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Basically, my story follows a group of 6 people (and 1 mutant human) exploring a barren wasteland of what used to be the USA.

The world they inhabit was created through a nuclear war, that led to a nuclear winter wiping out a good majority of the population and and animal life, and completely collapsing civilization.

I want my setting to be unique from the Fallouts or Mad Maxs settings, but I don’t know how. I haven’t figured out what could to differentiate myself, so that is my question today. How do I create a unique spin on a nuclear post-apocalypse?

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    I object to your saying "a group of 6 people (and 1 mutant human)". In science fiction many characters are people who are not humans, and some not even organic beings but computers and robots. But you restrict people to humans, and not to all of them since a mutant human is not counted as people, so you are claiming that some humans are not people. Contnued. – M. A. Golding Aug 18 '20 at 17:42
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    Continued. Furthermore calling someone a mutant human is meaningless. All humans have genes which have mutated many times over billions of years from their original states, which is why they are not single celled organisms. So you are a "mutant" since you have such mutated genes and calling someone a mutant is meanngless. – M. A. Golding Aug 18 '20 at 17:42
  • @M.A.Golding: OP didn't specify whether the "people" were of human extraction, or were- as you've pointed out "characters [...] who are not humans, [...] not even organic beings but computers and robots". There are multiple SF stories- in fact I'd called it a fairly common trope- where it is only revealed gradually that characters are thoroughly non-human, even if in earlier narrative they exhibit typical human behaviour and characteristics. – Mark Morgan Lloyd Aug 19 '20 at 13:28
  • Saberhagen's "Swords" fantasy books had a unique take on a post nuclear apocalypse. – Michael Richardson Aug 19 '20 at 15:55
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    @DT Cooper: I'm sorry these comments somehow devolved into an argument over whether your question is bigoted against a non-existent person belonging to a non-existent group... – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Aug 19 '20 at 19:03

11 Answers 11

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I love questions like this! Here's some ideas I came up with. (And this video is also an excellent watch to learn what to avoid in this genre, so I recommend that too.)

My advice, in brief, is this:

Either avoid the cliches of the nuclear apocalypse genre, or twist them in a creative way.

You've seen Mad Max, Fallout, and similar media, and a lot of that media tends to share certain common ideas about a nuclear apocalypse setting, to the point where many of them do it almost exactly the same way. This isn't necessarily bad - after all, tropes are tools - but if you're trying to differentiate your setting from those settings, these common traits might be some things to avoid. You're trying to make your story unique, to put your own spin on things, and that means taking the ideas from those who came before you and twisting them, or telling them from a different perspective.

Here are some typical nuclear apocalypse genre cliches, and how you can either avoid them or put your own spin on them.

A tough-as-nails, gruff protagonist with no clear motivations.

The "Sole Survivor," the "Wanderer," the "Mariner" - all of these are just names for the protagonist of a nuclear apocalypse story, and that protagonist tends to have very specific genre cliches. They will be gruff, hard, super tough, and they might drive a cool vehicle or have lots of weapons to defend themselves. They wander the wasteland in search of... something vague. Revenge? Greed? Sometimes that's not even clear. And they're tough. That's the most important thing. They're also typically a grizzled, unshaven white male in their mid-thirties or forties, maybe with a dead wife or a missing or dead child - what Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation succinctly calls a "hairy dad."

It's a little boring, isn't it? That's because it's been absolutely done to death.

In order to put a spin on the usual genre cliches, you could have your protagonist deliberately spurn some of these traits. Instead of being a gruff, no-nonsense man of few words, what if your protagonist was a scientist who survived the apocalypse through technological prowess and using their knowledge and book smarts to purify water and find food, a la The Martian, rather than just generically "being tough"? What if instead of being super paranoid and liking to work alone, they were soft and friendly and helpful, trusting others and being generally warm and likable, like the Mandalorian? There are so many ways to be creative with an apocalyptic protagonist beyond being the generic Sole Survivor type, so embrace it!

Barren, desert wasteland with ruined cities, desolate hills... and nothing else.

The vast majority of nuclear apocalypse settings in media have the world be a hot, scorching barren desert wasteland dotted with the ruins of cities. It sounds interesting in theory, but it often just serves to have characters walking across vast boring stretches of empty land, and scavenging around for resources - which is hard to write in an engaging way, because it's just not very interesting. How often in Fallout do you just walk around giant areas with nothing to do or see? Why not mix up your wasteland and make it more than just a generic desert?

Some of the most engaging missions in Fallout games don't take place in the wasteland - rather, they take place inside abandoned robot factories where all the robots have gone bonkers and try to kill their guests, or inside a diner run by a weirdo druggie lady whose son is hooked on chems. The best stories in your apocalypse setting will come from the interesting places and landmarks that populate your wasteland, not the wasteland itself. Focus on that.

Alternatively, why be limited to just a barren desert wasteland at all? Waterworld did a fantastic play on a post-apocalypse setting by having the world be flooded by the melting of the ice caps, making for a crazy, weird and cult-classic high-seas adventure that is still to this day one of the most unique apocalypse settings ever made.

Mutants and radiation powers.

You know what I'm talking about - the thing in basically every nuclear apocalypse setting where the vague force of "radiation" and "radioactivity" has warped animals and people into crazy mutants. The cockroaches are giant now and they glow! People have turned into skinless ghouls or three-eyed hunchbacks! Wild stuff! Except that the concept has been sort of done to death, and it's not at all how radiation works in the real world, so in order to make this interesting you'd have to really shake things up.

Instead of going in the typical, "crazy science" direction, why not go in a realistic direction and portray what actually happens to people who are exposed to radiation in the real world - that is, radiation poisoning, leukemia and cancers? That could make for strong human narratives. Maybe you could have a side plot where one of the characters gets genuinely ill from radiation sickness when they first go out into the wasteland and are exposed to radioactive debris. That would be far more engaging and interesting than just "wow, Timmy grew three eyes!"

Heavy metal band survivors, outlaws, anarchists, and bandit gangs.

These survivors are tough and nasty, man! They wear crazy biker clothes, have mohawks, and wear tons of neon pink for some reason, and they all ride motorcycles and drive around the wasteland in search of gasoline and people to rob, or something. They don't follow the rules!

...Except that literally nobody in a real apocalypse would ever act this way if they were smart. Robbing people and trashing places is not a good way to survive, and "anarchy" and "doing whatever you want" isn't conducive to being in an organized crime syndicate with strong goals and hierarchies. Your bandits wouldn't be able to predate enough or cooperate enough to survive, and your "tough as nails" outlaw renegade gang would quickly die out. Think about gangs in the real world. Are they "wild" and "lawless", or do they have hierarchies and rules just like any other society? As human history has shown time and time again, cooperation and strong leadership always triumphs over anarchy and banditry. If you're going to have bandit gangs and outlaws, don't make them wild psychopaths with no morals or goals - make them dangerous and organized. That makes them both more interesting and more realistic, and turns them into a real, genuine threat to your protagonists.

Ask yourself these questions while writing bandits and outlaws into your apocalypse narrative:

  • Why would somebody want to join this gang? What does it offer? The answer should be more complicated than just "freedom" or "power" or "stealing stuff."

  • What is the hierarchy and social structure in this gang? Is there a "boss," or are there multiple commanders who keep the peace and curtail all these unruly gangsters into a coordinated force?

  • What are their unique traits that distinguish them from other groups in this setting? This should hopefully be more complex than just a cool outfit or a specific catchprase or haircut.

Zombies, undead, infected, walkers, Zeds...

Whatever you call them, so many apocalypse novels and movies have done zombies to death that you'd really have to put a new spin on them to stand out. How will your zombies be different from the generic zombies we see all the time in pop culture? What's cool or especially scary about them?

The Last Of Us did something new with zombies by having the zombies be fungal, and basing them on the real-world Cordyceps fungus, giving them an interesting basis in science and a unique visual design. Instead of just being generic dead people, the zombies had glowing mushrooms and fungal plates sprouting eerily out of their faces and bodies, and each zombie type made biological sense - "clickers" were zombies whose fungal growths covered their eyes, so they adapted to hunt by sound. The game also explored the human aspect of zombies deeply, and had characters discuss them philosophically, asking whether there are humans left inside of them and whether it's ethical to kill them.

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    I had an idea for a larger town in my setting being ruled by a bunch of pseudo-mafia/cartel type organizations. Basically, they’d have a monopoly on the food and water supply, along with dealing in slavery, drugs and other illicit trades – DT Cooper Aug 18 '20 at 3:37
  • @DTCooper That sounds like a great idea, reminds me of New Vegas :) – Sciborg Aug 18 '20 at 3:45
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    Post apocalyptic setting with guitars ? And for main character with non-standard motivations there is Postman – PTwr Aug 18 '20 at 11:05
  • @DTCooper Reminds me of The Book of Eli :-) – BalinKingOfMoria Reinstate CMs Aug 18 '20 at 18:26
  • @DTCooper well, if there wasn't one catch with this town: why, and with whom, would this organisation do "buisiness" - remember criminal activities arise with culture and increasing inhabitant numbers. This organisation could rule, like the organisation in new vegas - but ultimatively, even the organisation in new vegas is just a bunch of random thugs doing what they want – clockw0rk Aug 19 '20 at 21:16
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Unique Is Overrated

Superman and Iron Man are both superheroes who fly, can shoot beams, can lift things heavier than ordinary people, etc. They have a lot in common. They also have a lot of differences. Iron Man is a different take on a superhero than Superman was, but it doesn't try to be a superhero story at the same time it's trying to avoid being a superhero story.

You're probably better off not trying to actively avoid all resemblance to existing post-apocalyptic properties. That being said, what is it you want to write, really? (That's a rhetorical question.)

It's generally not good to start with, "I want this story to be unique." Start with, say, "I really want to write a post-apocalyptic political thriller, about a genius who is almost universally hated, except by his handful of allies, because of his mutated body. I want to write about how he gathers power, mostly indirectly, slowly building unity across the scattered enclaves of survivors." And, because you know what you want to write, then if you borrow a bit from Mad Max, or from actual medieval politics, or anything else, it can be subservient to your vision.

On the other hand, if your vision is more like an ironic buddy comedy road trip through the ruins of an empty world... Same principle. Whatever you borrow will serve the theme you picked.

The worst thing to do is to decide your goal is merely to be unique, which means running away from everything interesting or memorable that anyone else has ever thought of.

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  • While I agree with your general premise I contest your point about Superman and Iron Man. While they are far from unique now, they were very new ideas for the time they were first created, which speaks to the power of finding a new and unique take on an old archetype (that of a super human hero). If someone put out a new comic today about a super-hero that was just like Superman or Iron Man, no one would care or take it seriously – Kevin Wells Aug 18 '20 at 22:11
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    @KevinWells My point was that you don't create Iron Man (at one time a "new take") by avoiding what made Superman. Ironically, the path the the most engaging AND unique stories is to not chase uniqueness as a goal. Difference for the sake of difference gives you modern art, which in trying to be utterly different than anything else makes it all blur into a sameness of meaninglessness. Just do something well and worth doing, and you'll generally find it's unique enough. – Jedediah Aug 18 '20 at 22:47
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One option would be to approach the results of the nuclear war from a totally different angle than previous stories have.

Perhaps instead of a world full of anarchy and weapons you end up with a kind of utopia. Since most people died of the nuclear fallout and winter rather than from the bomb blast itself, most of their stuff will be perfectly usable. After the population drops you suddenly have a lot of resources and technology that is now split between fewer people. Do you need a new car? Go take one from the side of the road, whoever owned it before is definitely dead. Want to live in a mansion? No problem, there are plenty to go around for the few people who are left alive.

No one would need to horde anything or be overly protective of their things the way we see in most post-apocalyptic settings because there would be no scarcity.

I would think that in that situation people would end up congregating around city centers and using the new abundance of resources to set up a communal social structure. They could use their various types of expertise to start getting things back up and running, at least enough to keep their community supplied while they try to work out how to start farming/ranching again.

Eventually the resources that were abundant would begin to run out, and certain things would become either unavailable or very expensive, such as gas which takes a significant infrastructure and specialized workforce to produce.

You could also explore how that society would grow over time. One option would be a kind of social stratification that would occur as people continue to trickle into the city. The people who got there first claimed the best houses/cars/etc. and people who got there later have to settle for the simpler things. This could turn the formerly communal society into a kind of caste system based on when you became a resident.

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    Also remember that your setting can be post-nuclear-war without being a barren wasteland. Most plants and animals can live even when there is significant radioactive fallout in their habitat. There are likely higher rates of cancer, but it won't kill you immediately. Even Chernobyl has tons of plant and animal life because nobody is there to bother them. So maybe your world actually has more wildlife and vibrant plant life – Kevin Wells Aug 18 '20 at 22:30
  • 2 things: first, i think what naturally would happen was more of a feudal system, like look at feudal japan or france. second, while it is not as hard as you think to produce gas (find/make oil, collect it, destill it several times) it is MUCH harder to produce specialised electric devices. A simple generator would be doable, but what about a sender / receiver of some sort. See the anime Dr. stone and you know what I mean – clockw0rk Aug 19 '20 at 10:06
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    @clockw0rk The reason I think gas would be a greater challenge is that it is one time use. There are a lot of electronics that exist already, and with a small population people could just use those for a long time. Gas would run out quickly and would need to be constantly produced, which could take a long time to get up and running. – Kevin Wells Aug 19 '20 at 15:50
  • Sure, it would take some time to refine oil ,if people would not find other suitable chemicals - remember a motor runs with about anything that has the right volume, and it's common practise, at least here in germany, to produce gas from plant oil , although it would take quite some time to find out how to produce it in bigger amounts, even for a chemist. On the other hand, how will you produce electricity? Remember, all chips have chirped out from an EMP, all data is lost cause hard drives got overwritten by magnetic pulse. You have the physical stuff there, but could not use it – clockw0rk Aug 19 '20 at 21:09
  • @clockw0rk go to the library? – user253751 Aug 20 '20 at 12:50
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Society doesn't entirely collapse. I think one of the most done-to-death tropes of apocalyptic fiction is that society is so screwed that there is nothing left but roving bands of Dangerous People Who Hurt Things.

I personally would like to see real progress being made in setting up a functioning society. Not everywhere has to be run by a madman, and not every working settlement has to be on the verge of collapse when the Dangerous People attack. Many pieces of fiction have this magical land that once you get there everything is OK (see Will Smith's parody of I am Legend for an example), but then the story ends. I want to know what happens inside, and how they face and get over their challenges.

You can still have those dangerous people, but it would definitely be unique to see a re-imagined restart of society that, despite challenges, is actually working.

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  • +1 See also Lucifer's Hammer by Niven & Pournelle for an entirely plausible post-apocalyptic world (comet strike, not nuclear) with plenty of bad actors but which also maintains enclaves of relative safety and security through leadership and organization. And organic chemistry . . . . – MTA Aug 18 '20 at 19:37
  • See also "The Gone-Away World" by Nick Harkaway for a (not entirely realistic but fun) depiction of an emerging bureaucracy in a post-(not quite nuclear)apocalyptic society. – IMil Aug 19 '20 at 3:12
  • u could be willing to rebuild the world, i was willing to burn it all down. see, we would land in a feudal system, like egypt or japan. the weak feed the strong, as it has always been, just with extra layers. – clockw0rk Aug 19 '20 at 21:12
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Accept the facts. Humanity is dead. Upper life forms are dead. Life is dead.

Yet life is stubborn, evolution defeats all disasters and strives in spite of them.

Create your own new life forms, evolved from plant, marine or current lower level life forms. Give them intelligence. Allow more types to have higher levels of consciousness this time around. Create crocodile against cherry blossoms wars.

And then... allow a team of human space explorers that were stuck for thousands of years in suspended animation, land back on the earth that they can view as extraterrestrial. The mutant may even be one of them, affected in time, during suspended animation, by radiation that the others have escaped.

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  • This is quite reminiscent of a novel I read decades ago (and was not new even then). – Jedediah Aug 18 '20 at 16:03
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    @Jedediah Oh well... As you said, "unique is overrated". I did not read that novel. I just imagined that creating a new world gives unlimited options for being different. – Thalia Aug 18 '20 at 16:13
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To give you an entirely different post-apocalyptic setting that may spark some inspriation,

Horizon Zero Dawn

Okay, it's not technically a nuclear apocalypse, but the apocalypse in their story does involve the entire Earth being stripped of all life, and it's set in the former United States - around Colorado/Utah/Wyoming.

The most intriguing part of the plot of the game is discovering how life managed to survive, and how that ties into the world that the characters live in. You come across ruins and artifacts of the old civilisation, but also get to see the new human societies that have developed.

It's very much a different aesthetic to the Fallout-style barren wasteland, so maybe it's not exactly what you're looking for. But if you get creative with your apocalypse, you can imagine and create a lot of variety in your post-apocalypse world.

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  • If this setting was done by a mainstream game, I don't think it fits the "unique take" that the OP is looking for – Kevin Wells Aug 20 '20 at 15:10
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Some things come to mind:

Why a nuclear holocaust?

Keep in mind humanity is fucked in this setting. This means no random deus-ex-machina, no hope, no ideals. Why wouldn't your characters just rape and burn everybody they find? Also, such a setting is pretty lame since every conflict almost automatically resolves around "where to find water, and after that where to find food". This sounds boring. There is nothing to do. I would not want to play this in a video game, neither in a PNP game, why is it good for a story?

Science fiction is fantasy!

Have a look at the Shadowrun universe, especially the parts about Washington D.C. After a big [nuclear bomb / explosion? ] killed a dragon there, a rift opened and all sorts of spirits, specters and creeping horrors emerged from that. The whole city is a nuclear wasteland with toxic sewers and the like. But: life outside the zone goes on as usual ( a bit like in "stalker" ), which means there are companies and the like who have a reasonable interest in data / resources that are still somewhere in the ruins! Also, a normal life outside means there is a flow of technology coming into the zone, so you have certain options of building something up in your story ( a BBEG who collects gold=? a merenary who tracks and hunts down survivors for cash=? ). The fact that this is high-cyberpunk mixed with magic makes it unique in a way. I'm not saying "go for magic", but think about whether you would build the world less on reality and more on fantasy. Maybe you want to go for the classical "4 chosen souls" trope and have your characters fullfill their destiny. [ classic doesn't mean i like it - there is no destiny imho lol ] Maybe the story is on another planet where there are fast growing, intellectual plant-hybrids (like in the darkover stories, kind of), maybe a super-ai rebuilds a "society" in the means of replicating humans and simulating their behaviour by having them fight for tribal means or food.

Don't force yourself into this genre

You don't need to go for the classic "nuclear bomb" setting at all costs, do you? As meantioned in my first statement, this setting is hard and unforgiving, and it's easy to make it sound unreasonable or unlogical or simply to overdramatise the characters. The "The Last of us" setting is meant to read like your classic zombie apocalypse, but with the twist that the civilisation itself seems to be intact, leading to technology and political setups in the world. A world of tribes is much more flexible than a world of scavenges. Remember: Atomic bombs cause EMP -> no electricity, never ever. In fact, a modern age nuclear war is probably to be fought in space (in the stratosphere), because a nuke blown up in the stratosphere IS an EMP. Maybe go for this? The searching for the holy electricity, or rather technology, since after the blackout almost 70% of all knowledge was gone, and around 80 % of world's population died due to malnutrition. This would be kind of a Rimworld setup.

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  • "Why wouldn't your characters just rape and burn everybody they find?" Most people don't start committing heinous acts just because there is no government to enforce a punishment on them, so I don't see why that would happen in this situation. "I would not want to play this in a video game" There are a ton of great books that would make for terrible video games. I wouldn't want to play "The Great Gatsby" as a video game, but it is clearly an enduring and important story. "Science Fiction is Fantasy" The OP is telling a story set in the real world, not one with dragons – Kevin Wells Aug 20 '20 at 15:16
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They have The Plague, but they also have The Internet

Before the apocalypse, a lot of solar panels got deployed, and so some infrastructure is still running.

Personal solar recharges are common, and so personal mobile computers (a.k.a. cell phones). The audio switching is broken, but the internet somewhat works if you are in proximity of a big city.

Humans are few and rare. But there are no more vaccines, so any common diseases are now a potential plague. So no much hospitality from any traveler.

Write about these unfortunate travelers :)

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Focus on what you are bringing to the table

Don't start with the focus on what you don't want to write. Focus on what you do want to write. What's special about your ideas, beyond the post-nuclear apocalypse? Are you writing a gritty survivalist novel? Or a technofuture novel? Look at how S.M. Stirling for example handled something akin to this in the Emberverse novels - his setting is not particularly new for post-apocalypse (not nuclear, but same idea really), but what it is, is well adapted to what his interest is here. Figure out what you're writing, and then let the setting evolve around that.

Maybe your story needs a decent population to really work - you're writing a story with a subplot involving a crime boss who's trying to take over a region. Okay, you need a decent number of people for that, plus you need enough of a functional society that there's time for crime! Or maybe you want to write about regional warlords - okay, so now you need weapons, some feudal structure, that implies more of an agrarian society with less tech.

Or, if you are more focused on the survivalist side of things, you want more of an empty wasteland, Fallout style. That can still be plenty unique, because of the story you write in that setting. If the story is good, the right setting for the story will feel right for the story, and not repetitious.

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Since you're familiar with the various post-apo universes (I will use Fallout in this example) consider the following:

WHAT IF

You have things you know about certain universe (the canon), and you're familiar with them. You want to be different. Let your imagination loose and spin your stories in the "what if" direction:

  • What if the Chosen One didn't stop the Enclave and now we have a real pre-war government surviving?
  • What if only the good ol' US of A is a nuclear hellhole, and most of the world is just fine, and people just really avoid it because it is, well, a hellhole?
  • What if Mr. House didn't spend 200 years stroking his ego in a fancy casino and actually used his genius and technology to actively take part in the events that transpired?
  • What if the people of Commonwealth succeeded in forming provisional government and are working with the Institute for a better tomorrow?
  • What if China wasn't really destroyed and are now en route to rip you another one?

And so forth. Be different from canon by going in different direction than it went!

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A love story would be a unique spin on a nuclear apocalypse, but good love stories are hard to write since they easily become cheesy and uninteresting. That is unless they end tragically (and only happy endings are promoted enough to to have the potential of being commercially successful).

Hence, if you believe in the love story theme I think you need to start with making the decision: happy ending or tragic ending and take it from there.

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  • Thanks for joining and contributing an answer. That said, I don't think that love stories, even ones with sad endings, are unique and interesting premises. One of the great classics, Romeo and Juliet, is a love story with a tragic ending. Also the OP is looking for a unique setting for their story, not a unique plot – Kevin Wells Aug 20 '20 at 15:18

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