Guide: Post Apocalyptic Writing Prompts for World Building

post apocalyptic writing prompts

World Building – Post Apocalyptic Writing Prompts

When it comes to dystopias, especially post-apocalypses, it can be hard to know where to begin. But, with some post apocalyptic writing prompts, you can begin turning those awesome concepts into story ideas ready for use in your next piece.

So, no matter if you are writing a short story, flash fiction, novella, or a full length novel, I hope these writing exercises and prompts help you.

Let’s delve in!

Historic Post Apocalyptic IDeas

A good place to begin looking for inspiration is history. There are periods of time that could be considered dystopian such as:

  • The great depression of the 1920s
  • The oppression of Nazi Germany and its rule
  • When the Spanish Flu swept across the world
  • The oppression of India by the British Empire
  • The slave trade

Taking a closer look at these times and the measures people had to go to for their own survival can help inform your own stories. The events that led up to these atrocities can also be analysed to help you build your own world.

And not all post apocalypses and dystopias need to be set in the future. Alternate histories are a great way to have a new take on real world events – bringing your stories closer to real stories in the real world.

Using history to learn about social concepts, structures, and how dystopian conditions can arise in the real world can help inform you when building up these aspects for your own worlds.

Generic Sci Fi Post Apocalypse Writing Ideas

futuristic city as inspiration for a scifi dystopian writing idea

When it comes to the sci fi genre and the apocalypse, there are many different tropes that you can implement into your story ideas. But it is vital that you have your own unique take on these tropes, or risk falling into the trap of using the trope to write your story.

It is also important not to cross the boundary into science fantasy (unless you want to, of course). The best sci fi post apocalypse stories use technology we currently have – or will soon have – to build into the apocalypse or have caused it prior to your story beginning.

So, for example, think of aspects such as:

  • Nuclear technologies; such as power plants, nuclear accidents, or nuclear bombs.
  • Existing Artificial Intelligence; but rather than the A.I. itself being the main apocalyptic threat, the A.I. should be a tool used by a third party. So, for example, A.I. and big data facilitating the rise of a one world government.
  • A lack of technology; our world is so dependent on tech nowadays that a sudden absence of it could bring about the end of the world. Maybe begin thinking along the lines of a mass viral infection event, a huge magnetic storm, or even the development of Quantum Computing (and the Quantum Apocalypse that their programming power can present).

But just like every kind of sci fi story, you need to ensure that you don’t let your idea drive the story. Keep it character driven!

A Tribal World – a social focussed post apocalypse

This next prompt is a long one – so stay with it!

In a post-apocalyptic world, it would be natural for groups of people to segment themselves to form their own communities, societies, and even networks of communities. We only need to look at every post-apocalyptic story ever written to see some semblance of this idea woven into the story; either as something for our protagonists to protect or something for them to overcome. For this post apocalyptic writing prompt I want you to imagine a world where this segmentation has been taken to the extreme and isolation has formed vastly different tribes of humans that have developed this way after a few generations of separation.

Imagine each tribe in this post-apocalyptic world has developed a unique culture, this culture shaped by their new experiences of the post apocalyptic world, their ancestral experiences of the old world, and the different environments they now need to face. This idea can be expanded upon depending on what kind of apocalypse you have. For instance, a nuclear apocalypse will drastically impact the environment whereas a geo-magnetic disaster may not. How does this impact how people function and the beliefs they hold?

For example, one of these new tribes may have developed a deep reverence for the natural world as the generations have come and gone. Perhaps they hold a belief that nature is sacred – more so than humans – and must be protected and respected at all costs. Such a tribe may have a detailed system of farming in a sustainable way and raising animals in a way that shows them a great deal of respect.

The people that are participants of this tribe may take this belief and implement it across all of their day-to-day living such as wearing clothing made from natural fibres. How are these clothes designed? Are they purely functional? Or are they bestowed with symbols of the earth and the elements? How do they handle sickness and medicine? Do they draw everything they use from the natural world or are segments of this tribe hypocritical in using old world knowledge?

Another tribe in this new world might have a society focussed around a complex system of trade. Maybe in this tribe certain goods or skills are highly valued and sought after – so much so that a class system has evolved? How do they trade? Do they use currency? Or is it a system closer to traditional socialist communism? How does blacksmithing, carpentry, or medicine fit into this society? Are they valued? Are they not? What about the people responsible for cleaning the streets? A fun thought could be that such as tribe would likely have an apprenticeship style system like times of old. Do fathers and mothers teach their sons and daughters certain skills? Perhaps it is forbidden to learn a skill or trade out-with your family’s specialty. Are certain families known for certain things?

As an added dimension to think about, it is often the case that factions or tribes will like to distinguish themselves from others through how they dress and their aesthetics. Perhaps some of your tribes may have developed a ritualistic use of tattoos? Do tattoos denote importance? Status? Maybe the elaborate body art people indulge in tells the story of their lives and the lives of their ancestral line?

When it comes to being a writer the options are truly endless for stories such as these. The only rules that you’ll have to limit your story and your world are the internal limits you set for it! Take this opportunity to explore how these tribes would function and how they may finally react when interacting with one another for the first time. Delving into the nuance of human culture, customs, and beliefs makes for an interesting world. Make each tribe its own with very detailed reasoning behind every quirk they may have – this will help you develop a world that feels real, complex, layered, and rich with storytelling potential.

Remember – having too much depth and intricacy for a world is never a bad thing. Just remember that you don’t need to show it all or shout to the roof tops about it in your story.

The Technological Convergence – A Scifi post apocalyptic story Prompt

For this idea, I want you to imagine your character living in a world that has been fractured by technological, religious-like zealots. The primary concept for this kind of idea or world is that the development of a new technology has divided people about how to use it, what to use it for, and the ethical considerations around using the technology.

A prime, recent example of such a technology could be the rising use of artificial intelligence in every day life. Be it language models, machine learning devices, or some other type of AI, what would happen when groups of activists for or against the idea begin to enforce their will violently? What if one group choses to exploit the technology for personal or societal gain and another group choses to condemn use of the technology?

While this is a very ‘black and white’ kind of dystopia in that it provides a clear cut difference between two rival factions, it can present a lot of interested moral considerations.

A simple way to add a deeper moral dilemma to such an idea would be to broach the subject of AI sentience. What is sentience? What is consciousness? Can a machine have such a designation?

These kinds of questions aren’t new but could be presented as the catalyst for the conflicts that have formed the dystopia your characters now live within. These ideas could be very loosely related to the plot and characters themselves and could easily serve as a backdrop – like radiation would do in a post apocalyptic story idea set in a post-nuclear setting. It plays a role in the story, but the story doesn’t need to be centric to the concept. Rather, the concept can present an interesting, dynamic setting for your story to unfold.

Maybe, for instance, you decide to write about a child growing up in such a world. Maybe they aren’t tied to any particular viewpoint on the technological convergence, rather, they need to deal with the dystopian world that is the result of it (without having any real control over the situations and conditions that have led to their situation). Maybe they are grappling with coming to terms about the societal and moral conflict; how would it be taught? Are children conditioned in a certain way by care takers based on their own bias?

Start exploring the possibilities such a world can present for the kind of character you want to focus on!

Other Types Of Apocalypse To Consider

a man wearing a hasmat suit as inspiration for a dystopian writing prompt

But we can’t forget about other famous apocalypse types like the zombie apocalypse, alien invasion, or something more supernatural like demons, the rapture, and ancient evils. But most of these types of apocalypse will have conventions that are paramount for the genre and it can be easy to stick to these conventions because they work.

There is nothing wrong with that and it is a great place to start. However, just because there are conventions doesn’t mean you need to follow them all of the time. With that said, here are some more miscellaneous prompts to feed your creative mind:

  • The cosmic horror apocalypse. Lovecraftian horror, as it is sometimes called, is a great place to dabble for ideas of your own. Begin to study the ‘Old Ones’ and start to imagine what it would be like if they finally arose (like it is often eluded to in cosmic horror). What would happen if these ‘Old Ones’ finally got their way? What would happen to the death cults that succeed in bringing them back? What would happen to everyone else? 
  • The Alien Apocalypse. This one is often a fan favourite of the post apocalyptic genre but it can often be easy to make it too dire. How could humanity win against such a superior force? Why even invade if they stand a chance of losing? These are tough questions to tackle as a writer but if you go for this story type they are a must. Think about what brought the aliens here in the first place? Why can’t they co-exist with humanity? Why even invade in the first place?
  • The Mutant Apocalypse. The often forgotten cousin of the zombie apocalypse, this type of apocalypse holds so much room for the development of ideas. Are the mutants feral? Or maybe the mutants cause a caste or class system? How do ordinary people react? Will they be outlawed or clench power over their less evolved peers?
  • The Religious Apocalypse. This one is a very touchy subject for many people for obvious reasons. But what would happen if the rapture began? Will it be true to certain holy scripts? Or diverge entirely? What moral system will you choose? 

Try taking a look at some of these apocalypse types and take short notes of aspects that of are particular interest to you. It is very possible to combine ideas from different sub-genres to help build up your own ideas. For example, what if a mutants are seen as the coming of angels? Or, what if aliens are ancestors of cosmic horror’s ‘Old Ones’?

A Final Note

There are so many concepts out there to help you build your ideal post apocalyptic world and it can be very easy to get lost in world building. Use these ideas as a spring board into building your world but keep it simple. 

Worlds that are too complex from a philosophical or societal angle will be hard to write about – and hard to use to tell compelling stories. Now get researching and have fun!

Or, if you feel like it, take a look at Lore’s blog for our most recent articles. We are also over on Twitter, so feel free to join the conversation there!

FAQs About Dystopias

What are the 4 types of dystopia?

While there’s no set, all-inclusive list of the types of dystopia that can be written about, from a top-level viewpoint, there exists a general consensus that most dystopias can be categorized as one of the following: Orwellian, Huxleyan, Kafkaesque, and Phildickian. They each have their own differences and unique characteristics.

What is an Orwellian dystopia?

This dystopia was coined after the work of George Orwell. An Orwellian dystopia is, by most, considered one of the more popular dystopias to be written about in modern times. This kind of dystopia denotes an attitude and a brutal policy of draconian control by propaganda, surveillance, disinformation, denial of truth – usually by some form of governing body or central government. It is also characterised by manipulation of the past to shape a desirable future or to erase atrocities. It also includes the construct of the “unperson”—a person whose past atrocity is idealised from the public record and memory, and in some dystopian texts this is taken further by being practised by repressive government entities or governing bodies.

What is a Huxleyan dystopia?

These dystopias are characterised as having a rule by democratic, totalitarian, capitalist, and/or technocratic systems. However, these systems are skewed and presented as utopias by the offering of a surplus of choice as a means of control by a governing body or person. This is usually realized through desire, debt, narcotic & technical necessity where the individual is concerned and enforced through the implicit threat of or use of violence (be it physical, emotional, or psychological violence).

What is a Kafkaesque dystopia?

This term was coined after the work of Franz Kafka. This kind of dystopia is a more subtle and is often non-violent (but not always non-violent). It is a kind of systematic dystopia. It usually refers to a kind or form of ‘red tape’ and ‘bureaucracy’ as being the main dystopian antagonists, as in, the characters in such a dystopia can never accomplish anything of substantial value (socially or financially) due to some kind of red tape or a bureaucracy. These dystopias are often seen as being pyrrhic in that that chip away at the mental fortitude of the people within them and they are very difficult to overcome unless you are an individual ‘at the top’ or ‘in the know’.

What is a Phildickian dystopia?

This kind of dystopia was named after the work of Philip K. Dick; an American science fiction author. This kind of dystopia is defined by the replacement of reality with an abstract or manufactured version of reality; a pseudo reality of kinds. These kinds of dystopias lean in heavily to the perceived paradise of these pseudo realities in which people reside and exert control over people through these realities. For instance, the Matrix could be considered Phildickian, so too could the Black Mirror episode ‘San Junipero’ – however, the caveat of free will and the choice to be a part of this pseudo reality are important to consider. Most Phildickian style dystopias will take the agency of choice from the characters. These pseudo realities also usually have punishment systems involving banishment to the real world or exclusion from these paradise-like pseudo realities. This is a key element in the control of the subject that forms Phildickian dystopian ideas.

What was the first dystopian story?

The dystopia is a more modern genre (or sub-genre) and it is widely considered that the idea of or concept of a dystopia was invented by Yevgeny Zamyatin in his novel My (1924; We).

What is an example of a dystopia?

Some popular examples of dystopian fiction include George Orwell’s 1984, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Further Reading