The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Post-Apocalyptic Novel
Welcome to Writing Tips Oasis and our guide on writing post-apocalyptic fiction. In this guide, the focus will be more on the genre, rather than writing itself, so if you want to learn about the act of writing a novel, you would need to check our other guide on writing fiction.
When it comes to writing genre novels, there are certain expectations. For example, a romance novel needs to focus on the romance. When it comes to post-apocalyptic fiction, and your readers pick up your book, everything from the title to the cover to the blurb will need to show which genre your book belongs in. The same applies to the story you will tell.
In this guide to writing a post-apocalyptic novel, we have covered the expectations your readers will have, and compare them to your story – and it will be upon you to decide how you will write your novel.
Table of Contents
- Part I: Planning the post-apocalyptic novel
- 1. Understanding the genre novel
- 2. Research and the scientific aspect
- 3. World-building and its importance
- 4. The different types of post-apocalyptic scenarios
- 5. Plotting your post-apocalyptic novel
- 6. Characters in a post-apocalyptic world
- 7. Post-apocalyptic clichés to avoid
- Part II: Writing the post-apocalyptic novel
- 1. How to choose the protagonist?
- 2. Multiple points of view and the benefits
- 3. Creating a writing schedule
- 4. Entering your characters’ minds
- 5. Showing the world through your characters’ eyes
- 6. Engaging the five senses
- 7. Incorporating backstory
- 8. Keeping the world realistic
- Part III: Editing and polishing the post-apocalyptic novel
- 1. Editing levels and their importance
- 2. Discovering and solving plot holes
- 3. Worldbuilding inconsistencies and how to deal with them
- 4. Creating an impact: where the story begins and ends
- 5. Cliffhangers and book series: Which way should you go?
Part I: Planning the post-apocalyptic novel
The first phase in most of our guides is the planning phase. During this phase you might write the first chapter, then go back to write the backstory of the characters and the world, and then plot your novel and decide upon the narrative and how you will present it.
It all depends on you.
What we have provided for you in this section is only one way of doing things. You don’t want to rush the process of writing a novel of any genre, but what you really don’t want to do is skip the planning phase. Even if you enjoy writing by the seat of your pants, the planning phase will give you a foundation upon which you will build your story. And as such, it will make the act of writing your novel easier and more enjoyable.
So, let’s begin!
1. Understanding the genre novel
If you want to better understand the difference between a literary novel and a genre novel, you will need to understand the main difference between them. Literary novels are character-driven, while genre novels are plot-driven. Both can have very rich world-building. A post-apocalyptic novel can belong to both, but in general, the post-apocalyptic novel is plot-driven.
That doesn’t mean that characters don’t change. It also doesn’t mean that there have been no literary novels of the post-apocalyptic genre. The Road, a novel by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. It is one of the most acclaimed post-apocalyptic literary novels.
When it comes to the post-apocalyptic genre, or subgenre, since it belongs in the science fiction genre as a whole, there are some expectations. You need to understand that the story you have in mind might not fit the genre at all. On the other hand, these expectations can become the guide you need to tell your story.
What you need to do is make sure that the post-apocalyptic world and the story you want to tell are not mutually exclusive. You cannot tell a romance story in a post-apocalyptic world and tell it the same way as you would if you were writing a romance novel set in the modern world.
Everything in your novel must be influenced by the setting – your story needs to depend on it, it needs to be born from it. You have to ensure that the story you’re telling would not be the same story in a different setting.
In order to understand the genre better, you must read as many books as you can within it. Moreover, you will need to research, learn, and breathe the most common and uncommon tropes of the genre. By doing this, you will be able to:
- Understand what the genre is all about;
- Avoid using clichés in your story;
- Avoid retelling the same story all over again.
Hey, it happens.
Twilight was followed by many YA romance novels filled with paranormal creatures. Sometimes they were vampires, sometimes only werewolves, other times, the story revolved around angels (usually fallen angels). But the romance, the problems of the romance, and many other world-building elements, were repeated.
And while that might work for the readers who are hungry for the same story all over again, the majority of them will get tired eventually. That’s the moment when the genre story becomes formulaic and it’s just not interesting anymore. If you keep repeating the same type of protagonist as in other stories, you bring nothing new to the genre.
And you should always strive for originality.
2. Research and the scientific aspect
There are two types of research you will need for your story. We already mentioned the first one: the research of common tropes and marks of the genre. The second type of research you need to do is the scientific aspect.
Because the single mark of your novel will be the apocalypse itself. We’ll cover the common apocalyptic events that occur in many novels of the genre in a later section. Here, we’re talking about the science behind it. On the one hand, while you might imagine the best apocalypse ever, an apocalypse that is complex and inevitable, an apocalypse that will completely collapse civilization – but it will all be for nothing if it’s not scientifically possible. While you don’t need a scientist to confirm that yes, that specific apocalyptic event will happen, you need to be sure that the event is plausible, at the very least.
What you can do is research many examples of an apocalyptic event, and you can also talk to scientists and ask them for the probability. This would be especially helpful if you’re unable to determine that on your own. That means reading a lot about medicine, physics, biology, chemistry, geography and climate. And then, when you find your perfect apocalyptic event, you can start building the world.
3. World-building and its importance
Here is the thing: in a post-apocalyptic novel, the worldbuilding comes before the plot and the story. This is not an isolated case of a post-apocalyptic novel – science fiction and fantasy books also depend on the world and the setting.
That doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to experiment. For example, modern day language might sound odd in a medieval fantasy setting, but some writers make it work and publish medieval fantasies that are not very serious, but quite humorous in nature. They’re pure entertainment. That doesn’t meant that those types of novels lack depth – however, the focus is on the humor, rather than the world.
But if your intention is to write a serious genre novel, then you must work on the world. The world will be drastically changed due to the apocalyptic event. Once you have your apocalypse, the world can be easily built around it.
Let’s take a look at an example:
A world decimated by nuclear warfare will be a wasteland. That means a lot of desert sun and heat, chilly nights when monsters roam – mutated humans and animals that have been changed by radiation. Humans must turn to eating these mutated animals, for the normal animals will be extinct – and that will change humans themselves. The story can occur in two different periods of time.
The first period is the period before, during, and immediately after the apocalypse. The world will not be completely decimated yet, but the signs will be there. If it’s just one major nuclear event that would destroy most of life on Earth, then you have the death toll for starters. Then you have the survival.
The second period is years after the event. It depends on you to choose how many years, and the world-building will depend on their number. The world will look different 10 years after an apocalyptic event. It will be a completely different Earth 100 years later.
In a post-apocalyptic novel, the worldbuilding must follow the rule of cause and effect. The post-apocalyptic event is the cause, and the world you create is directly affected by it.
4. The different types of post-apocalyptic scenarios
We mentioned previously the nuclear wasteland scenario. There are many different ways to build the world around it. A nuclear wasteland is a land devoid of resources. Clean water and food will be hard to find, especially decades after the event, when the radiation has set in and the world as we know it doesn’t exist anymore.
Another type of apocalypse may leave the world without electricity. Then, there is the zombie apocalypse – which was recently quite popular, giving us TV shows like The Walking Dead, and novels like World War Z, which was then adapted into a movie.
Another common apocalypse is the impact apocalypse – a large meteor hit Earth, causing major climate changes within a few months. Then there is the apocalypse caused by the arrival of Aliens – think War of the Worlds.
A major disease wiping out most of human life, toppling civilization. Everything you enjoy at the moment: electricity, running water, TV, internet, take-out, school and education, everything is done by people. If most of the people are wiped out in a pandemic outbreak of an incurable disease, then all of the things we take as commodities will become luxuries in the new world.
Additionally, you might want to take on two apocalyptic events and have them both decimate Earth. In The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, the global apocalyptic event is the arrival of the mysterious aliens who are slowly taking over. However, humanity wasn’t wiped out by the aliens – but by a disease. During the alien invasion, a decimating disease spread that made it even more difficult for the humans to unite and prepare their defense against the aliens.
5. Plotting your post-apocalyptic novel
There are several things to do – to keep in mind – when plotting your post-apocalyptic novel. Here, we will put an emphasis on the post-apocalyptic aspect, even though plotting, in and of itself, is driven by several elements that are common for every genre.
First, we have the three act structure. Act one: The protagonist makes the decision to abandon the world he or she knew before and embark on a journey of change, because he or she wants something. The protagonist will have mini goals, and long term goals, and both of those will drive your story and plot. The second act is what happens during the journey, and it ends at the point of no return. Every act ends at a point of no return, but the end of the second one is poignant because it needs to set up the third act: the resolution of the central conflict.
You can plot your novel scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or just make a short outline. Whichever you choose, you must abide to the rule of cause and effect. Remember, life is chaotic in nature, but in a novel, everything comes together perfectly at the end.
So, how can you do this in a post-apocalyptic setting? This is when the world-building comes into play. Everything will depend on the apocalypse, its consequences and the time period. A protagonist living in the time period immediately after the apocalypse will have different goals than the protagonist living several decades later.
So, create your world first. Every writer plots and writes stories differently. Different authors are inspired by different situations in life. As a result, even if the protagonist was the first thing you thought about, it doesn’t mean that you cannot work with that character in a post-apocalyptic setting. Considering that in a post-apocalyptic novel, the characters, the plot and the world are interconnected, you can work on all three at the same time.
6. Characters in a post-apocalyptic world
People will act differently in a post-apocalyptic world setting. However, how differently they act is up to you. You will be making the new definition of what it means to be a good person, you will be making up the character’s personalities, goals and dreams. And these goals and dreams will be quite unique in a post-apocalyptic world setting. To help you carve your characters, we will take a look at a few examples.
- A child growing up in our modern world will want different things than the child raised in a post-apocalyptic world where resources are scarce. The child will still be a child – but this would be shown differently in that setting.
- A teenager will dream of getting into college, moving out, becoming independent and find the one. A teenager living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where universities are a thing of the past will want different things.
- A single man or a woman, presumably in their twenties, will not focus on work and romance in a post-apocalyptic world, but on survival.
- An elder living in a world that’s already dead will have an alternative worldview to one where he or she is present in a contemporary world.
From age, to backstory, to the world: In a cohesive story, everything flows. A character’s hopes and dreams and goals will be dictated by their backstory – while said backstory is dictated by the setting: the apocalyptic event and the aftermath.
More importantly, the relationships between the characters will be different. In a normal, modern setting, two teenagers meet, and they often either become friends or fall in love. In a post-apocalyptic world where survival is more important than anything, the meeting between two teenagers can go vastly different – but it certainly wouldn’t begin with a friendly tone. People wouldn’t trust so easily; they will be focused on different things compared to people from the modern world of today.
In conclusion, your protagonist and the other characters: their behavior, their appearance, their hopes and dreams, their relationships and culture are just as big a part of the world-building as the apocalypse itself that created that world.
7. Post-apocalyptic clichés to avoid
There are many post-apocalyptic clichés, and we even mentioned some of them earlier when describing the different types of apocalypse. The problem with this is that there are only so many ways in which you can bring our modern world to the world of your novel. As a result, the cause of the apocalypse (disease, aliens, zombies, meteors, the moon falling on Earth, nuclear war) might not be original. But you can be original during the aftermath. So, here are some clichés to avoid:
- The militia state: where the military controls everything in the aftermath and people have no freedom.
- The survival mode: where people turn on each other, often accompanied by cannibalism.
- The totalitarian state: where the government has split the people in two groups – the oppressing (rich) and the oppressed (poor) people who are nothing more than slaves to the system.
- The tribe society: where groups of people band together and have a conflict with another group of people.
- The chosen one: where one person, a very special snowflake, is destined to save the world, often by his or her own sacrifice.
And the list goes on.
The problem with the clichés is that they have been overused. Overused is bit of a misnomer, since it’s only when a trope is being overused that it becomes a cliché in the first place. But, the thing is, when a cliché is overused, it becomes an expectation. It becomes a mark of the genre. Many of the examples listed above are probably examples you’ve seen in books like The Hunger Games, and many others. Yes, The Hunger Games is essentially a post-apocalyptic book because the resulting dystopian society was formed as a result of several natural disasters that are a bit glossed over. And that’s what makes it different, and it pushes the book more into the dystopian genre. Remember, a dystopian society can be created without an apocalyptic event. A post-apocalyptic world, however, cannot be created without the actual apocalypse.
However, here are some character clichés that you can avoid:
- The one-man survivalist with several weapons on him and a shady past.
- The teenager who is the unwilling face of a revolution.
- The absentee parents of said teenager.
- Teenagers being in danger in a post-apocalyptic world as if adults do not exist anymore: they are often the ones putting the youngsters in danger.
- The rise of a villain who doesn’t really have an agenda, and is just a villain because you need one.
- The one character that is very tech savvy: he or she has technology that no one else has, and is very knowledgeable in everything from hacking to designing new items/weapons/etc.
- The character who always gets the others into trouble just by being a klutz or stubborn, or has to be rescued.
- The leather-clad biker gang.
And even the above list can go on. Post-apocalyptic fiction is not safe from character clichés that appear in other genres.
What you can do to avoid clichés is to always think outside of the box. If a zombie apocalypse usually leads to the formation of survivalist gangs who would harm other normal people, then you need a different aftermath. Create several “what if” scenarios until you find the one that is original. Every cliché can be turned on its head, and every trope can be interpreted in a new and original way. All you need to do is be creative, let your imagination soar, and find the original spin on a well-established trope.
Part II: Writing the post-apocalyptic novel
Every writer has a different method of writing a novel, a different method of writing short stories, and a different method of writing nonfiction. A writer who has no problem coming up with storylines that take 100,000 words to resolve might find it difficult to tell a short story. The writer who writes short stories easily might find it difficult to write a novel by using the same method.
As a result, in the second part of the guide you will not find tips about the mechanics of writing: When (morning, or evening), how (alone, or at a coffee shop), or why (waiting for inspiration or writing until inspiration comes). No, what we will talk about is writing a post-apocalyptic novel specifically. Unlike the romance genre, where the world usually falls into the background, the post-apocalyptic genre offers many possibilities for style, world-building, and characterization, and we’re going to explore those opportunities.
1. How to choose the protagonist?
The first character that popped into your head is not always necessarily the protagonist. In a post-apocalyptic novel, choosing the protagonist might be difficult, especially since many of your characters will have backstories and futures interesting enough to warrant their own novels.
But, the protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be the hero either – the one who saves the day, or the world in this case. The easiest way to choose the protagonist is to discover which character is able to:
- Actively participate in everything plot-related (so you don’t have plot events happening off-screen).
- Undergo a major change throughout the story.
You need your protagonist to have agency. He or she will be the one to lead the story itself. If the character you wanted as a protagonist is undergoing a major change – but is not an active cause (directly or indirectly) of the major plot points and events, than you need a different protagonist, or you need to add more agency to your character.
Here is a very simple example:
If crucial information is supposed to come via a phone call, then the protagonist is the one who makes that call. The protagonist does not wait to be called.
2. Multiple points of view and the benefits
Another solution to the protagonist problem is to use multiple points of view. There are many benefits of this:
- You can set the characters apart and show the world through their eyes (think A Song of Ice and Fire by GRRM).
- The plot can be the combined result of the agency of all characters (think or check out John Scalzi’s novel called The Collapsing Empire).
- You have the opportunity to play with ages, genders, and different personalities, and create a very rich novel.
- If one of them dies, the others can take over of “telling” the story.
However, you need to be prepared for the following:
- Every point of view character will need to sound differently, unless you’re writing in third person point of view, in which case you will need a different inner voice for each point of view.
- Using too many characters can be tough on the readers.
- Creating such a complex plot that you wouldn’t be able to solve it to the readers’ satisfaction.
3. Creating a writing schedule
When it comes to writing a novel, or to writing in general, the best thing you can do is create a writing habit. That habit is created by a writing schedule – as long as you stick to it.
For example, if you decide to write your novel for an hour every day, then really do that every day. Creating a habit is beneficial because it will enable you to enter your world every day. You will know where you are in the story. If you leave the story alone for a few days, it will be more difficult for you to get inside the world and the characters’ heads when you continue writing.
Best of all, it will enable you to finish your novel faster. You will be able to sit down and write without waiting for inspiration. Writing will become a habit – not something you do only when you feel inspired.
4. Entering your characters’ minds
How to enter your characters’ minds?
The easiest way to do this is to write from the first person point of view. However, your story might require a different type of narrative: You might need to use third person (limited or omnipresent) in order to show everything better. This can be very noticeable in action scenes.
Let’s assume that two characters are in a physical brawl as a car is approaching them at breakneck speed.
I turned and saw it, its headlights glaring at me from the distance as it swerved and turned on the oil-slick road. The driver was a mere dark shape, but I could tell he was no friend of mine. As it got closer…
What would really happen in that scene is:
I turned and saw it, its headlights glaring at me from the distance and everything went black.
The protagonist should not be able to stop the physical brawl just to describe the approaching car. But, if you’re using a third person omnipresent point of view, you would be able to show the scene better to the readers.
Third person point of view might offer some limits, but you can always show the protagonist’s inner thoughts, even if you’re using third person limited point of view. What you need to keep in mind is that you’re still writing from a single person’s point of view. This means that the readers will not know what another character is thinking unless they speak it out loud.
On the other hand, third person omnipresent point of view means that you can do just that: have a conversation between two characters, and tell the readers exactly what each of them is thinking and feeling at the moment. However, that will take out some of the mystery out of the story.
5. Showing the world through your characters’ eyes
There is only one way of showing the world you’ve built through your characters’ eyes: Emotion. If you manage to tug the heartstrings of your readers – then your readers are going to read every book you ever write.
Easier said than done, right?
Yes, and no. Because there are ways to invoke emotion in the reader. We’re not going to talk about characterization, and how to use that characterization to tug on your readers’ heartstrings – it would take us another guide entirely! The goal here is to create characters that are easy to relate to, and then have those characters react to the world around them. And the world is made out of people, places, and memories and events that connect them.
When you strip away the inessential, the world you’ve built will be seen through your protagonist’s (or, if you have multiple points of view, protagonists’) eyes. And the world will either be familiar to that person, or it will be strange.
Once you understand this, it will be easy to have your characters react to the world. A boy plucked from a farm will react differently to the lights of a bustling city compared to a boy who has lived his whole life among its streets. In a post-apocalyptic world, you’re looking at the same scenario. Your protagonist will either be familiar with the new world, or he or she will be overwhelmed by it.
Let’s take a look at those two different scenarios.
The familiar world: In a familiar world, the protagonist will have emotions towards places. Fond memories that the protagonist remembers when visiting familiar places throughout the story, emotions that are invoked when the protagonist interacts with his or her favorite people. On the other side, there are places he or she will dislike, people that they do not get along with. All of us have these emotions as we go through our daily lives, but in a novel, in any novel, these are amplified. In a novel, every emotion is important, every place has importance, and every person will cause a different emotional reaction inside the protagonist. And you need to show these emotions (which we’re going to talk about later).
The new world: There are two ways that the protagonist can look at a new, strange world. In a post-apocalyptic world, the new world can be the world after the apocalypse. If your protagonist witnessed the apocalypse, then the difference between the old and the new is easily amplified by his or her memories – and emotions tying them to those places. If the protagonist did not witness the apocalypse, and the derelict, new world is all they ever knew, the protagonist will need to physically change their location at the beginning of the story (during the first act) in order for the world to be new both to the readers and the protagonist.
The same applies to people.
New people will cause a different emotional reaction within the protagonist compared to people he already knows. Some, he or she will dislike on sight, others will be tolerated, or even liked. Thrusting your protagonist into an unfamiliar situation where all of their skills, abilities, and principles are tested is always a good way to make the readers’ sympathize with them. For that reason, the emotions that the protagonist will feel towards the world need to be complemented by the emotions of the other characters as well.
6. Engaging the five senses
In the previous section, we talked about the protagonist showing emotion. When it comes to showing, engaging the senses is crucial. We’re going to take a look at each sense and how you can show the world, people, and the characters’ emotions through them.
Sight: We’re starting off with sight because that’s the sense that will be engaged the most, both in your readers and your characters. Your character will see the world and describe it as he or she sees it. The most prominent things will be shapes, colors, distance, sunshine, night, the absence of light, or its overwhelming presence. How do you show? Protagonists and other characters will need to squint, blink, close their eyes, open them, they will stare and they will look away.
These actions will reveal the reaction within the character. A blurry vision indicates incoming tears, narrowing the eyes shows slight annoyance, preceding the all-out glare, while the closing of the eyes indicates an unwillingness to face reality. There are many other ways to show using sight – and eyes and vision – so, get creative. Stand in front of a mirror, imagine scenarios that evoke emotional or physical reactions within you, and watch the way your face and eyes react to them. And then, incorporate these in your book.
Sound: Sound, unlike sight, is more difficult to engage within the reader. After all, everything the protagonist sees and thinks is what drives the narrative. When it comes to engaging the sense of sound, things get more interesting. The goal is to engage this sense without engaging it – in other words, make the readers imagine that their hearing sense is engaged. Again, we use physical and emotional reactions to everything that the protagonist hears – and then we amplify that. Examples:
- A soft whisper will make the character crane their neck to hear better.
- A loud bang will leave the ears ringing.
- A special voice will invoke special emotions: a deep well can open in the stomach; a large hole in the chest can be filled when the protagonist hears a special voice.
The list goes on. This doesn’t mean that the protagonist will always be reacting emotionally to the people and things he hears, but it needs to happen at least once in a scene to make everything come to life better.
Touch: We will also put temperature: Heat and warmth versus cold and freezing, in this sense because we feel the hot and the cold via our bodies. A bed is comfortable and lulls you to sleep, but a hard chair can make an uncomfortable situation even more uncomfortable and add to the conflict. Imagine being stuck in the rear trunk of a car – thinking straight would be difficult, wouldn’t it? There are many examples of engaging the senses via touch, and when you add in the emotional, psychological and physical reactions of the protagonist to it, you’re able to paint a much livelier image in every scene.
Taste: This sense is used rarely, mostly because the protagonist has to drink, eat, smoke, kiss someone, or breathe through their mouth for this sense to be engaged. However, taste and scent – the sense of smell – can actually cause stronger emotional reactions in a person compared to sound and sight. In a post-apocalyptic world, where the food will be different from the food we have today, the possibilities for using this sense are endless.
Scent: We left scent or the sense of smell, for last because our emotions can be evoked very easily by it. Think about it: The particular scent of your significant other, the smell of a newborn baby, the smell of roses or lilacs, that particular smell of a rainy autumn. Almost everything we scent gives us a strong or a mild emotional reaction, it reminds us of someone, or just brings back a moment we thought long forgotten. Again, when it comes to your protagonist, these emotional reactions will be amplified a thousand fold to bring them to life. A post-apocalyptic world offers endless possibilities, especially if at least one of your characters remembers what the world smelled and looked like before the actual apocalypse. Additionally, the scent of a post-apocalyptic world will hardly be a pleasant one, and just like the example with a chair: an unpleasant scent can make an unpleasant situation even worse.
7. Incorporating backstory
There are many ways to incorporate backstory, but it all comes down to these three methods:
- Unrelated flashback/backstory chapter/prologue/dream.
- A memory sparked by something related to it.
- Conversation between two people.
The memory can also be considered a flashback. The first two methods have the disadvantage of slowing down the pace, considerably. For that reason, you need to take particular care when to include them. One thing to remember: never interrupt an action scene for backstory or descriptions – that can take the reader away from the fight, and it will slow down the pacing to a crawl in a scene where tension should be high and the pace should be fast.
Conversation between two people is a different story. You can incorporate backstory via conversation, especially if the people who are talking are virtually strangers who haven’t known each other for long. Also, two friends who haven’t seen each other in years might also converse and relay some backstory. However, dialogue is a tricky beast to handle in a novel, and as such, you need to make sure that it’s tight, relevant, moves the story forward even if it relays backstory (meaning, the things that are being relayed must be important to the plot), and it needs to be better than real life.
Because in real life, we talk for hours, but say only a few important things. We say hello and goodbye, offer condolences and engage in small talk. In other words, real life conversation is chaotic, but in a novel, it’s the opposite. Every word is important. The easiest way to create dialogue is to write it – and then cut all the unnecessary words. Add in movements – people never just sit still – to illustrate the conversation better, along with tone and mannerisms. Most of all, make sure to show instead of tell. And use said to show who’s talking. Avoid adverbs, and actions that would be impossible to perform while talking. For example, you can say something with a smirk, but you cannot smirk and talk at the same time. The same applies to laughter and tears.
8. Keeping the world realistic
When the setting of the story is in the real world, keeping the world realistic is easier. On the other hand, keeping your post-apocalyptic world realistic is a very difficult task.
The good news is that every reader who likes the post-apocalyptic genre (and science fiction and fantasy in general) is ready to suspend their disbelief and accept the world you’ve created. This, however, does not mean that you need to take advantage of it. If your world doesn’t make sense, no amount of suspension of disbelief will make the readers buy it.
So, there is no water in the desert, and it’s tough to get warm on a snow-capped mountain. Characters on foot travel slowly compared to characters with means of transportation. Time passes – do not forget that – and characters get older and learn new things through their experiences.
Part III: Editing and polishing the post-apocalyptic novel
Once your first draft is done, you will need to do a certain number of edits in order to have a working manuscript. The number of these edits will differ: a better written first draft will need fewer edits – that’s an honest truth. But it’s not bad news. Even if your first draft does need numerous edits, it doesn’t mean that you must give up and move on to the next project. With determination and a lot of patience, you can create the perfect version of your novel.
But, the first thing you should do is leave it in the proverbial drawer for some time. Whether that time is one week or one month is up to you. The goal is to let yourself – and your mind – be free of the story for some time. Then, you will be able to begin the editing process with fresh eyes.
1. Editing levels and their importance
There are several editing levels that your novel needs.
The first is editing on a grand scale: when you look for glaring plot holes, characters inconsistencies (when a character acts out of character), and world inconsistencies.
The second is editing on a chapter level, where you read each chapter and make sure that it begins and ends at the right moments. Moreover, you need to discover and eliminate the chapter cliffhangers: too many of these can take the readers out of the story, and no one likes to be prompted to read the next chapter too often.
The third is editing on a paragraph level, the fourth is editing on a sentence level. In both edits, you’re looking for paragraphs and sentences that are way too long. Long paragraphs can tire the readers’ eyes, long sentences can tire the readers’ minds. You want to keep them engrossed in the story, not tire them out. During this edit, you can also work on improving your style.
The final edit is nothing more than proofreading.
In all edits, you must pay attention to grammar, spelling, repetitive words, and using the wrong words. You can use software to detect these words, like Grammarly and other programs, or you can print out your first draft and mark them all.
2. Discovering and solving plot holes
What is a plot hole?
The easy answer is when the cause and effect are not as tightly related as you want them to be. In reality, discovering plot holes can be a bit more difficult. For that reason, we advise to use a beta reader who can catch these errors.
However, here are some examples to make this easier.
- A character acts tender in one scene, is cruel in the next.
- The protagonist has just entered a building for the first time, yet seems to be able to find his or her way inside easily without a map.
- Unexplained changes of the setting.
- Plot lines that go nowhere.
- When something just doesn’t make sense, and other instances.
How can you fix them?
Some plot holes need a more detailed description. For example, if a character appears to be acting out of character, then make sure that he or she relays their feelings somehow, so that the change of behavior (or even change of heart) makes sense. Other plot holes, like continuity errors (mistakes in the consistency of a plot) can be fixed by either eliminating something from the story (eliminating a plot line if it goes nowhere), or add more to the story to bring the plot line back and wrap it up.
The difficult part here is to find them. Solving the plot holes is easier when you know what’s wrong.
3. Worldbuilding inconsistencies and how to deal with them
In a similar line to plot holes, world inconsistencies and continuity errors can harm your novel and cost you readers. To avoid this, you must discover these errors first, and deal with them later.
For example, a world inconsistency is when an eastern city suddenly finds its location west. It’s literally just one word. But trust that the readers will notice it. Another example is walls turning from beige to blue, or layouts of houses changing in each chapter. Streets, trees, beaches and cafes – you must remember what they looked like, you must know the distance between these places in order to create a cohesive story.
Moreover, in a post-apocalyptic world, everything will be different than the real world we all know. So, the readers will be even more attentive to the world-building, and even the smallest continuity error can be glaringly obvious.
What you can do is create a sort of an encyclopedia of your world. Its history, its cities, what happened then and what happens now, how the events of the novel change the world (its social structure, destroyed buildings, etc.). Create a timeline of events for each place, even if it’s just a house that the protagonist will only visit once. You need to know all of these things, even if you don’t use them, especially if you plan on writing a series of novels, instead of only one. Many authors keep the characters in this encyclopedia as well – from the protagonist to the most minor character, so as to be on top of all the details when writing and/or editing the novel. Often, this type of book is referred to as a series bible (or book bible).
4. Creating an impact: where the story begins and ends
Slowly, we are getting to the end of the process of writing and editing the manuscript of your novel. Once all the levels of editing are done, think of your story as a whole.
Does the first sentence have a great impact, or have you begun with backstory? Are you including a past/flashback prologue, or is the prologue an excerpt close to the climax?
Most importantly, does the first sentence hook the reader?
We can write a whole other guide for the importance of the first and last chapter, the first and last sentence. It’s easy to end a book on a bang, or a cliffhanger, but it’s a bit more difficult to wrap things up neatly, leave some strings unsolved (plot lines that did not get a conclusion), and leave the readers wanting for more.
But you can achieve this by starting the novel at the right place and time, and ending it the same way. Even standalone novels often leave some plot lines unsolved (minor ones that don’t really have an impact on the plot, but add color to the story and make the world richer).
When should you start your novel?
Always, always, always – start with a bang. A post-apocalyptic novel is a genre novel, and all genre novels have a sense of adventure to them. So, don’t start your novel by having the protagonist go through his morning rites, and then introduce the important phone call that changes everything. Start with the phone call. Torture the protagonist with the call to create adventure from the first sentence. You can relay all relevant information afterward – when the reader is already sympathizing with the protagonist and feeling like they know them.
And the ending: The ending is quite difficult to put down. Some stories have a logical end – when the hero has achieved his goal. Whether you will end it at the moment when the goal is achieved, or show the aftermath of the adventure, is up to you. The amount of ambiguity you will leave is also up to you.
What you should always look for is emotional impact and a logical end. If it doesn’t make sense to end it during the aftermath with an epilogue, then don’t do it.
Some stories that end in the aftermath can be poignant. Especially if the protagonist decides to go back to the ordinary world at the end. On the other hand, if the ordinary world doesn’t exist anymore, then an epilogue is not necessary – because the characters have been living in the new world this whole time.
5. Cliffhangers and book series: Which way should you go?
Cliffhangers deserve special attention because of their duality. On one side, a cliffhanger can make the readers beg for more. On the other side, a cliffhanger can turn a reader away from your novels for good, especially if you do it in every story.
Now, let’s talk about the post-apocalyptic genre: Many authors write series. And many of them use cliffhangers to lead to the next novel. However, there’s a positive cliffhanger – the kind of cliffhanger that makes the readers want more, and the type of cliffhanger that turns them away.
A positive cliffhanger is a kind of an entrance: Less of a cliffhanger, more like a gentle nudge in the direction of book number two in the series. The central conflict of the novel is solved, and the cliffhanger is a small preview of what’s to come.
Here are examples of a negative cliffhanger:
- The central conflict is not resolved, but the protagonist is putting everything behind and embarking on another adventure.
- The main antagonist takes away an important person for the protagonist, again leaving the central conflict unresolved.
Keep in mind that a forced cliffhanger is obvious bait for the readers to buy the next novel in order to keep up. It’s not a satisfying ending. On the other hand, provide a satisfying conclusion to the plot, and you can easily add a cliffhanger to entice the readers to keep reading.
Which way should you go?
It all depends on the story. Even during the planning phase, authors already have an idea where their story is going, and how many books it would take them to tell said story. On the other hand, if your book doesn’t sell well, for example, and your publisher decides not to continue with the series, then you need to provide a satisfying ending.
For that reason, the best thing to do is to plan for both situations: provide a satisfying conclusion with a low-key cliffhanger, just in case you’re continuing the series.
This concludes our guide for writing post-apocalyptic fiction. Some things that you should always keep in mind include:
- Every tip, trick, and writing advice that you read and hear from other writers, coaches, etc., might need to be adapted to your personal writing style and methods.
- Reading books in the genre and reading books about writing, and reading poetry, and reading everything, will help you in the long run.
- Every new word, every next sentence, will be better than the one that came before it.
- Most of all: never pressure yourself for the perfect first draft, because you can always improve it.
Best of luck!
The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Post-Apocalyptic Novel is an article from Writing Tips Oasis.
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