a little late... I was looking for some tips to help me with a novel I am working on; and stumbled upon this article. It was perfect, it provided some great information without going into too much detail. It gave me just enough to get that extra 'push' I needed to get past my writer's block and continue writing.

    I recently started reading "Outside" and even though I'm not finished I've already placed my order for "The Clearing" and "The perimeter" I love your style of writing. It not only captures my attention, but it seems so plausible that I can picture everything in my mind as I'm reading. Thank you for the article and the books!

    1. Thank you, Tyler! I hope you enjoy the series. And I'm really pleased my post was able to nudge your writing along. Good luck with the novel :)

  10. I'm also writing a book. I tried to make it like an adventure styled thing. But now, when i saw your post, i'm pretty sure to change the style of the book and make it more apocalyptic. Thank u for your post!

  11. This is awesome and really helpful! I'm currently creating a (post) apocalyptic story too! Its about Europe in the future. The continent is now one state, divided in 5 Regions with unique cultures. Each Regions culture will be inspired by the current divers European culture and the 4 elements.
    Region 1 will be based on Northern/Scandinavian/Russian culture and the element Earth.
    Region 2 will be based on Western/British/Dutch/German/French culture and the element Water.
    Region 3 will be based on Eastern/Slavish/Hungerian/Serbian/Turkish culture and the element Fire.
    Region 4 will be based on Southern/Spanish/Italian/Greek/Portuguese culture and the element Air.
    Region 5 is the smallest one, located where Denmark would be now. From here, the leaders control the nation.
    Each Region is ruled by one governor-like person. Together they form the Elite, or the Parliament of Five. The fifth Elite member is the leader.
    Each region is also divided in 3 to 7 counties, run by mayor-like people, but that probably won't be very important to the plot.
    See, this (currently unnamed) State has won a 3rd/4th World War. Asia and Africa are now exploitation colonies of the European state. America's society has been completely destroyed with no survivors and it is now only used for mining and industry.
    However, the European citizens are not aware of this. The government is hiding the fact that they are exploiting the world by showing fake images of a peaceful world, telling them lies and organizing an annual televised sports-event called the (name of country) Triathlon.
    This event is a tournament, consisting of three rounds, which are different every year, but the participants always get put on a certain location on the globe where they have to complete the task. This is called the Dropping.
    The Triathlon is deadly and a lot of the participants do not survive, but the first, second and third places get rewarded with an enormous amount of money.
    The Triathlon is meant to waste the attention and emotions of the citizens on artificial problems, instead of the real world problems.
    To enter the Triathlon, you must travel to all the counties in your Region, and complete a test in every one of them. After that you can go to Region 5, where the competition is held.

    The story is about a boy, Don Longness, who lives in Region 2. (His name is based the greek sea-god Poseidon and the Loch Ness monster, since he lives in the Water Region. It is also based on my favorite childhood characters: Donald Duck, Nevill Longbottom and Toby Lolness).
    He lives a happy, rich life, because his father has won the Triathlon ones.
    When his father passes he is certain that he wants to follow his footsteps, so he signs up for the Triathlon. There, he slowly finds out about the truth, and during the last task he gets caught in the middle of a plan led by rebellions.

    I also had a title in my mind for this story. It will be a trilogy (super original):
    Dropped: where he participates in the Triathlon and then gets captured by the government.
    Captured: where he and a few other Triathletes are held captive by the government and eventually escapes. After this he dwells around and survives in the wilderness for a while untill he is saved by rebellions.
    Escaped: where he is now in the hideout of the rebellions, which is in former Canada. He now will fight on the rebelling side during the revolution.

    I really like the idea of the protagonists world changing completely and the development that goes with it.

    This is what I have so far and i know i've maybe talked to much, but this is the first time for myself that i have written the whole concept all together.
    I hope you'll take the time to read all of this because i could really use some feedback and critique.


    1. Thanks so much for stopping by the blog, and I'm glad you found my post useful. It's hard to critique an idea, but it sounds like you've given your series a lot of thought. I like that fact it's set in Europe, as there are so many US based dystopian novels. Next stage... start plotting and/or writing! Good luck :)

    2. sounds like hunger games

  12. "Also, I wouldn't worry about what has/hasn't been done before. As long as your character is real, their interactions with other characters and situations will help make them unique."

    Best advice ever. Avoiding cliches can be a cliche in and of itself. Focus on your characters, get to know them so well they feel like real people to you, then let them borrow your writing skills to tell their stories. You---writers---need to get out of the way so your characters can tell readers the story.

    My two cents, nothing more. ;). Good luck with your stories.

  13. Hey thanks for the artical. I found it really useful as i am starting to write my first novel,which as you can guess is a post apocalypse story.
    It is placed in the USA,the apocalypse was a world wide event caused by various things. I tried to make the wasteland somewhat unique so here were my thoughts...
    •A new ice age
    •Sentiel robots
    •Socio-X,a disease that slowly mutates your body based on your mental state and social patterns
    •Various diseases mutated by Socio-X,to become more powerful,gain new symptoms,and become more infectious.
    •for the most part,above ground is completely inhabited by robots and mutants that only instincts are to attack and kill. While underground systems were built to hide from these threats and continue to thrive.
    The main character is a mother whos only objective is to re-unite with her daughter who was kidnapped at the age of 2.
    She finds that,apart from the threat of robots,mutants,and pathogens. There is a military force that lies above and below ground and an assasin with technology far beyond anything on earth.
    I plan to somehow incoorperate all of these factors(and maybe more) into my novel,but im at a loss on where to go from here. Please reply and give me some ideas.

    1. Hi, I'm glad you found my post useful. I would suggest joining a writer's group - that way, you'll get to critique each other's work and hopefully you'll get the feedback you need to take your writing to the next level. Good luck! :)