Some incomplete thoughts on post-apocalyptic worldbuilding

Just a few thoughts that combine from reading a couple recently published postapocalyptic trade books and some of the submissions I’ve been going through recently. This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list of things to think about—just a few things that struck me as a pattern in (some) recent reads (and something I notice when it’s done well).

I guess everything I want to say actually falls under the old (and very useful) “show, don’t tell.” And really, one doesn’t even have to apply to postapocalyptic writing, but it’s in a postapocalyptic book that I saw this problem, so here you go.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
  • If you include newspaper clippings/stories as metatext to support the main narrative, make sure that it actually sounds like a news clipping. Use inverted pyramid structure, starting with the most important details and filling in backstory and history only once important details have been included.

One of my first publishing-related jobs in college was as a newspaper reporter, and the end of my stories—even my feature stories—often got chopped off for space. This is a particular form of writing that means your lede has to be an actual lede, not an introductory sentence, and you don’t include common-knowledge information (stuff all the characters would know because they live in that world) as an infodump in the second paragraph.

  • Less is more in post-apocalyptic worldbuilding.

We usually don’t need to know every detail of the apocalypse in the first chapter, or even by the end of the book. In fact, it usually just slows down the reading and even occasionally turns off a reader to be reminded in every sentence just how bad the world is because of global warming’s effect a hundred years ago or because we ran out of fossil fuels or because a great plague hit the world three hundred years ago. These things are common knowledge to the characters—or perhaps they’re lost knowledge for the character, depending on how long ago the apocalypse happened and how much technology/media had broken down in the years since.

But generally letting the reader know exactly what happened within the first chapter or two turns into an infodump or an as-you-know-Bob. Actually, what you want to do is revealed in that last link—I didn’t know there was a name for it! Incluing, at least according to Wikipedia (which is of course so reliable, but let’s go with it for now unless someone knows of a more technical term), is what you really want to do:

  • Reel out worldbuilding details little by little, cluing the reader in to worldbuilding details as they need the information (or slightly before, so as not to be jarring).

The best incluing example, the one I always go back to, is the first page or so of The Golden Compass, in which Lyra is talking to her daemon as they spy on a conversation in another room. We have no idea what a daemon is, even the basic concept of what one looks like, within the first page—that’s something Philip Pullman spools out to us little by little, creating a mystery, through small, specific details, that hooks us enough to make us want to know more.

These ideas are pretty basic, but so important in a good postapocalyptic tale, in my opinion. The only exceptions I can think of to not letting the reader know the cause of the apocalypse: zombie post-apocalypses, such as Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth (we know the cause of the apocalypse was zombies, because they’re everywhere; though we might not know the cause of zombies, we know the cause of the breakdown of society) and stories in which the apocalypse is currently happening, such as The Carbon Diaries (we see the breakdown of society through the main character’s eyes)—though in either case infodumps still won’t be appreciated.

But in general for most post-apocalyptic tales, I argue that less is more when it comes to revealing the cause of society’s death and allowing it to be a mystery that the reader discovers along the journey. Sometimes that journey will be figuring out why their current society is a dystopia, and hence figuring out the cause of the apocalypse that triggered this new society, but post-apocalyptic and dystopia aren’t synonymous, so sometimes it’ll simply be common knowledge that Earth that Was died in some way so we had to set out for the stars, or that in the characters’ great-grandparents’ generation a great plague swept the earth, or that global warming caused the world to become so flooded that people live on boats, fight over what little earth there is available on those boats, and evolve to grow gills and webbed feet.

Okay, Waterworld isn’t exactly the best example, but you could do worse for a short sweet example of how to worldbuild an apocalyptic backstory . . .

2 thoughts on “Some incomplete thoughts on post-apocalyptic worldbuilding

  1. it’s a challenge to the writer – enough info so the reader isn’t completely lost for long, but not so much you lose the story. Readers are much brighter and better at stringing clues together than writers realise – especially new writers. Nice post, and something for all world builders to pay attention to.

  2. Nice explanation, Stacy. It is tempting to describe everything we “see” in our world to the reader right up front. But no matter what the setting, it is the story the counts.

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