Category Archives: Writing Craft

What’s Wrong with Zombie Stories?

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.

Structure:

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.

Theme:

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:

BRAINS!

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Verbal Anachronisms

One problem that the writer of historical fiction faces is whether a word or a phrase existed in the time of the story. Some, alas, don’t care, and that lack of concern used to be tolerated. Chaucer, after all, gave us mediaeval knights fighting in the Trojan War in his Troilus and Criseyde, for example. John Wayne carried an 1873 Colt SAA and an 1892 Winchester rifle in many of his westerns, regardless of the year in which the story is supposed to take place. But there are at least a small number of critics–I include myself in that group, of course–who get into a fury when we see a nickel-plated M1911 in the hands of an Englishman in James Cameron’s Titanic. (Yes, it’s theoretically possible, but highly unlikely, and we’re going to pick that nit.)

But what’s a conscientious writer to do? Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey – Maturin series, read everything that he could get his hands on from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That’s a good technique, but one that requires more time and money than many have.

Another approach is to buy a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. This, of course, requires either a dedicated shelf or a magnifying glass (provided by the publisher, if you buy the small print edition). Or one could subscribe to the O.E.D. on-line. Any of those are also spendy.

Here’s the cheap bastard’s approach: The Online Etymology Dictionary

The sources for that site are good, and it’s free. It provides a quick way of checking whether your character can refer to a calculator at all and if that word names a person or a device when the conversation occurs.

Now heave away, me writers, and stow your words ship-shape and Bristol fashion.