As a writer of fantastic fiction, I love placing a layer of the extraordinary on our everyday world and imagining the consequences. Drop in some real people facing the fantastic, and you’ve got the setup for a thriller. Make the fantastic pose a horrible threat to these people—the more horrible the better—and you’ve got horror, specifically survival horror. Make the fantastic pose the same horrible threat to everybody at once, and you’ve got the makings for the end of the world. The result ideally is a story that is believable, that scares and excites the reader, and, with the stakes being the survival of the human race or at least civilization as we know it, is stirring to the spirit as well as the intellect.
Somebody once asked horror author David Moody on Facebook for some advice on writing a zombie novel. Moody advised him to go to a crowded public place, picture something terrible happening, and then imagine how everyone would react. I laughed at this, as this is the classic horror writer—here’s this nice, ordinary, totally contented guy hanging out at the mall with his family, but he’s picturing slaughter and screams and columns of smoke rising up from his hometown. In Moody’s case, the result is typically fantastic: In his HATER, Danny, an average man, takes his family out, and they witness a brutal murder. Suddenly, everyone seems to be going crazy and killing people, and Danny and his family do not know who is going to turn next—it could be one of them, in fact. Thriller, horror, apocalypse: HATER has it all.
Moody’s advice got me wondering what I could offer to an aspiring writer interested in the zombie genre, and came up with ten thoughts that might prove useful:
1. Read everything. I constantly read books in the genre (and other genres as well). Not only do I want to see what other people are writing, I learn something from every book I read regarding style, voice, pacing, plotting, characterization, action, etc. Jeff Long taught me about horror, Jonathan Maberry about how to keep a story moving, Conrad Williams about putting grit into your realism, Jeff Carlson about conflict, David Moody about people responding realistically to stress, and so on: The list is endless.
2. Always be writing. Writers are always writing. They don’t do it only when seized by some massive wave of inspiration; they do it every day. But note that writing does not necessarily mean typing. I carry around a pen and small notebook in my back pocket at all times. During almost every still moment during the day—while I’m driving, taking a shower, walking down the street—I’m working through dialogue, plot, etc. When something good comes to mind, I write it down. Over time, these notebooks feed the outline, and ultimately the novel itself.
3. Conflict drives a story. The more central rule of creating writing is that conflict is interesting—conflict between people, between people and themselves, between people and zombies, between people and their environment. In a typical storyline, of course, this looks like: setup, story builds, climax, denouement. (Establish the normal, introduce the element that upsets the normal, and then establish the new normal.) Michael Crichton had a gift for layering multiple conflicts on top of each other. In DISCLOSURE, for example, once Tom Sanders settles the sexual harassment charges with the company, he learns that there is an even bigger threat to his career, one he must fix almost instantly. In some cases in Crichton’s work, one climax follows the other fast and sudden, leaving the reader breathless.
Conflict, however, should never be contrived. We’ve seen this before. In DAWN OF THE DEAD, a biker gang conveniently shows up near the end to raise the stakes. While Romero was pioneering, today that kind of thing should be avoided in zombie fiction. Similarly, we’ve all read stories where a survivor trips and drops their gun while the slow, shambling zombie advances with its chomping mouth; this has to be one of the most annoying tropes in zombie books. To see real conflict, watch AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD series, which has multiple layers of conflict working together beautifully, and done so realistically and naturally that we do not notice them; we simply enjoy a good story. Lori and Shane have a conflict in that Shane is in love with her. Rick and Shane have a great conflict in that Shane wants to do whatever is necessary to survive, while Rick wants to do the right thing to have something to live for, even if it risks survival. For a while Andrea had a conflict with her environment, making her want to “opt out.” Everybody has a conflict with the zombies that are trying to eat them. And so on.
Avoid villains that are bad seemingly for the sake of being bad. The best conflicts are between real people who simply want different things. Suppose we have a group of survivors, and one of them is wounded and needs help. They get to a hospital, where they think they can find supplies, and get shot at by a sniper firing out of one of the windows. They return fire, and a stalemate ensues during which time the survivors parley with the sniper and the wounded survivor continues to weaken. We find out that the sniper is actually a doctor who is protecting a group of sick children that he was treating before the apocalypse, and is still trying to keep alive. Now our empathy is torn as the reader. Who do we want to win? The reader should at this point want them to negotiate and work it out. Now you’ve got the reader on the hook. Can these people trust each other? Maybe they will work it out, maybe they won’t. Suppose the doctor dies. Suppose the survivor dies. The reader is much more engaged than simply, “He shot the rogue colonel in the chest and ran.”
Conflict drives a story, and it should always be real.
4. Write your fears, not your desires, into the apocalypse. I believe there are two types of apocalyptic fiction fans. One sees the apocalypse as a proving ground for themselves. Imagine roaming free, having survived while most have perished, and fighting an adversary over which you have many advantages, especially if the zombies are the shambling kind. An exciting idea, right? The other kind sees the apocalypse as just that, the end of the world. Imagine losing everybody you love. Isn’t that the most horrifying thing you can imagine?
While zombie fiction should deliver excitement, and function as thrillers, they should also frighten, functioning as horror. My advice to zombie authors is if you’re going for horror then avoid wish fulfillment, and do not fall in love with your characters. Let the story flow naturally, where it will, where it must.
5. Respect your reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. This is a phrase one hears a lot when talking about writing. It means when a reader reads something, they willingly put aside their disbelief in order to engage with a story. But the writer must meet the reader at least halfway. If the story forces conflicts, becomes predictable, has people doing superhuman (or amazingly stupid) things, and so on, the reader will be jarred from the story, and once they are jarred, the spell is broken. Bad writing does the same thing. Typos, bad grammar, and overly clever phrasing that calls attention to itself in third-person narration can all push the reader away.
Willing suspension of disbelief is an amazing thing if you think about it. Respect it.
6. Write a story about people with zombies, not about zombies with people. Readers need somebody to empathize with in the story; in a sense, characters stand in for the reader. As terrible things happen to these people, the reader feels like these things are happening to him or her. But if the reader has nobody to care about, they will not empathize.
This is an important rule: Give the reader people he or she can care about, and make them real flesh and blood people, not stereotypes.
Part of making them real people is for them to respond realistically to the horrible things happening to them. David Moody handles this skillfully in his AUTUMN series. In AUTUMN, after the world ends, most of the survivors congregate and then lie on the floor in virtually a catatonic state, unable to do anything. Moody’s survivors always appear as real people barely keeping it together under constant extreme stress. In my novel THE INFECTION, a boy asks a man what he misses most from the time before the world ended, and begins to rattle off what he misses: video games, fast food, the Internet. The man winces and leaves the room without a word. The man, we know, misses his wife, who is infected. In real life, we wouldn’t just shoot our loved ones when they become infected, and then move on as if nothing happened.
7. Do your homework. Writing about an apocalyptic survival situation requires research into many things—guns, field surgery, fire starting, water purification and so on. Do your homework, and get it right. This not only respects the willing suspension of disbelief of readers who know this stuff, but also creates more realism in your story. The most realistic you can make your story, the more frightening the monsters are that inhabit it.
In Conrad Williams’ ONE, a man crosses England through a fried landscape trying to find his son. His world is so detailed and realistically portrayed that you can almost taste the ash in the air. In my novel TOOTH AND NAIL, a story about a military unit deployed in New York City during the zombie apocalypse, I went all out for realism: In real life, soldiers get PTSD, vomit at the site of extreme gore, panic, refuse to shoot civilians, etc. Rifles jam, smoke obscures visibility, people communicate by radio, operations are planned, choices in decision-making create ethical dilemmas, etc. This realism flavors the novel and makes it even more gritty, dark, disturbing. Although some readers believe I am former military, I have never served. Instead, I did meticulous research, reading dozens of actual military manuals and other publications to learn the basics of small unit tactics, hand signals, radio protocols, equipment, slang, weapons, formations, chain of command, etc.
8. Innovate. To create a zombie story, the author of course needs to create zombies and set up the rules governing their behavior. Do your zombies shamble, run, or both? Are they living or undead? Are they cannibals? Are they attracted by sight, sound, hearing or all of the above? You can make almost any type of zombie work, as long as it is part of a story that is well told. Whatever you do, be consistent. If the zombies are attracted by sound only, they must always be attracted by sound, and nothing else, and the survivors should learn and exploit this at some point.
While consistency is important, however, once the reader understands the rules of your universe, things can get a bit predictable. For this reason, the story might be better if another threat were added, raising the stakes for the survivors.
The threat can come from any number of directions. It can be a ticking time bomb imposed by an unmanaged nuclear reactor in the region melting down, or an airstrike that will arrive at a certain time. It can be the zombies themselves, as in Ben Tripp’s RISE AGAIN, in which the zombies evolve from dumb shamblers into runners hunting in packs. In my novel THE INFECTION, I added monsters that evolve alongside the zombies.
Many writers are tempted to add a human threat; the back cover of these books often says something about our fellow man being more dangerous than zombies. The threat might ultimately manifest as a traitor in the group of survivors, or rogue soldiers, or a biker gang. Because people are less predictable than zombies, many writers use this to raise the stakes. This can be effective, but again, try to avoid contrived conflict.
Whatever you decide, do not be afraid to innovate. In fact, I would say this is the mark of a great zombie story. The basic zombie formula works, and works well, but should be spiced with some type of innovation or twist so that it does not become too predictable.
9. You don’t have to explain everything. In Romero’s seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the cause of the dead rising is never explained. Instead, it is hinted that the return of a satellite seeded the earth with some type of virus.
If the outbreak is sudden, and happens overnight, the survivors will not know what caused it, and the reader should not know more than them. If the outbreak is slow, and happens over a long time, many people will have access to information about the pandemic, and may or may not as a result have some type of explanation for it.
In any case, restrict the reader’s knowledge to that of your characters. You can hint at the big picture, tease, titillate, but you do not have to reveal everything.
10. Be prepared to promote your work. While this last bit of advice is not related to craft, it is essential that every aspiring writer understand that they will have to learn to promote themselves and their work as part of the game of being published and selling books.
And on a final note, good luck!