Braaaaaaaaaiiiiins to help your Brains

Zombies might be the perfect tool to help improve pacing and dramatic tension in your writing. I’ve been reading Robert Kirkman’s excellent The Walking Dead comics and had been remarking to my friends on how they are more or less a non-stop cascade of bad things that happen to the main characters. I thought about this, as I’ve been trying more and more to not just read and enjoy but to study and absorb the material I look at, and I realized that it’s not just bad things that happen to the cast of characters in The Walking Dead. It’s a steady and increasing wave of highs and lows, which any writing text book will tell you is the core of a solid dramatic experience.

Stories about zombies are the perfect avenue to explore action, drama and pathos in your writing. The zombie world is one that is fraught with danger, filled with human emotion and human madness, has opportunities for hope to bloom and then be dashed against the ground, and is wide open enough for you to never run out of options. There are many scenarios that you can write that meet these criteria, but none that are as easy to jump directly into as the zombie apocalypse.

There are many features of the zombie scenario that make it writer-friendly. Everyone understands the zombie. We know what it is and what it does and what it means. It’s horrifying without being too abstract and the zombies are quite clearly us and that makes for some great thematic fodder. No one needs to understand what caused the zombie outbreak. Most great zombie films never address this. It could be supernatural, it could be scientific. It could be an accident, it could be evolution. You don’t need to ever explain it, but discussing what brought it about can fill pages upon pages. It doesn’t need to end, either. You don’t have to wrap up the zombie apocalypse. Your hero doesn’t need to save the day. In fact, if you’re doing it right, chances are your hero won’t survive. You’re able to craft a tidy little ending by leaving things wide open with a zombie story (well… to an extent).

Constantly ratcheting a story up to more and more tense situations can be difficult to sustain in many writing scenarios. There comes a point where you simply cannot top yourself anymore and you must revert to gimmicks or just plain end your story. With a zombie outbreak, there’s simply no limit to the heights and depths you can expand to. Maybe you start small with your hero never being able to return home, but then they find a warehouse to hide in and friends to stay with. Then a friend is bitten and they have to flee and lose companions in the process. Then they find a car to escape in, but the car soon runs out of gas. They find a gas station, but in a scuffle with some zombies end up blowing up the gas station, which brings a zombie horde running. They escape the horde, but end up leading them right to a school where children are hiding out. They help the children escape but…

You can go on and on and on and explore just about any permutation for relationships or scenario for danger that you wish. Characters can fall in love, develop neuroses, become psychotic, start to hallucinate, some will rise to be heroes, others will fall and become villains, children are born and lost, societies can rise and fall. You can do all of this and more and do it with relative ease because people will understand. The zombie scenario itself presents a plausible background for everything. The hero all of a sudden cracks and starts trying to kill his friend… we understand, a zombie just killed his daughter, so he snapped. Or he’s seen so many zombies he can no longer differentiate the living from the dead. Or he’s in some form of psychotic state. The stresses of this world setup are so extreme, you can take the story virtually anywhere and your audience will come along with you.

Consider the zombie story next time you’re looking to beef up your ability to carry a plotline along a steadily rising wave of action. It’s the perfect way to explore amazing highs and absurd lows for your story in a manner that will remain compelling.

And consider this your hint for what I’ll be tackling eventually for my Friday fiction.

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