Writing about the End of the World

Most people who aren’t into ‘serious literature’  or ‘chick lit’ like novels about TEOTWAWKI. However much of said fiction tends not to satify. For every ‘The Stand’ or ‘The Road’ there are many stories that fall by the wayside.

Sometimes it pays to be simple, but you have to be sure that you are answering or at least allaying your readers queries.

1, Is it really the end of the world or just your part of it?

Birmo’s ‘Without Warning’ is a great example of what happens when things go slighty awry for part of the world. Especially when that part is the worlds only super power. The ripple effects are quite deadly for the rest of the world. However civilisation hangs on in a recognisable form for the parts that matter (apols to the 2nd and third world). He makes no attempt to explain the event and only he and the so called ‘circle of trust’ know if it is even partly explained in his next novel “After America”.

To make an apocalyptic storyline really good is not so much the feasiblity of the event (lice from mutant space bats for example) it’s how the whole world is effected. This does not have to be fully described but the writer needs to know themselves as hints can be sprinkled like little Nestle choccy eggs through the storyline. Also there is the fun of smirking when on a panel and a fan asks questions. You have to take into consdieration that any event that has a negative outcome for the USA, Russia, Europe and parts of Asia is going to have very bad consequences for the rest of the world.

Whether this is radioactive fallout, rampaging  redneck Zombies crossing the Rio Grande heading south or an end to aid and medical supplies to Africa, things are going to get ugly quickly.  You have to remeber that a sizeable proportion of the world relies on the 1st world for food and supplies and if they don’t arrive… well things could get really really bad!

2, Weapons of Choice 

Now once the apocalypse has happened and the rule of law has, shall we say become useful firemaking equipment, one needs to defend oneself and ones nearest and dearest. Oh and your food supplies, and fuel supplies, and booze etc etc. Now weaponary and implements of destruction do not grow on trees (unless you only want to use branches as weapons). So you have to source that stuff and in the case of firearms also get the right ammo.

The irony is that the area with the highest conentration of armenents is not the ‘Stan or the USA it’s Europe. This is due to the presence of a number of standing armies, so whilst civilian arms may be lighter on the ground than in the good ol US of A. there’s tons of bang bangs from side arms to SRBM’s. Thats something to think about…

3, The world as we ‘know’ it.

The herein lies the rub, how real is our knowledge of the world and what surprises may come out of from beneath the bed once alot of the world population have ceased to be alive. Ghosts, werewolves, little green aliens from Alpha Centauri on a Galactic Kontiki Tour?  The possibilites are endless..as long as you have a reason.

This sort of twist in the tale could make life very difficult for your survivalist hero and his (or her) squeeze.

4, Who survives?

One of the mainstays of apocalyptic lit is the mismatched protagonists that cover any stereotype you could wish to wave a rainforest at. The crux of this question is based very much on the nature of the event. In the event of danger humans will congregate together, it’s only natural part of our primative instatinct for survival. To actively try to stay alone is not natural.

The intial survivors can of course be anyone, people who are left handed, red heads, those who are too lazy to get up at 2am to watch a pretty meteor shower etc etc. however how long they actualy survive or could survive is another matter. ironically the people most likely to survive are farmers not SPECFOR troops. Why? because they usually have some form of ability with firearms, they know how to grow food and often know how survive hardship. To a certain degree most people can forage or scavange but to successfully survive you have to replace the food you eat.

5, Eating

Without food (and of course drink) we die, it’s a basic tenet of biological thermodynamics and of course the Kreb cycle. Now fortunately (and of course thanks to Napoleon) we preserve alot of food in tins which can last a long time, also most packaged food can be safely consumed long after the due date (assuming its not raw of course). However as i pointed out above to survive long term you need to grow food. Now of course depending on what form the end of the world takes that may be relatively simple or it could be very hard (say in a nuclear winter or such like). now if you’re writing  a feel good story such as ‘The Road’ then long term survival of your protagonists probably won’t happen. But in other scenarrios it is possible, although how long the human race would continue is another matter.

6, Medicine

Part of that is because we have become so used to medical assistance being on tap, except of course in the areas which probably will fall quickly anyway. Now we are lucky that there are tens of thousands of copies of Gray’s Anatomy in bookshops around the world along with accompanying volumes on all facets of medicine, and of course all those hospitals have lots of useful drugs and gear (unless of course you live near Royal North Syndey). However you still have to be able to use them safely. And there’s the actual practial application of the book knowledge. And how many of us could deliver a baby? Hmm makes you wish you did at least some pre-med at Uni eh? or married that nurse rather than shagged her room mate….

7, Getting around

Then of course there’s the matter of transport. Now petrol will of course run out pretty quickly. So it comes down to  who knows how to crack off crude oil or who knows how to convert over to ethanol. I suppose you could learn to ride…although horse tastes good. The issue is that vehicles have become more and more complex so unless one of your protagonists either rebuilds old cars (like from the 70’s) you’re going to be going back to the horse and cart pretty quick, oh and for early car’s don’t forget your lead additives as we’ve all gone lead free….

Now for those with real wanderlust you could always sail away to a tropical island, or my fave ‘borrow’ a SSN or SSBN. But where is really safe?

8, The earth abides

Now life is pretty tenancious, and as  ‘the world without us’ correctly points out, our cities will quickly become overgrown and whilst some species will die off pretty much after a shortwhile (larger vermin and cockroaches) others will stay strong, yes cats may well inherit the earth. 

Now how long it will take domestic animals to go feral is not really rocket science as we know it happens pretty quickly but at lease in many areas stock will survive. and salties will once again roam through Cairns!

9, Humanity’s legacy

One problem is that we humans have been a bit messy in our rise. There’s lots of nuke plants (some not too well built) and lots of chemical and Oil refineries just waiting to go up in smoke as soon as we stop looking after them. So don’t bother with alot of texas y’all.

So if the zombies don’t get you the wild fires or pollutants might…

10, Conclusion

Whilst you don’t have to put every detail in, you do need to plan and know whats going on even if it never makes the story. I hope this little post has been of some use to both potential apoclypse writers and their critics.

4 Responses to “Writing about the End of the World”

  1. barnesm Says:


    As a big fan of the post apocalyptic tale I appreciate you taking the time to nut out some advice to those who want to write these stories, because I’ve read A LOT of these tales and some would have been much improved if they followed your advice.

    “is not so much the feasiblity of the event” this is so true, ONE of the things that made Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ film was there was no explanation offered. Any early script (yes it had a script) had a reference to a downed NASA satellite and strange radiation but was dropped from the film.

    You post about weapons is a valid one. Though in the story the weapons should only be used to drive the narrative. A great example is the battle of Yonkers in World War Z -weapons up the wahzoo for the US and the zombies just roll over them. Later in WWZ when the US wise up they end up using ‘fighting squares’, a tactic from the Zulu wars that works brilliant.

    Who survives,
    this is very topical given Zombieland’s protagonists, a classic mishmash of everyman frackups and slackers who in our modern society you wouldn’t notice but in the movie Woody Harrelson’s character Tallahassee sums it up with “My mother always said I’d be good for something. Who knew it would turn out to be kill’n zombies”.

    The permuted press (http://www.permutedpress.com/) is a good source for these PAW stories and John Joseph Adams anthology Wastelands (http://www.johnjosephadams.com/wastelands/) is excellent and includes this quote”

    “Perhaps the appeal of the sub-genre is best described by this quote from “The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged)” by John Varley:
    We all love after-the-bomb stories. If we didn’t, why would there be so many of them? There’s something attractive about all those people being gone, about wandering in a depopulated world, scrounging cans of Campbell’s pork and beans, defending one’s family from marauders. Sure it’s horrible, sure we weep for all those dead people. But some secret part of us thinks it would be good to survive, to start over.

    Secretly, we know we’ll survive. All those other folks will die. That’s what after-the-bomb stories are all about”.

  2. chazfh Says:

    Thanks Barnes.

  3. Guru Bob Says:

    Good post – so when do we get a Chaz TEOTWAWKI story?

  4. chazfh Says:

    Gbob, ask and you shall receive, subject to scheduling issues…

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