I am writing a story set after an apocalyptic event that has left only 0.1% of the world population intact. I originally wrote a zombie-like apocalypse but simplified it to a plague-like disease, as I felt the images of crazed zombies were pointless in a story that is about the rebuilding of civilisation.

In writing the first chapter and getting the setup done, I wonder how much detail is really required. I want to have my character emptying his town of the dead. I want new characters to be introduced over time as the group grows and have a voice in the narrative. Should I be explaining everyone's backstory even though they are talking about events 30 or 40 years after it all happened?

4 Answers 4


Nope. You don't have to give the backstory at all. Sometimes it's just not important to the story. Do make sure the reader understands the setting, but then just tell your tale.

That being said, you need to know the backstory. There will be some subtle (or maybe not so subtle) differences in how the characters act, what they do, what the world looks like, etc, all based on what actually happened in the past.


I would say the time to bring up the backstories of each character is when it feels right and feels worthwhile. That said, it may make sense to jot down some notes on what those backstories are now for later reference.

Your suggestion to save the apocalypse for later in the story makes sense to me. The people best suited to rebuild a world are probably not the same ones who were best suited to stopping the everything from coming apart more. Or maybe the apocalypse ended because some people just managed to survive until it was over. In either of these cases, the people who would be the focus of the story may very well not be dwelling on what happened, but thinking ahead to the future or about how to survive for today.

My personal recommendation for your first draft is to get as much of the detail down as you can so you don't forget, and leave refinement to later drafts. As they say, your first draft will always suck. It's more important to have a first draft that helps you get to the end with a story you like and your fans will love than it is to minimize the number of drafts.

Disclaimer: I've never published any literature. I've never finished anything to the point of being suitable to send to a publisher, or even an editor. My goal is to advise you against making my mistakes. Remember you can always change your path, so long as you remember enough of the world of the story you want to tell.


If you're setting your story after an apocalypse, readers are likely to be curious what happened. If your setting is several centuries post-apocalypse, it's not unreasonable that nobody would know, and it is less relevant to the ongoing story anyway. If, however your setting is only several decades after the apocalypse, some of your characters would have been born before/during the apocalyptic events, the whole thing would still be within living memory. The effects of the event would still be felt, its effects would still be present. (For example, if it were zombies, people would still maintain anti-zombie precautions.)

Do you necessarily need to satisfy the readers' curiosity and answer all their questions? Not necessarily - it depends on your story. But you need to know what the nature of the apocalyptic event was, because of the consequences of the event would be different depending on the event, and you need to be able to write that. If you know the event, and its particular consequences are present, that might be enough of a hint for your readers to figure out what happened - you don't need to tell them directly.

Now the backstory of the characters - again, as @Cyn points out, you need to know what their backstory is, because that backstory would shape who they are now. The apocalypse would be part of that backstory, whether they were born before, during, or after. How much of it you tell? As much as the story requires.

Another important note: you don't need to tell everything straight away. Some things can start out as a mystery, to be gradually revealed over the course of the story. If you've watched Firefly, you might remember how the backstories of the different crew-members are revealed differently: Mal and Zoe's story we know straight away, it's key to understanding them. We know Simon's story from the first episode onwards, but what's been done to River is an ongoing mystery that we learn bits and pieces of as the story progresses. We get hints that Shepherd Book and Inara have backstories, we are curious about them, but some muttonheads cancelled the show, so we never find out. And as for Wash, Jayne and Kaylee, for all we know - there's not much to tell. You can treat the backstories of you characters the same way: one character's story is interesting, so you reveal it when it's interesting and relevant, all together or in bits and pieces. Another character doesn't have much of a backstory, so you don't tell it.


If it has an influence on the story and plot, then yes. If it doesn't, don't add it in. A backstory isn't neccesary when it never gets brought up again. It must add something, wether that be a motivation for a character, an explanation of his actions, the adding of tension or information, or something similar. Don't add it for the sake of just having a background, but think about what you accomplish by showing your readers this.

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