On Tuesdays, I’ll be discussing typical tropes, clichés, and stereotypes used in writing and how you can avoid them when crafting your own story.
A lot of people these days are really interested in settings where the world has gone to crap. Whether it’s through alien invasion, viral outbreak, nuclear bombs, Biblical destruction, zombie infestation, or governmnt-ordained enslavement, the breakdown of society or destruction of life as we know it is a popular theme for modern media.
Why it’s bad: So, it’s not necessarily bad, but it isn’t particularly good. This is a trope that’s right in that neutral zone, where it can go either way. The biggest problem is that the market has become supersaturated with these stories, so if you want to break out with a novel about the apocalypse, you’re going to have to find a way to really set yourself apart. There’s something about the end of the world that really draws people, but if they open up your book and see a carbon-copy of every other apocalyptic story out there, they’re not going to read it. It’s like writing a story about a ragtag group of people making a journey to stop an evil villain. Thousands of stories have already been written about it, so you’re going to have a tough time setting yourself apart.
How you can fix it: Not writing it at all is definitely a way to fix it, but I’m guessing you’re not really on that
train, are you? Yeah, me neither. I’m guilty of using this trope in my upcoming novel, Antanama. In fact, my story is even worse as far as tropes go because the “end of the world” is caused by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Why is it worth writing, then? After all, hasn’t that same plot point been used a hundred-thousand times before? It’s because I make it different, and I pay attention to detail. Let’s break this down.
- Do some freaking research. There’s a reason The Last of Us has been number one on UK game sales charts for six weeks in a row, graphics, character development, and gameplay aside. The creators of the game were inspired by a fungus that already exists, then manipulated it to fit their story. Are humans ever actually going to need to fear Cordyceps? No. It’s a huge leap from insect nervous systems to human brains. However, that this it is based on something that exists at all is enough to make a skeptic reader, player, or watcher nod their head and say, “Okay, I see where you’re coming from.” You also need to focus on the bigger picture that a lot of people seem to forget somehow: the world. Different countries are going to react differently to the same apocalypse. Some places will be less susceptible to an alien invasion because of where they’re situated geographically. Some countries are better prepared to handle a dangerous viral epidemic. Apocalypses also have a significant effect on the climate. For Antanama, I spent two full weeks doing preliminary research before I wrote a single word of the actual story. I went to the library and checked out books, I read online articles about fallout shelters, global warming, and how societies react to disaster, and I contacted experts on nuclear warfare and nuclear winter. I did all of this because it’s important to have a clear understanding of what’s happening in your fictional world and what got it there. Speaking of which…
- Know the steps that lead to the apocalypse. I can’t tell you how annoying it is to start in on something and immediately think, “There’s no possible way this could happen.” I don’t care how “speculative” your fiction is. If my first thought is that it’s outrageously unbelievable, I’m going to put it down. It doesn’t matter if your story is set on Earth or if it’s in another universe entirely. The pathway to the apocalypse needs to be plausible based on the rules of your world. You don’t have to ever mention the specifics of what got the world to its current point, though. You just have to know it in your head. However, it’s not as simple as saying, “Country X and Country Y have been at war for 50 years, and in Year Z, Country X launches all its nuclear bombs at Country Y.” That’s not nearly enough. You need to take some time to think, “Okay, so why are Country X and Country Y at war? What stops them from achieving peace? What acts as the catalyst for launching these nuclear missiles? How does the rest of society react once they’ve been launched? What are socio-economic implications of that?” If you can pull it off and actually answer these questions, you’re golden. You’ll have created something feasible, and even if you don’t mention it to your audience, it will show in the way you write about the world. Your audience will know that you weren’t lazy just because that knowledge and understanding is going to show in the confidence of your work.
- Do something different. We all know the story of how White Action Guy lost his wife and/or child in the apocalypse and later became the Reluctant Hero of the world. We expect the invading aliens to either want to wipe us off the planet or enslave us. We’re never surprised when the post-apocalyptic dictatorship has a secret police that monitors everyone’s thoughts and moves. There are tons of things that could happen after the apocalypse, but the plot points that writers tend to choose are often overused and trite. You can find something else to do with it. You’re a writer. You’re creative. So use that big brain of yours and start thinking about how your story can be set apart from the other fifty-thousand books out there about zombies and asteroids.
Bottom line: Apocalypses can be found in almost any science-fiction novel you pick up these days, so if you’re going to write about it, you need to find a way to make your story deeply unique. It’s going to be hard to resist the clichés that want to weasel their way into your story, but if you give it enough thought and enough research, you’ll be able to do it.
So, go on, write, and break that trope.