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Writing Post-Apocalyptic Novels? Learn Basics of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

What comes to mind when you think about writing an apocalypse book? Do you start recalling "World War Z,", or think about the nuclear war aftermath from an angle of United Nations Postwar Commission storytelling? Perhaps, a zombie war story isn't that compelling to you, and you'd much rather focus on a topic like a global warming disaster?

Apocalypse is an intriguing topic that evolved from religious scenarios to science fiction, including the human race as the main culprit in ending the world by either destroying the living environment or starting another world war (z).

There are a few people out there who don't have their own idea about how the world would end, whether or not there will be a nuclear war in the near future, how they expect the next world war to come about.

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What is an Apocalypse Novel? Is It Science Fiction?

Apocalyptic books most often revolve around a few survivors of a disaster of sorts, whether a natural disaster, a nuclear war, or a zombie war, who struggle to survive and find their way in what's left of the world.

Post-apocalyptic books are appealing because they have a wide audience, high tolerance for errors, and plot holes due to being unfamiliar with the workings of a post-apocalyptic world, and vast possibilities of making the universe new enough to be interesting and complex enough to leave few people wanting to know more.

The best apocalyptic books, in fact, don't depend so much on the science fiction behind "what killed the world," but instead on unique characters and character arcs that tend to be more philosophical in nature, hence appealing to the readers' eternal fear of a pending catastrophe.

With that in mind, it's not so much the apocalyptic event itself that grosses popularity, but instead the unique character stories deeply affect readers as they immerse themselves in a post-apocalyptic tale.

Many post-apocalyptic books don't even go to explain the cataclysmic events in great detail, but instead, use the mystery that surrounds them as a way to present characters with unique environments and challenges to overcome.

Say an alien race populates earth, and they hunt humans. It wouldn't be such a big deal otherwise unless you're unable to speak (story from the "Quiet Place"). The post-apocalyptic genre plays off of human fears and insecurities in the most appealing possible ways, and this article will give you an insider look on how to achieve the same with your post-apocalyptic story.

How to Write Best Post-Apocalyptic Books: Beyond Nuclear War

Whether you're writing a single post-apocalyptic book or a post-apocalyptic book series, it's important to know "what makes the reader tick" when it comes to this genre and how to best post-apocalyptic books end up on the reading list of millions of people worldwide.

Remember, genre-focused books must display which genre they belong to every step of the way. Everything about your book must be genre-specific, from cover to cover. Your post-apocalyptic book must meet readers' expectations for them to include it in their reading list.

Your readers will compare your post-apocalyptic book to the rest of them, and you don't want them to find it lacking any essential elements of good storytelling. If this is your first novel about the end of the world and the future of earth's human population's desperate struggle to survive in a changing world, following the economic collapse, a flu pandemic, or navigating a ruined and toxic future, then keep reading!

1: Map Out the Post-Apocalyptic World From Start to Finish

The first thing to remember before you even begin writing your story is that your reader wants to be afraid. They want to witness that destruction and devastation that leaves them wondering how did characters survive a disaster of apocalyptic proportions in the first place, and a huge part of your novel is about providing them with that answer.

Your readers also want hope and a resolution of sorts, even if the main characters end up dying or prove to be bad guys in some weird plot twist. This is where most plot holes typically occur, some of them even making readers wonder: "If that's the solution, why didn't they do it right away?" which is the last thing you want to happen to your book.

If you ever find yourself asking the same question, go back and fix the plot right away, or else readers or listeners might end up feeling like the entire human race in your book got scrapped justifiably for not being smart enough to come up with simple solutions.

Make the resolution of your story stick. Write it up, research it, and scrutinize it until you're absolutely sure there are no plot holes that make the post-apocalyptic science fiction so infamous for making a huge deal around plots that can be easily resolved.

2: Design Your Universe

Now that your cataclysmic events and your resolutions are resistant to the infamous "Indiana Jones Fiasco" (remember, the time when it became obvious that bad guys didn't have to chase Indie at all to get what they want? Ouch.), begin designing your book's universe.

How is the post-apocalyptic world different than before? What resources are gone, what are the threats, and how has human life changed? If you really want to follow the lead of the best post-apocalyptic books, make it a philosophical allegory or a moral conundrum for people.

Let's say there's a virus that only kills children. What will people choose to do? Do they stop having children, or will their lives be changed by birthing many children so that at least a handful survive? Perhaps, there's a post-apocalyptic war-like conflict between those for and against procreation... Or something else entirely, known only to you.

Well-written post-apocalyptic books create rock-solid universes, characters, and character arcs, but the best post-apocalyptic books go philosophical: they introduce a heartbreaking moral dilemma for their characters and show all the gore that comes from making difficult choices.

 

3: Work Out Your Post-Apocalyptic Science

The best part of beginning to write a post-apocalyptic book is that you can pretty much design any type of disaster you imagine as long as you make characters' journeys and experiences realistic (within the book universe) later on. Your epic and gripping tale relies on a chilling beginning.

Yet, consider that your book likely won't tell the entire post-apocalypse story from scratch. Instead, you'll tell a few brief introductory sentences, and then design and show the aftermath through the environment, character journeys, and experiences.

However, the initial apocalypse, whether a zombie apocalypse, mass epidemic, or creatures from the outside world, should ideally be rooted in a scientific logic that makes sense.

It should be understandable enough for an average reader to grasp how the event that you described eradicated half the world, and caused so much damage that none of the modern technology currently known to mankind could help.

You're building an event that brought the entire world to its knees (e.g. nuclear holocaust), and you need to find solid explanations for how not even the smartest of human beings couldn't do anything to significantly change the situation.

Rock-solid science fiction takes any possible solutions out of the picture, no matter how much readers research possible alternatives.

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4: Choose a Protagonist and Viewpoint

Think about whether your main character is a young woman struggling to make it on her own as the world ends. It could be a curiously quiet girl with many talents or interesting past experiences ready to come out.

Or, you protagonists can be a group of people belonging to the last of what remains of the world's population, and the book will focus on several of them. Also, remember that not all protagonists have to be good and have impeccable backgrounds. Think about "The Handmaid's Tale", which transformed some of its characters from bad to good and vice versa.

A previous example shows how a cataclysm doesn't have to change everyday functioning in obvious, life-threatening ways. It's possible that it simply introduced a major conflict between groups of people revolving around the right way to cope and adjust to changing environments.

5: Create a Writing Schedule

Dedicate a fraction of time each day to writing. You can either commit to writing a certain number of words or writing for a particular amount of time, whatever works best for you and your story.

6: Look at The Main Plot Through Characters' Lens

The best way to tell a story is through characters' experiences. Take Max Brooks or Stephen King for example. Most of King's stories revolve around one or several characters who are made to be likable, like a young woman with all the gifts that life has to give running into a life-changing tragedy.

In Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin takes her heroine through a heartbreaking journey of looking for her daughter after losing a son. Books like Fifth Season and Swan Song show how a seemingly insignificant individual can be crucial to the story.

The tragedy itself is told through her experiences, and we get to see the pain and devastation it caused.

Think about how a government experiment went wrong, or an explosion that burned America to the ground affected the lives of each of your main characters, from what they do, eat, and wear, to their health, appearance, speech, and behavior.

Be creative with your main characters too, and introduce fun additions to the main crew, like dog stars, shadowy figures, or a strange woman who teaches her son to walk minutes before a disaster strikes.

7: Outline The Plot

You might feel compelled to dive straight into writing, with a compelling description of how the glowing snowfalls while millions of unsuspecting people walk outside to enjoy the view, unsuspecting of the toxic substances it carries as technology fails scientists in their attempt to prevent a catastrophic blizzard.

That feeling of knowing just how amazing your story is and wanting to get straight into it can cause you to spend days writing gut-wrenching scenes only to discover that you didn't plan the connective tissue that ties it all together and makes your story matter: The plot outline.

For many fiction writers, outlining plots is a challenging task because it's not very creative. You need to sit down, research, craft characters, timelines, events, and make sure they all "stick," and then tie them in a chapter-by-chapter breakdown that's, essentially, a vertical slice of your very complex horizontally laid out cake.

Yet, the outline is a very important tool to make a strong story that doesn't have holes and inconsistencies. Let's say you imagine your character being a teen in the eighties, but being in their thirties later in 2050.

How do you think they made that work? Did they time-travel? Perhaps, they were frozen in a cryogenic machine? Or, do you simply need to either make the character older or have them be born during later decades? Small mistakes like these can take away your book's credibility, so make sure you don't make them.

8: Add Backstories

Backstories are a great way to show the reader how the character has changed throughout time and add more layers to the personalities you're trying to create. Perhaps, your character was once happy and sociable, but a ravaged landscape flashback shows how they were attacked or hurt.

Backstories are a slippery slope though, since many readers think of them as largely irrelevant to the main plot, and don't like their time wasted. Only make those past stories deep enough for readers to gain some useful understanding of why the character is the way they are in a new society, and no more.

Many writers also recommend writing a short story that summarizes your book and then breaking the outline down into more short stories that follow the development of your chapters.

9: Deal With Clichés and Inconsistencies

Now that you have your outline ready, review and scrutinize it before you're certain it's on a Max Brooks level of quality.

If any questions remain upon outlining your story, like why a particular community exists when the bulk of mankind has been erased, your idea for how scattered survivors found each other is too random for comfort, or your zombie survival guide has some commonly used clichés, rework your plot again.

If you followed the earlier tip about breaking down chapters into short stories, then you'll have a pretty good overview of how the human beings in your post-apocalyptic world navigate the plot. If there's anything about your end of the world that doesn't fully stick, it will be a lot easier to notice.

However, don't worry if you eventually end up with some minor plot holes anyway. Even genre authorities like Stephen King had their work scrutinized for plot holes and inconsistencies. They're inevitable to a degree since you're creating an entire world war, the world's end, and survival of the world's population scenarios from scratch.

10: Make it More Realistic

Your post-apocalyptic book will be more believable if you put people in situations that aren't so hard to imagine in real life. Take "Wayward Pines," for example.

The exact layout of the story is, indeed, science fiction, but no one can prove author Blake Crouch wrong with the aberration gene, nor anyone can prove that in near future there won't be similar technology to trigger the type of plot development that set up the story.

Remember that the best science fiction stories in post-apocalyptic books often have simple triggers with cataclysmic results and manifestations, not the other way around. The aftermath of the event keeps your story going, not the event itself.

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Top 10 Must-Reads To Become A Stellar Post-Apocalyptic Book Writer

Remember the old saying that states that “Great writers are passionate readers!” The ultimate way to get that unique, indescribable intuition about how to make each character, scene, and dialogue in your post-apocalyptic book ultimately compelling is to read a tone of them.

Reading as many great post-apocalyptic books as possible will help you understand what works and what doesn’t, and gain a unique insight into what you can do to top the best-selling titles. With that in mind, here’s a list of the most successful, best quality post-apocalyptic books for you to read before writing your own:

1: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

While the author herself is known for writing some of the best dystopian works out there, this title doesn’t fall short of impressing anyone who looks for inspiration in creating a post-apocalyptic world.

In this title, you’re taken through the flashbacks of the Snowman, the main character finding ways to survive a genetically engineered apocalypse.

In line with the author's unique style are the dark jokes that shed light on what can easily be described as a hell on earth. While this book did come across as terrifying for many, it is an example to follow if you wish to learn how to send chills down readers’ spines while making them laugh at the same time.

2: Hugh Howey's Wool Omnibus

This collection of short stories follows the fate of protagonists surviving in a toxic Earth environment.

If you wish to know what would happen in a such scenario, then hop in and explore how life unveils in Silo, a city below the Earth's surface, where the last remaining survivors tackle living in a heavily controlled environment.

This title gives you the chance to ponder upon characters who get to choose between safety on the one side and truth and freedom on the other.

3: M.R. Carey's The Girl With All the Gifts

On the topic of flesh-eating, it doesn't always have to be a zombie apocalypse that wipes out the human race. It can also be a fungus that turns people into flesh-eating monsters.

Yet, this title goes where few choose to: infected children. If you ever wondered how to navigate the role of children in dystopian scenarios, this is your chance to explore different perspectives.

4: Christina Henry's The Girl in Red

Want to give your story a fairytale twist? Try infusing a folk tale into a dystopian scenario. In this book, a girl struggles to make it to the safety of her grandmother's home while trying to avoid a deadly, contagious disease that threatens the human race.

Yet, as the author kindly reminds us, disasters aren't the only dangers to girls left to their own devices. Our heroine must also avoid dangerous people, who although not affected, still have bad intentions.

5: St.J. Mandel’s Station Eleven

In this non-linear post-apocalyptic masterpiece, it’s not the human life itself that’s being extinct, but instead the human culture.

After a contagious flu kills the majority of humans, the remaining survivors adjust to living in a changing world. In particular, it is the place of art and culture in post-apocalyptic lives that’s being explored, posing a philosophical question of what’s life without opportunities to elevate beyond basic survival.

6: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

If you ever felt cold, scared, and alone, prepare to share your feeling with a father-son pair who struggles to survive in a barren world. With little to no means for life, the loving relationship between the two characters is contrasted by the cruel, wild, and ultimately empty environment they live in.

The award-winning title will show you how to build a deep, layered story that takes readers on an emotional journey and an even less expected destination.

7: M. Brooks’ World War Z

Few zombie apocalypse books have ever been as well-received as this one. As mentioned earlier in the article, the success of this book isn’t so much in its gore and action-driven scenes, but instead a journey of several characters who navigate social, personal, and political aspects of living in a zombie-torn world.

No, the book doesn’t have much to do with Brad Pitt’s well-received movie either, aside from the title itself.

8: R. Cargill’s Sea of Rust

Not all of your protagonists have to be human, and this novel proves it. This title will take you on an entirely different journey of a robot trying to fight for freedom in a world in which even artificial intelligence falls into war and mutual extinction.

If you ever thought you couldn’t empathize with a robot because it’s not human, think again! This book will set a great example of how you can take the reader out of their comfort zone and introduce inconceivable ideas successfully.

9: J. Cronin’s The Passage

Ever wondered if vampires won the war against mankind? You’ll find out in this novel that follows the faith of a handful of human survivors surrounded by hostile vampire neighbors who grow in numbers each day.

Even more curious is the fact that vampirism is virus born, in this case, and really pushes the line of understanding who can and cannot get infected, in what way, and of course, what life in those circumstances would look like.

10: C.A. Fletcher’s The Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

When a catastrophe of epic scales not only destroys the civilized world as we know it but also leaves people infertile, the struggle to have children becomes literal. In this book, you follow the fate of a stolen boy who is taken out into a dystopian world with only his dog to keep them company and provide love.

This book can be a good example of how to write emotionally strong relationships without compromising the harshness of dystopian worlds or making the reader feel like the protagonist's special someone is protected by a "plot armor."

Emotional relationships, particularly strong and healthy ones, aren't easy to craft in a universe that doesn't provide safety and comfort such as a post-apocalyptic one. Books that feature strong relationships between characters can help bring more love and hope into your works without it coming across as unrealistic.

Outsource Post-Apocalyptic Fiction Writing: Order The Urban Writers Fiction Package, Sit Back, and Enjoy

Post-apocalyptical books can be a handful, no matter how creative and talented you are. Luckily, The Urban Writers can help! We can model outlines that level up to the best post-apocalyptic books out there, with writers who are trained to give a no-nonsense answer to why the world ends in your book, yet only a few survive to tell the story.

We can help you craft an outline and a story that has creatures crawling out of a giant silo underground and brings modern technology down to its knees as best post-apocalyptic books should do!

Our writers are trained to follow the lead of top genre authors like Andrew Hunter Murray, work out astounding plots with plot twists you'd find in Swan Song or Fifth Season, and write entire novels based on a single cautionary tale, whether you want a passage trilogy or a worked story from oral history.

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