How To Write a Post Apocalyptic Story

Apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that is concerned with the end of civilization either through nuclear war, plague, or some other general disaster. Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after such a disaster. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten (or mythologized). -Wikipedia

You start with one Main Character who has either lost everyone and everything they care about, or who soon will lose everyone and everything they have ever cared about.  This person needs a few skills that will make it logical for them to have survived while everyone else died.  They are immune to the Virus, are an Ex-Seal or Special Opts, have a bunker with years worth of water and food-just in case, lives out in the middle of nowhere and don’t even know the world has ended-yet, or has great leadership skills that will allow them to Take Charge.

You then focus on Your Main Character and follow them around as they fight off evil hordes-search for food, water, and shelter-met the occasional Good Person-protect the handful of people that they have chosen to protect-and maybe try to rebuild the world.

As a general rule be vague about what caused the end of the world.  A classic modern example is found in The Road:

“I knew this was going to happen.”  Old Man

“You knew this was going to happen?” the Man

“Well, this or something like it it.”  Old Man

How the world ends doesn’t really matter, just that the world as we know it ends.  Since most of us are pretty fond of the world as we know it, putting an end to it is a very emotional experience.  Even bad post apocalyptic stories usually get this part right.  Our hero wanders around, starving and wearing rags.  He walks into a grocery store, only to find it empty or filled with rotting food.  He walks into a clothing store, only to find the clothes ruined by time and weather.  He looks at empty farm land, only to see the fields have gone feral and he doesn’t know how to farm, or how to defend the farm from Them.

Our hero will almost always be on some kind of Quest.  Whether this is an actual quest given to him by God as in The Book of Eli or a pointless waste of time Quest like The Man and The Boy heading for the coast in The Road.  Give them something to do besides sit around and wait for the end.

There are two main choices here, go in search of something-food, other people, Sanctuary-or create your own stronghold and kill the evil things left roaming the world like The Last Man On Earth.

My favorite post apocalyptic stories end on a slightly upbeat note.  Eli finds a small community of normal people who are printing books.  BBC’s Survivors find colonies here and there as they wander around the UK.  Both the Postman and The Road Warrior end with the fact that these are stories of the Bad Old Days and life is better now.

Of course, I also love a number of post apocalyptic stories that end with no hope at all.  Planet of The Apes ends with Bright Eyes discovering he was on Earth all along.  Logan’s Run, the book, ends with out heroes heading out to space, since the computer running Earth has gone a bit mad over time.  12 Monkeys leaves us with a world in ruins as our hero can’t change the past after all.  Various zombie movies leave the world to the zombies.  And Cat’s Cradle left a handful of people alive on an island surrounded by ice.

What matters in these stories is that our heroes face a new world unlike the old world.  We share the end of their world with them.  We mourn the loss of family, fast food, cars, warmth in winter, clean water, new clothes, and so on so forth.  We face the prospect that our hero might have to kill someone to survive and we can ponder what all this means and what we would do in a similar circumstance.

One of my favorite scenes in Children of Man is when our hero meets with a Government agent who has moved into The Tate Modern and surrounded himself with works of art.  My own idea was always to raid a military base and then move into the bunker that is the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.  This would need to be a world where most everyone is dead and I can just walk in a pick up guns and ammo-but then why would need guns?  To fight for the things that are still out there.

For a good list of post apocalyptic stories check out 60 Years of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.

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14 Comments

  • Very good points you made there.
    I guess the hardest part about writing a post apcalyptic story is finding a proper ending. How can there be hope or change or any solution (excluding the protagonist’s death) when the world has ended irreversibly? The last people running around on earth like a few ants which survived when their anthill catched fire and burnt down with their queen. No destination, no aspiration, no purpose…
    If you like that kind of fiction, you might enjoy Luc Besson’s “Le Dernier Combat” (“The Last Battle”). Not perfect and a little weird, but very original and with a solid solution to above mentioned problem.

  • DESCARTES wrote:

    The end of the world can be just the start of the story, as it is in Stephen King’s The Stand. Change is the while point and hope can be as simple as hoping to find enough food for the day. As for the Long View, what will happen after the last people die? See Spielberg’s A.I. for a world long dead and then found by aliens or Tim Burton’s 9 where life carries on in the form of a band of sock puppets.

    There is always hope and change and solutions to a writer willing to imagine them.

  • SEXYM MAN wrote:

    i like how in the movie “i am legend” that at the end they end up at the survivors colony in virginia with the cure. ;D

  • Sorry, but I completely disagree about being vague as to what caused the end of the world, especially if it’s in a timeframe recently after the apocalypse. I need the details in order to have that sense of loss. What caused the end of the world? What percentage of the world’s population ended up dying? Or even in the event of sheer destruction, how much of the world is left burned or broken or both?

  • The fine details of the end of the world are more often the stuff of Disaster fiction than Post Apocalyptic fiction.

    Mad Max was a disaster film, The Road Warrior was Post Apocalyptic.

    This is not to say you can’t have all the gory details, but that most PA fiction deals with people living in a world after something has happen, and the something doesn’t really matter that much.

    If a small group of people are trying to survive, does it realy matter if the world is empty due to plague, EMS, nukes, zombies, alien attack, or uncontrolled gaps in the time/space continuum?

  • As a matter of fact, yes. It’s like I had posted earlier: In order for me to enjoy a post-apocalyptic story, I need to feel the loss of what was.

    The only way I can feel that loss is by having the following questions in the story answered: What was it that caused this situation? How extensive is it?

    Otherwise, I’ll only be left pondering these questions and I won’t be able to enjoy the story.

  • I recommend “Ashes” and “Dark inside”

  • BROOKEACACIA wrote:

    i think a good writer can be vague about those details and make it work, if they use the reader’s concern for more information to make them identify with the character(s), who are probably also frustrated with their limited information and asking those same questions.

  • Good point, a nagging question is a good way to keep the reader turning the pages.

    There are Post Apocalyptic stories where the world as we know it is far in the past none of the characters know what happened, and possibly don’t eve know that anything happened. The Reader alone understands the importance of such things as the US Capitol or Big Ben.

  • N.E. URBAN wrote:

    I agree with ALL of you. It just depends on the writer and their personal style towards this fiction. In my opinion that is.

  • Another good series is “The City of Ember” books.

  • I can’t help but think that this article practically gives you a plot, and on top of that makes it cliche. I love the idea of post-apocalyptic society, but when I read a story about an ‘Ex-Highly trained special forces officer of some sort’ surviving in the ‘post-apocolyptic badlands’ I can’t help but feel a bit let down because it is so standard. What should be done in a proper novel, short story, or poem is to have several unique elements! Come up with original content, don’t use the copy-paste standards of a grizzled fighter fighting through the apocalypse, or if you do, change the apocalypse, add something to te world completely unique, like (poor example here) perhaps the society was destroyed in the Middle Ages or humans evolved different traits. Not just a bland, unoriginal plot, because not matter how well it is written, a plot that has been recycled just isn’t interesting! Change it up!

  • DESCARTES wrote:

    I’ve read a number of post apocalyptic stories that didn’t follow the standard formula, but there are things that remain consistent. Even if the hero isn’t The Road Warrior to start with, he/she soon enough turns into one. The worst book I read had some kind of rift in time that had modern people battling Visagoths or something. Our hero’s brother turned into a dog about half way through. So it is possible to be completely different, and not really be any better.

  • ANTHONY wrote:

    I’d highly recommend Metro 2033 by Dmitry Gluhovsky.

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