Phew! We got through the apocalypse!
Now, what do we do?
That’s going to be the focus of today’s post. Getting through that post-apocalyptic world. So get out your compass, we’re going to get straight to exploring.
Post-apocalyptic novels occur directly after the nasty event occurs. The zombies, aliens, or natural disasters have won, leaving the remaining survivors to figure out what to do next. There isn’t a single thing left that is recognizable to the human eye, and what is typically leftover is hostile.
Our characters have to navigate the new physical, social, and cultural landscape left behind. There are often fewer people and less traditional societies. Our characters are fighting for resources or searching for other survivors – or both.
The events of this post-apocalyptic tale can happen immediately after the disastrous event or years afterward (al la Avengers: Endgame-style). You’re going to have characters firmly set in the past, looking to bring the human race back to its former glory. Or those who are pushing forward no matter what, looking forward to the new social order they hope to establish – through any means necessary. And you’ve got those who wake up to find life isn’t how they left it when their head hit the pillow. And now, they must figure out what happened.
Most of these post-apocalyptic worlds take place before a new dystopian future has settled its roots into the scarred soil. Or the society that has risen from the ashes isn’t quite the same as before and unrest skitters across the street and into the shadows.
Unlike with apocalyptic novels, the narrative becomes character-driven again. Our characters are fighting to the end of the story and pushing the plot forward.
The History of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction
As mentioned last week, the history of the apocalypse in literature goes back to The Bible. It dropped off in popularity as society moved into the realm of science and it reemerged with the rise of the novel.
Mary Shelley brought the apocalypse back into the public eye when she published The Last Man – a post-apocalyptic tale that guides us through the apocalypse. The book wasn’t received very well, and the subgenre faded into the background once more.
It didn’t completely go away as H.G. Wells, among others, added their own stories to the mix. The apocalypse didn’t gain popularity until the 1960s. Since then, the apocalypse has explored the public’s fears of environmental disasters, nuclear war, and zombies.
Post-apocalyptic stories got a boost from H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds. The tale inspired multiple writers to write about what the world would look like after we were taken out of the picture. As a result, there was a boom in post-apocalyptic creativity.
M.P. Shiel was the next to make a mark on the genre with the release of The Purple Cloud. Shiel’s novel depicts a world that has been decimated by a purple cloud. Only two people have survived – a man and a woman. The main character doesn’t find the other survivor until further along into the book, which introduces the “lone survivor descends into madness” trope that is often depicted in today’s works of fiction.
William Hope Hodgson also made an impact with his story The Night Land. The Night Land explores what would happen to us here on Earth if the sun stopped producing its life-giving rays. This was the first story to ever tackle the “what happens to Earth when the sun dies” trope.
Many classics followed in the coming decades, including Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, among others, leaned heavily on post-apocalyptic fiction across their careers, each authoring multiple stories centered around the premise.
George Orwell brought dystopian novels into the mix when he published 1984 in 1949. We all (should) know that the book brought in a variety of new terms to our vocabulary, like “Big Brother” and “Thought Police”.
The 1950s turned the survivors-vs.-monsters trope on its head with Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Hollywood also caught up with the written word in the 1950s and started to come up with its own ideas or adapted popular books for the big screen. Most of the films and television shows throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s reflected the political tensions created by the Cold War and were often cautionary tales against nuclear war.
Planet of the Apes (1968) was one of the first massive box office hits for a post-apocalyptic tale. As we all know, it spawned numerous sequels and reboots. The 1960s also introduced the idea of cyclical history with the publishing of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. A Canticle for Leibowitz is arguably one of the most critical post-apocalyptic novels of all time, according to MythBuilders, due to the idea of cyclical history.
The 2000s brought in a new wave of ideas and brought zombies into the limelight once again. The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman brought comic books and zombies to the small screen, making it one of the best-known post-apocalyptic comics in modern literature.
The post-apocalyptic world also got adopted into young adult (YA) fiction in the 2000s. Jeanne DuPrau’s story, City of Ember, debuted in 2003 and was followed by Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular series The Hunger Games in 2008. The popularity of these books ignited a fury of post-apocalyptic books within YA fiction. 2006 was a year to note, in particular, for adult post-apocalyptic tales as well. Max Brooks released World War Z, and Cormac McCarthy released The Road.
Writing Tips for a Post-Apocalyptic World
Ok, we’ve gotten through the apocalypse and figured out what has happened before “The Event”. Now, we’ve got to see who’s still surviving in this newly defined world of ours. Thankfully, we were good doomsday preppers and brought a checklist of the things we were going to need to survive in this harsh, deadly climate and find the other survivors:
- Research, research, research! Like that dead horse I keep on kicking, you need to read and understand what has come before your novel so you get a feel for the tropes and what has been done before. You also need to do your research on other things, like survival skills and type of apocalypse. Remember, post-apocalyptic tales are a subgenre of science fiction, so understand the science of your apocalypse and the survival techniques behind surviving the event and its fall out.
- Cliches are overrated. Come up with something new. Don’t retell the same story over and over and over again. Use different imagery and issues than what has been done before you. Add in some plot twists that people weren’t expecting in a post-apocalyptic tale.
- Worldbuilding is essential. You have a clean slate with your story. There is nothing holding you back from creating something totally new from the ground up. That means you get to create your own government, landscape, culture, etc. It’s all as good or as bad as you want it. For more on worldbuilding, check out the following posts:
- Employ a worldbuilding checklist – to keep track of everything. There are a lot of free checklists that you can use, like Reedsy’s template. It’s an easy way for you to make sure that you avoid writing in any plot holes that have to do with the world you’re characters are inhabiting.
- When does the post-apocalypse start? As mentioned above, you’ve got some options here. You can start the post-apocalyptic world days, hours, or minutes after the event. Or it can take place years into the future. This again plays into the type of world you want to create and that’s going to depend on the type of apocalypse you’ve destroyed the world with. If you want everyone to be roaming the earth after a nuclear bomb right away, you’re going to have some unique landscapes and challenges to deal with, but if you wait 50 years, then that world is going to look different than after the event just happened and there will be different challenges as well.
- Dive deep with your exploration of themes. Because everything is so different in this new world you’ve built, you get to use that to explore a variety of different ideas and themes in depth. (I.e.: survival of the fittest)
- Post-apocalypse worlds are a reflection of how we perceive human nature and the world around us – to some extent. Are we barbarous individuals wearing a thin mask of civility? Or are we inherently kind and resourceful? It’s up to you to decide through our characters and our imagined world.
- Develop round, dynamic characters. This story isn’t solely driven by plot, but by the characters as well. They’re not being pushed around by a force outside of themselves. They’re starting to figure out a new way of life and they’re driving the action forward in this scary time.
- The survivors determine what type of world takes over. Let me explain. If the only people who survive the apocalypse are religious, then your new world order is going to have strong spiritual roots. If most of the criminals survive then your world is going to be more corrupt, and so forth. Your characters, in this case, are going to have a huge impact on what happens to society as it moves forward. So consider what type of people are going to survive and how they are going to have an impact on your overall world.
- There are going to be smart people. Unless your plague only goes after smart people, then there are going to be those with some know-how that survive. They can help get the basics of civilization going again. And if they don’t know how to do something, they will read old books or figure something out. As a species, we’re very resourceful under pressure. (Seriously though, how many are you are trying to figure out how to bake bread in case we run out?)
- Don’t forget to use the five senses in these new surroundings. Our sight tells us one thing, but what does it smell, sound or taste like here?
Yes! We have found others like us and we’re going to make it. The threat of plot holes and any lingering apocalypse threats have been eliminated and our band of diverse characters is now ready to move to the next stage of our survival – setting up society again. But, of course, our society can either be better than before or hide hidden dangers, or fall into a dystopia.
We’ll see how it goes. Either way, there is hope for a brighter future in my world. I hope it’s the same in yours.
There you have it! That’s what needs to be done to get through the post-apocalypse. Next week, we’ll be looking at how to get out of a dystopian state without getting caught by the overlords.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your post-apocalypse experience. Any favorite books, poems, or short stories? Anyone with need-to-know advice they’d like to share? What would be in your survive the apocalypse tool kit?
Stay safe, everyone! And please let me know if you need anything from me during this difficult time.
Until next time!