How to Write Post Apocalyptic Stories

I’ve long been a reader of post apocalyptic speculative fiction and have for a decade or so been working on a post apocalyptic novel.  I really like my story, have an outline, a first and last chapter, extensive notes …

But actually finishing it seems anticlimactic.  I mean, let’s be really depressing here, no one’s going to read it except me and a copy editor.  Maybe, if I pay them to read it.  Okay, okay, I do have a couple of friends who might read it and possible even a blog follower or two that might.  Heather might read it if I begged enough … 

Still, having studied the genre my whole life, I feel qualified to give you a detailed outline of how to write a post apocalyptic novel.

Well, I really picked this as a blog subject because I just like using the words “post apocalyptic.”  My only wish is that it was easier to spell.  So let’s just get to it:

How to write a post apocalyptic novel:

  1. Read the news of the day.
  2. Pick a current fear.
  3. Exaggerate.
  4. Extrapolate.
  5. Speculate.
  6. Make a social, political or interpersonal statement.  Heck, make three or four.
  7. Write it all down.
  8. Done, send it to 200 literary agents for rejection.

That’s about it.  Thank you for reading.

What? Yeah, I know it sounds like I don’t like post apocalyptic stories, but it’s more complicated than that.  The first “grownup” book I bought for myself and read was George R. Stewart’s classic book, Earth Abides.  I was 14 and just decided one day that I wanted to read a science fiction book so I went to the local drug store, browsed the SciFi section and found Stewart’s novel.  I’d seen plenty of post apocalyptic movies, but something in me wanted more than the big screen showed.

Earth Abides and the story of Isherwood Williams and his life after a plague kills most humans on the planet.  Written in 1949, it is an archetype of the genre and considered a classic story along with others like, On the Beach or Alas Babylon.  Like many stories that followed, this book asks the question, “What would life be like if our civilization was suddenly stripped away?”

It’s that question that I’ve always found interesting, not necessarily the many stories written on the subject.

When I was younger, say teens, 20s to my 30s, I loved watching and reading Science Fiction.  I had even tried writing a few stories and longed to be able to actually write it.  I did attend a few SciFi conventions and writing conferences.  Then in my mid 30s I got the idea that if I had a degree in English, I could write better.

It took ten years, but I got that BA and yes, I think I am a better writer for it.  However, I remember a warning I received before my studies that a degree in English would ruin my love of science fiction.  Now I won’t say literary studies ruin my tastes in science fiction, but it did broaden my view of the written word and gave me a larger list of things I like to read.

It also taught me what I had suspected for a long time: Most science fiction isn’t well written.  The stories tend to focus on one twist, the characters are often only two dimensional and only exist to explain the author’s speculation.  There are space ships, wizards, and elves, but with rare exception I find most science fiction to be predicable story telling.

But it is the underlying ideas and speculation that I find fascinating.  In the past I would have not referred to it as science fiction but rather speculative fiction.  It isn’t always about science, but rather about the question, “what if?”

What if elves were real?

What if we could travel faster than light?
What if time travel were possible?

Great literature surprises me with both the depth and reach of the story.  It doesn’t just tell me about a person, but it makes me understand that person, event or place.  It transforms me.

But then, I am person of ideas.  I find the speculation, the “what ifs” interesting and worth the time to explore.  Sometimes it transforms me, but it also entertains me.

So why do I continue to occasionally pick up post apocalyptic novels?

I still recall the impact Earth Abides had on me as a teen and sometimes hope the next book I read might have a similar effect.  I still like to ask the question, “What if” and want to read other writer’s answer to that question.  I still live in hope that there is another Tolken out there.

Will I ever finish my book?  Will I ever offer my answer to the question “What if”?

Who knows, but I do know that it’s time for tea and to consider what pizza I’ll be making for dinner.

About Andrew Reynolds

Born in California Did the school thing studying electronics, computers, release engineering and literary criticism. I worked in the high tech world doing software release engineering and am now retired. Then I got prostate cancer. Now I am a blogger and work in my wood shop doing scroll saw work and marquetry.
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50 Responses to How to Write Post Apocalyptic Stories

  1. Neutrastaff says:

    A science fiction novelist myself, what I do is I spend a few months in advance plotting the story out. The main thing that helps me is bubble graphs. I start with a few major ideas, main events that happen in the story and I usually branch out on what leads to the event. This is also what the characters to that leads to the event. It also helps to plot out what mini events bridge the other big parts together

    As for agents, I know how you feel, trust me. I’ve spent last June submitting to agents myself, getting a rejection every once in a while. Last I counted, I’m at 102 rejections. Then again, I guess fruit taste best when you wait till it’s ripe

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I find the biggest problem is trying to explain your apocalyptic world in just a few sentences without the reader’s eyes going cross side. If they’re still reading after that, then you have to sell them on an actual plot.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. MIKE EYE says:

    So where do you find your literary agents? Just curious? I represent myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Debra says:

    I think the road from writing to publication to cultivating a readership core is really difficult, but I still hate to think that anyone with a story to tell and the dedication to writing feels discouraged from the process. It sounds like you’ve already put a lot of work into the outline of the story. Go for it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. mitchteemley says:

    So “what if” you never made that pizza for dinner, Andrew? I see a post-apocalyptic book just waiting to be written. Enjoyed the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m currently *trying* to write a Sci-Fi novel, but in the true form of a literary novel. It is rather difficult. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a difficult job. One problem that happens is that you spend a lot of time in the book doing world building and that distracts you from the character building/exploration that you’d expect in a literary novel. It’s a delicate balance, but can be done.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. wolfsrosebud says:

    Good read. Thanks for sharing. You have a greater following on your blog than I do with my books. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Don’t give up on being published. You could start with Flash Fiction and Short Stories to put your toe into the water. Just search for these topics and you will find many places to submit your witing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dave says:

    Interesting post, Andrew – one I relate to through movies. Some of my favorites (of any genre) include Blade Runner, Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, and Silent Running; all stories in the setting of a post-apocalyptic world. Three out of the four (Soylent Green the exception) end with an element of hope, which is part of why I’m drawn to the genre. Also, amusing-but-accurate formula for a post-apocalyptic novel!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I liked all those movies. Often these stories end with some element of hope. Even the very bleak novel, “The Road” ends with a scene of hope. The story I am writing is more of a “Phoenix” story – that is it’s about how the world has changed for the second and third generations post catastrophe.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. If post-apocalyptic books had happy endings, I’d be there! Usually, it’s about the world falling apart and how we learn to survive (as opposed to thrive).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yup, it’s hard to be happy when you’ve just killed 7 billion people and torn the earth apart. Survival is the story. Telling a story about thriving, the story line would have to be set in the post survival stage of the “event”. At the moment I can’t think of a story that really does that. Still, nothing wrong with enjoying a good western instead.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. My hubby is a fan of that type of fiction (and TV & movies) too — me, nope. The real world is scary enough without me reading/watching someone’s idea of what it would be like post apocalyptic. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi, Andrew. My partner Keith likes post-apocalyptic stories. I am not too much of a fan, I am sorry to say. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wish you well with your book. I find myself struggling with reality these days and look for some positives to hang my hat on – even if they aren’t real. 😉 Most books or stories of that genre are a lot of doom and gloom. I fear they would put me over the edge emotionally. Humanity is playing out their own story these days, I am afraid. All my best to you on your adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, yes, the genre is basically, “How bad can we make this?” In fact I’d venture to say that it boarders on horror. While some post-apocalyptic stories have a hopeful end, most are designed to point out where we are currently going wrong and the consequences of that – what would happen if there a nuclear war, or global warming gets worse, or that virus thing … Not everyone wants to explore that and as a form of entertainment, it’s not that uplifting.


  13. jfwknifton says:

    Elves are real. Try
    Fairies are regularly seen over here still, and supposedly, in Ireland, there are still sightings of leprechauns.
    And if such beings did exist, we would be the last species that they would show themselves to !

    Liked by 1 person

  14. pIEdTyPe says:

    I attended the Univ. of Okla. with the intention of majoring in creative writing but ultimately switched to advertising. Still, there are creative writing majors out there if you want to get more specific than just English. I’m inclined to agree with Donna about a post-apocalyptic world being far too close to reality (or maybe vice versa) these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I went to San Jose State Univ. where the the English department is more attuned to literary criticism than creative writing. At the undergraduate level they focus more on general language, composition, literary theory and preparing you for graduate work. They assumed that most English majors were moving on to law, teaching or the masters degree or MFA program. It was kind of expected there that if you wanted to be a creative writer that you’d take the MFA program after the BA. Sadly, I didn’t have the time or resources for that, but still managed to get a couple of undergraduate poetry and creative writing classes. Yes, post-apocalyptic can be very close to home and not everyone will enjoy it.


  15. Hi Andrew, I read my dystopian fiction than sci-fi but there is some overlap. I am not a huge sci-fi reader but I have read and loved HG Wells and John Wyndham and I think there books are well written and enduring. I am also writing a dystopian novel which I’ve put on a back burner to finish my latest historical novel. It takes me two years to write a novel as I work full time and can’t spend time writing every day. I write both days of every weekend. Keep going, you’ll get there.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Hooray for you and your book; in whatever form it might be (or might become). Regardless of whether it ever gets to market, it’s still a great achievement. 🙂

    I guess my cynicism is showing, though, because I read your Steps 1 through 7, and thought:
    “8. Call it journalism and publish it in the news as fact.”

    Maybe I need a break from the news…

    Liked by 2 people

    • HA! Yes, I like your step 8. In fact, it might be better to skip the sending it to agents part and just call CNN or FOX. 🙂

      and yes, you need a break from the news – they just make stuff up to get you to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I’m seeing more and more post apocalyptic stories these days, so maybe the time is right for yours, Andrew. The chilling thing (for me) is that they no longer seem like fiction, but a nonfiction glimpse of our future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, when we move into troubled times, there seems to always be more post apocalyptic stories written. I think it’s because we writers are trying to make sense of how things are changing. During the cold war, there were endless books and movies on a post nuclear war world. I have to say, it’s not a genre that everyone enjoys.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Dave Foyle says:

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post — I read it as really being about any creative process. Interesting points – Here are the questions that I would ask myself if I were in your boat. Is the creative nugget of the work the story arc? or does it have to be fleshed out with dialogue and details? Would you see expanding from the story outline that you have, as fundamentally creative and satisfying? or do you see it as just a matter of putting meat on the bones of the story. I think the bottom line is will you be satisfied with having the detailed outline/sketch of the story, or does it need to be expanded fully for you to be satisfied? (plus, one has to factor in that the time point in on that project takes away from another). I think we’ve all been there when it comes to creative processes, whether writing, music, art, etc.

    I’ve written many scientific research articles, but I’ve never tried anything non-scientific. I always felt like if I were to write dialogue that it would all turn out like: “Hello!”, Frank said with enthusiasm. Jack replied with gusto, “Howdy!” …and then something happens. 🙂

    My kudos to all writers and aspiring writers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good questions. The creative nugget is the story arc and the world building. When you’re going speculate on what the world will be like post disaster, you spend a lot of time building what that world will look like. Where do they get their food, weapons, houses, society, religions, etc. In many respects I found the real creative work in writing my notes and doing research for the book. Actually writing scenes, dialog, chapters, etc feels more like work than fun. In some ways the creative energy is spent and it is that creative spark that I seek. Still, I might finish it just because I’ve never finish a work of that length and it might be good to experience that, but in terms of creativity, actually finishing has lost a lot of energy in my mind.

      and you might think about creating some fiction – I think you might have some of that in you. After all song writing is telling a story and a form of poetry. I think it would be interesting to have a story written in the form of a scientific article – instead of facts, you just make stuff up (kind of like news reporting).


  19. Jeff Cann says:

    Also, I really liked the Future of Another Timeline for it’s sheer boldness in the story it tells. Definitely a flawed book, but worth the read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have read anything by Newitz yet. I don’t keep up that much with current fiction. As I get older I tend to be nostalgic and often re-read stuff I read in my teens. Not too long ago I re-read Asmov’s Foundation Trilogy. I did Fletcher’s “A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World.” An interesting story and of course who couldn’t like Weir’s “The Martian”


  20. Jeff Cann says:

    Well, Earth Abides was certainly a good start. I love that book and read it every five years or so, although it’s probably too slow for most ‘modern readers. I think there are plenty of well written sci-fi books. Unfortunately my brain is a sieve and I can’t retain the titles, but Station 11, The Space Between Worlds, and the Feed are three that come to mind with strong, beautiful writing plus engaging stories. If for no other reason, finish your book to have written a book. It’s an achievement I fall back on frequently when I’m feeling down. Plus it looks great on a resume.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Earth Abides will always have a special place in life. I often compare new books I’ve read to it. There are a number of good SciFi books out there, but these days I find myself looking for a wider pallet of reading. I might finish the book, but I have so many creative pursuits, it’s really a question of time. hum, that sounds like a line from Dr. Who or perhaps a book, “A Question of Time.”


  21. Does it feel like you’ve got more than one book in you? You might think about self-publishing, especially if you hire your own editor and have a professional cover done. It’s hard but exciting, and you have more control of what happens to your book. You’d have to do the marketing anyway these days. You just might end up enjoying it! I’ve noticed with beginning authors that their third book is stronger, just because of what they learn along their journey. (This will give your what ifs more to chew on!)

    Liked by 1 person

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