Writing Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

If there’s one genre that is both overdone and under-explored, I would say it’s post-apocalyptic fiction. Now, don’t confuse this with dystopian. They are two different genres, though they do have great potential to overlap. Let’s start by distinguishing them.

Post-apocalyptic: stories about the world after a great catastrophe that completely changes society in one way or another.

Dystopian: a world in which everything is terrible, either due to a totalitarian or dictator government or through an environmental catastrophe (note: environmental disaster would also make it post-apocalyptic).

Now, some people may still argue that these are basically the same thing. And they can be. But I would argue that the difference is the presence of a catastrophe. This leads to the idea where a dystopian can also be post-apocalyptic, but it doesn’t have to be. Likewise, just because something is post-apocalyptic doesn’t mean it must be dystopian. Who knows; maybe the catastrophe drives civilization to become better and more hopeful for humanity!

Some common types of apocalypse stories include zombies, flu epidemics, or world war stories (to name a few) that leave the world a barren, empty place with a few survivors. These tropes have been done and redone so many times it can be hard to see dystopia or post-apocalyptic fiction as anything but overused and tired. And honestly, these tropes follow cycles of popularity and boredom. If you write it, eventually it will come back to market.

But the problem isn’t the genre itself. The problem is the stale ideas being used too often or at times when the public is exhausted of the topic. Authors have been playing off the same old tropes and ideas for years, so how can we do liven it back up? New catastrophes, updated situations, and unique perspectives on old tropes. Here are a couple examples:

  1. New catastrophes that aren’t tired, like an alien invasion, superstorm (which borders on overdone), or something people haven’t written yet.
  2. More relevant situations (think the long-term effects of climate change). Relate your catastrophe to something people weren’t writing about 50 years ago.

Let’s take a moment to examine a couple poor decisions, to balance out our understand a bit. What shouldn’t you do with your post-apocalyptic story?

  1. Choosing effects of a catastrophe that are not realistic. Simply put, don’t overextend the catastrophe’s capability. For example, I once saw a book in which an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) killed a huge portion of life on Earth. But there’s a major flaw: EMPs are harmless to living things. They really only affect electronics. And for this reason, I never picked the book up. Keep things logical and realistic to keep from losing readers.
  2. Writing the same story. We have enough stories about survivors of a zombie apocalypse going out and kicking butt. We need more stories with unique takes, like the scientists making a cure, or the onset of the catastrophe. Don’t write what everyone has always written. Make your own twists on it. If you don’t, your story will be lost in the noise of all other stories like it.

Now for some of the most unique catastrophes I’ve encountered.

  1. Life as we Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. In this story, the moon is knocked closer to the Earth by a meteor. Ever wonder what would happen in a case like that? Me either. Until I read this.
  2. Ashfall by Mike Mullin. Here’s another (scary and potential) disaster: the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. And this trilogy was really well-done and excellently researched.
  3. Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis. This one plays off the possibility of a future water crisis. Another, newer release that follows this idea is Neal Shusterman’s Dry.

There are a few other upcoming or recent books I can’t wait to see, ones that show promise for reinvigorating this genre. These are my most anticipated post-apocalyptic TBRs:

I’m sure there are more, but honestly I have over 700 books on my TBR, and things can get a little lost. 😉 But these three definitely stand out at the top.

What are some of your favorite post-apocalyptic tropes? Do you agree with me, or disagree? What recommendations do you have for post-apocalyptic or natural disaster books? I’d love to find some more good ones, so leave a comment and let me know!

4 thoughts on “Writing Post-Apocalyptic Fiction”

  1. Frankly, the biggest part of the problem of “overdone” is that most writers are not only unimaginative, they know nothing at all about science. And a good percentage of science fiction is written to meet market demands. Period. Write what’s popular because that’s where the money is.

    “New catastrophes that aren’t tired, like an alien invasion…” Beg to differ here. Take a look at Amazon best sellers, both paid and free. Alien invasions up the wazoo.

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    1. I wholeheartedly agree! The science part is a lot of what I meant by making sure it’s logical: it needs to be not only reasonable but scientifically plausible. And the “unimaginative” is what I’m attempting to tackle… we definitely need an influx of new ideas!

      Your comment on the alien invasions is valid. It is not the most original idea anymore, but to me, it’s something I don’t see everyday (I tend to read in other circles), so it still feels new, particularly as an inciting apocalpyse to a new society. Do you have other catastrophes in mind?

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      1. I don’t really think in apocalyptic terms at all. Most of it’s implausible, and it doesn’t offer anything that would wake people up or give them realistic possibilities that will have to be met. The dystopias that interest me are more about dealing with climate change and its consequences, like social and economic breakdown. Also, whether humans will even survive, and how they will manage that.
        One book among my favorites isn’t very well known, but takes a rare, mainly realistic, and hopeful, look into the distant future. Star’s Reach by John Michael Greer.

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      2. That’s fair, though I disagree with the implausible part. And I would argue that even if you don’t think of it that way, climate change and its consequences are a more drawn-out catastrophe. (Also, I believe Trail of Lightning deals with a climate-change world, if you like urban fantasy)

        I will have to look into that one! Thanks for your comments. 🙂

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