Ask an Editor: Worldbuilding After the Apocalypse

Stacy Whitman photoStacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. This blog post was originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire

Yesterday, Sarah Hannah Gómez wrote about people of color in dystopias. Today I thought we’d look at the post-apocalyptic genre (which overlaps with, but is not always the same as, dystopias) from the craft side. A while back, as I was going through submissions, a few thoughts formed for me about worldbuilding in the genre due to things I was seeing again and again. 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,” – which of course is relevant whether or not your novel is set after the apocalypse. So, here you go:

inverted pyramid

  • 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. Who, what, why, where, when: these are the most important things to focus on in the first paragraph.

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. In news writing, 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.

Joseph Bruchac does this well in the first few chapters of Killer of Enemies. We’re on a hunt with Lozen, and we learn about the Cloud and Gemods and the place she lives, Haven, little by little over the course of a few chapters. Her inner narrative is a good way to spool out details slowly, thought it only works if your character has the knowledge to share. worldbuilding block quote

These ideas are pretty basic, but so important in a good postapocalyptic tale, in my opinion. The only exceptions I can think of to sharing details of the apocalypse slowly, over time: 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, and she has limited information)—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 (The Giver would be a classic example of that structure). But, as I mentioned above, 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 (like in For Darkness Shows the Stars), 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, even if the plot and characters weren’t all that successful . . .

Check out these titles from Tu Books that utilize the worldbuilding tips that Stacy talked about:

Diverse Energies
Killer of Enemies
The Tankborn trilogy (Tankborn, Awakeningand Rebellion)

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