Monday, May 28, 2012

Things to Remember When Writing Post-Apocalyptic

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.

#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.

#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.  Alright, 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.

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 read Without Warning by John Birmingham recently, 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.

In your opinion, what are other important aspects of a post-apocalyptic tale?  What books or movies might you recommend?

May you find your Muse.

* Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887; Viktor Vasnetsov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
** Stalingrad after the battle; See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
***The aftermath of Hurrican Camille. Ruins of Texaco gas station with Rambler automobile, Biloxi, Mississippi, 17 August 1969


ShaunaKelleyWrites said...

Number 1 is so important. When I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I got that it was a beautiful story, but I couldn't get into it because all I kept thinking was "what the heck happened??" This is an informative post, as I am working on a post-apocalyptic book now. Thanks!

Karen Baldwin said...

Really great points. I don't usually read dystopian, but when I do, or watch a movie...I want to be drawn in by great world-building.

mshatch said...

I do like a good apocalyptic story and you sure picked out some great ones. I just watched The Book of Eli the other night and really liked it. It reminded me a lot of the game, FALLOUT3

D.G. Hudson said...

Excellent points, Shannon.

I've read a few of those: The Stand (the unabridged is a tad too long but a great read), The Road (depressing and hard to read if you have a child),and I've seen Waterworld and read The Postman (loved this one).

I wonder what the attraction is from these stories - showing man can survive? or our wish to drastically change things? Hmmmm.

Unknown said...

Excellent advice.

I'd like to throw in Alden Bell's "The Reapers Are the Angels" into the mix - it's a zombie apocalypse novel that invests a lot in its protagonist. Loved it :)

Miss Cole said...

Awesome list. I'm bookmarking it ;)

I'd recommend The Passage. Absolutely amazing post-apocalyptic novel. Not YA though.

Marta Szemik said...

Awesome points! I'm 3/4 of a way through a post-apocalyptic WIP and must say I have the points covered. Your post made me more excited now about the novel.
Another book to enjoy (if you like zombies) is Warm Bodies.

Shannon Lawrence said...

MMShauna, I haven't read that book, but I can understand that frustration. Good luck with your book!

Em-musing, so true about the world building. You can have a fascinating story, but fail if you haven't properly built the world up around it.

Mshatch, I haven't played that game, but I know of it. I didn't know it was similar to Book of Eli. Interesting!

Rosaria, thank you!

D.G., not a lot of people seem to have enjoyed The Postman, but I did, too. I might have to skip The Road. Amazing how tough certain things are to take once you have children.

Jamie, sounds good, Jamie! I'm going to have to check that out.

Miss Cole, I will definitely look that one up, thanks!

Marta, I'll check that one out. I'm glad you're excited about your WIP! Sometimes we need something to excite us again as we work.

Chuck said...

As you might guess I really liked this subject. I may start dabbling in some ideas when I'm on my Belize trip a 3 weeks! You know, I have never seen The Stand. I really enjoyed the Book of Eli...and who can't love Mad Max! Thanks for a great set of guidelines Shannon!

Anonymous said...

All those points are vital... especially the characters being strong... how else would they survive.

Andrew Leon said...

I'm just glad you're calling this stuff out as post-apoc instead of calling it dystopian like everyone else (and I just hate that and want the word dystopian to go away unless we're talking 1984 or THX-1138).

I like Water World. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, I'd really like to see it again.

One TV show I liked that you didn't mention is Jeremiah. I wish they hadn't had to cut that story short.

And you should read The Doomsday Book. It's not really post-apocalyptic, but it's kind of like that in style.

Arlee Bird said...

Post-apocalyptic is among my favorite genres -- been so since I was a child. I guess that part of growing up in the nuclear fear fifties.
The Road doesn't clarify what happened, but I was okay with that because everything else was so strongly developed. I was left with the impression that the event that caused the situation no longer mattered since survival in the here and now was the important thing and the instinct for survival laid groundwork for a bleak and uncertain future.

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Jemi Fraser said...

Those are all great stories! I really enjoy those post apocalyptic stories. Strong characters in tough circumstances - awesome!

Robyn Campbell said...

Wow, what a great list! My former crit partner writes post apocalyptic (previously known as dystopian). (Former because she got published. Book three comes out in January.) The Across The Universe series. Setting is super important to me when reading these stories. Setting is a character itself. Someone said that. Hmm. Heather Zundel, I think. Wonderful post! *waving*

Unknown said...

I have never written a story based on post apocalypse events but I know where to come when I do.

Heather M. Gardner said...

Wow. So much great information!

Daisy Carter said...

What a great post! All of your rules up there are spot on and would probably fit AnY genre with tweaks, especially the last one. New follower!

D.E. Malone said...

I Am Legend is another good one. I couldn't help but see that each of your points are vital to ANY story, except the apocalyptic event (in which any event could be substituted as the inciting event that gets the story rolling). Great post!

Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. All very important things. I like the slow uncovering of what caused the apocalypse. The Stand is one of my favorite books.

Ciara said...

Oh, great post! I think your points could be valid for almost any genre with a few minor modifications. Great job!

Shannon Lawrence said...

Chuck, I think this would be a great place for you to dive in and write! Have fun on your trip.

Tania, exactly!

Andrew, I hadn't heard of Jeremiah, and I'll look up the Doomsday Book. I'm tired of the term "dystopian" being misused. Everything's dystopian anymore. As for Waterworld, I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it, either.

Lee, I've always been drawn to post-apocalyptic, too. Not sure why. Good point on not knowing what happened in The Road (I've only seen the movie, not read the book). They do pull it off by telling the story well, but a part of me kept waiting to hear what had happened.

Jemi, yes, that sums it up nicely "strong characters in tough circumstances." Which is probably why it grips people so.

Robyn, oh yes, that's great: "Setting is a character itself."

Clarissa, thank you for your gracious words!

Heather, thank you!

Daisy, thank you for your kind words!

Dawn, thank you, and good point! Can't believe I forgot I am Legend!

Christine, that's really good to hear, as I'm trying to decide if I'll leave the slow uncover in my WIP#1 or do some sort of prologue.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Ciara, thank you!

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