Literary Terms: Apocalyptic, Dystopian, and Post-Apocalyptic

May 11, 2015

The end of the world, a cataclysmic future, oppressive governments. The future of mankind has been imagined and reimagined in literature for decades, but it seems lately there has been an influx of stories on the topic. This week we’re looking at the apocalypse in fiction. To start it off, we’ll examine three end-of-the-world terms that are often used synonymously, but are really quite different.


Dystopian: According to, the word dystopia means “an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be.” In a dystopian novel, characters live in a world that is heavily regulated by a government or code of conduct. Often this society is pitched as idyllic — think The Giver — but is soon exposed for its rigid thinking or oppressive ideals. The popular Hunger Games trilogy or Fahrenheit 451 are excellent examples. In dystopian novels, the protagonist usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules. Dystopian novels become difficult to classify because they often take place after a large societal restructuring, usually because of a global event. In this way they might seem post-apocalyptic, but when the conflict of a novel focuses on the oppression of a government or set of ideas, rather than the direct consequences of a wide-spread tragedy, it is dystopian. Dystopian novels often focus on societies and cultures that appear stable and well established, whereas post-apocalyptic cultures are more imbalanced or volatile.

Apocalyptic: An apocalyptic novel tells the story of the end of the world, which occurs during the timeline of the story. The novels Outbreak and World War Z, or the movie Contagion, are good examples. In almost all apocalyptic stories life is threatened on a global scale: disease, natural disaster, war, or alien invasion, for example. The characters facing an apocalypse must try to outlive, outlast, or outsmart the hazards of a crumbling world, which is made increasingly unlikely when the majority of the population has fallen victim. It is common for apocalyptic novels to classify as “genre,” because the survival conflict is at the forefront of the story, making apocalyptic stories more plot driven than character based.

Post-Apocalyptic: After the zombies or super flu or nuclear war, the characters left to deal with the consequences are in a post-apocalyptic story. There are numerous examples: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I Am Legend, and the recent Station Eleven, The Dog Stars, and The Dead Lands all tell stories about people navigating a new and hostile world. The central conflict for characters in a post-apocalyptic story is managing the new physical, social, and cultural landscape left behind by a recent disaster. There are often fewer people and less established societies in post-apocalyptic novels, so the central conflict in these stories surrounds characters who are often fighting for resources or searching for other survivors.

Which end of the world story is your favorite? Do you have any favorite cross-genre end of the world novels? Tell us in the comments.

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