I’ve recently had occasion to do some thinking about the genre of Science Fiction / Fantasy / Horror for reasons that I’ll explain perhaps in the future, but for the moment, I have zombie stories on my mind. (Brains?) I’ve come to the following conclusion: New writers ought to avoid zombie stories.
Why is this? It’s because such stories have two traps for the inexperienced. One is structural, and the other is thematic.
A zombie story, fundamentally, is a problem-solving story. The main character starts out here and has to get there by the end. Lots of this and that takes place in between, but that’s all. This can be done well, as we’ll discuss in a moment, but it often gets done badly.
Good stories, most of the time, are about characters, their motivations, interations (and conflicts!), and growth. Where does this happen in a zombie story? The characters have no time for that. Well, unless you regard the “You don’t want to die a virgin” line before the main action gets going as good romance. But sending characters madly dashing about to do this and to do that before reaching safety (at which point, often, we find that the zombies are there too) doesn’t teach the new writer anything other than pushing a plot, and plot pushing is an easy lesson. (There’s a beginning, a middle, and and an end–sometimes not in that order. . .) The harder lesson is learning how to make a story about persons, not about events, and zombie stories don’t teach that.
What’s the theme of a zombie story? To scare fluids out of the reader or viewer. Duh! More advanced writers may also bring in ideas about consumerism, globalization, science run amok, and other such highfalutin’ notions, but the story has to be scary to work. That’s an all-or-nothing proposition. If I’m not scared, I’m either going to be amused at the stupidity (which can have its value–see The Rocky Horror Picture Show) or bored out of my mind. (Brains!)
There’s a reason for the title: Master of Horror. Writing a good horror story is a master craft. It can’t be done by formula. It does take skill to sustain anxiety and shock that builds to a climax without falling flat.
What is the take-away message here? It’s too easy to write a bad zombie story, and doing so will teach the new writer nothing. Yes, one has to practice a skill to get better, but getting better requires good practice, and zombie stories don’t force good practice. If you send me a zombie story, I’ll be likely to ask, what were you thinking?
Oh, wait, I know: