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A WAY WITH WORLDS: APOCALYPSE HOW By Steven Savage, creator of the Crossworld of Xai. Archives available at Seventh Sanctum
Yes, it's a corny title. I couldn't think of anything else. Besides, a certain film with a similar title recently got re-released, and I couldn't resist.
Though, when it comes to creating post-apocalyptic worlds, corny is usually the order of the day. I won't mince words - I find most post-apocalyptic storyworlds hideously silly and overdone. For every "Canticle for Liebowitz" there's a lot of after-the-end drivel. I myself shy away from anything "post-apocalyptic" or "after a world-changing disaster" because to be frank, I usually find it's not that good.
Often, I find post-apocalyptic stories to be very shallow and often stereotypical. Same disasters, same kind of problems, same types of characters. Very little interest. There usually not that much of a world that got destroyed – or it got a lot more boring after Armageddon.
This is something I've actually been curious about - maybe it's my own experience, but usually I find the apocalypse ends up being less than advertised in fiction. Of course, I ask why - after all fallout from the end of the world or the fall of the Great Galactic Unity should be pretty interesting to read about. It just seems that it isn't.
Surprisingly, I have a theory.
The problem with stories set after the apocalypse, World War III, the Great Mana Fritz, or whatever is that the stories are about the apocalypse. This may seem an odd statement, since whether it's a nuclear war or galactic economic catastrophe, the story should be about the End of What We Know.
Actually, it's not.
As I've said before, your main character is your setting. And no matter how big your apocalypse, no matter how much you end your world, that is still only part of your story. The world survives, but you don't build your world by starting with the end.
OVERSHADOWING: The problem with most apocalyptic writing is that that One Big Event, the Big End, the Armageddon to End All Armageddons becomes too central to the story. Any good world is a matter of balance and cause-and-effect, and focusing too much on one event, even a major, seminal one is going to unbalance and limit your world.
Your world is there before Armageddon. It's there after Armageddon, though admittedly changed in radical manners. However, too many stories focus only on the One Big Event and afterward. There's very little "before" and thus "after" ends up poorly developed.
Your world was a different world before Armageddon, but it was a world. Starting from the Apocalyptic event and working forward is one of the major flaws in End-Of-The-World fiction. It leaves the worlds shallow, unbelievable, without a firm foundation.
Or, worse, someone uses Armageddon and slaps it onto an existing world, using it as an excuse to change it completely. The One Big Event becomes an excuse to make a completely different world. I've seen this a lot in fanfic, and it usually falls just as flat if not morseo, because huge chunks of previous continuity are merely ignored
because "it was after the Big Disaster."
The key is that the Big Event, no matter how big, is really only one event in your world. You need to not only know your world after, but before.
BUILDING IT ONLY TO DESTROY IT: Let's put it simply - yes, you've got a vast and decimated setting that's been twisted off of its moorings and thrown to the winds of fate. But, whatever tore it apart is only one event in its history. And you need to know what it was like before that Apocalyptic Event.
It may seem a waste to do so, but consider it this way - no matter what, your worlds continuity starts before the End of the World. Some things will change radically, but it's not meaningful if you don't know how they changed or why.
So, simply, if you're going to end your world, design it first, then wreck it.
It's not a waste of time. Knowing your world before it's devastated will let you understand why it was devastated. It will let you know the impact (and "it was really messed up" isn't knowing the impact). It will let you know the fine details that make a story. Injuring a major character isn't a waste of time in a story – neither should be injuring your setting.
Think of it as building a sand castle then dropping a rock on it. You just can't fake realism like that. It takes effort, but then again, the apocalypse isn't something you rush.
SUMMARY: If you're going to write about the end of the world, have a world to end. It's worth the extra effort.
A Way with Worlds is hosted at:
The complete works are archived at the Way With Worlds archive. A German translation is in the works at Christian Spliess's Page