Apart from eagerly reading reviews of “Resident Evil 2” in games magazines when I was a kid and finally getting hold of a copy of the game itself when I was a young teenager, my first real introduction to the zombie genre was through the horror novels I read when I was about thirteen or fourteen (James Herbert’s ” ’48”, S.D.Perry’s excellent “Resident Evil” novels and “Assasin” by Shaun Hutson all spring to mind for starters).
Even though this was mainly because I looked too young to buy most of the zombie movies I wanted to watch, discovering the zombie genre through fiction has left me with a lasting affection for this type of fiction even though I haven’t really written any of it for years.
Of course, ironically, when I actually watched a few proper zombie movies when I was in my mid-teens, they mostly seemed disappointingly tame compared to all of the horror novels I had enjoyed previously. Yes, even “Day Of The Dead” and “Return Of The Living Dead 3” weren’t as grotesque as I had expected them to be (although, at the time, I didn’t really realise that the “Return Of The Living Dead” films are actually comedy-horror films).
So, when it comes to zombie stories, I think that they are at their absolute best when they are told through the written word. Not only is this because of the thankful lack of offical censorship of literature (in the UK at least), but it is also because most of the horror takes place in the reader’s imagination rather than on a screen.
Plus, because literature doesn’t have the same budgeting issues as films do – there’s really no such thing as a “low budget” zombie novel. World-ending zombie apocalpyses are a lot easier (and cheaper) to portray convincingly on the page than they are on the screen. Even so, some zombie novels are definitely better than others.
So, if you want to write a zombie novel, then there are a few things you should be aware of in order to make your zombie story stand out from the many other stories in this genre. If you’ve read a lot of zombie stories, then you’ll probably know all of this stuff already. But, if you’re new to the genre, then these five tips might come in handy:
1) Despair, hopelessness, anarchy and nihilism: Yes, every zombie story should be fairly gruesome (more on that later), but that usually isn’t the most disturbing part of any well-written zombie story.
The most disturbing part of any good zombie story is the zombie apocalypse itself, the fact that the world has been irredeemably damaged and there is no possible way for things to ever go back to how they were before the apocalypse.
Not only that, any good zombie story should at least hint that there’s no possibility of a happy ending. Even if the human survivors somehow manage to flee to somewhere where the zombies haven’t found, then the world is still filled with zombies and there’s always the risk that the zombies will eventually find them.
Whatever they do, any survivors of a zombie apocalypse are basically completely screwed. They will have to spend the rest of their lives living in fear in the squalid and dangerous ruins of the earth and, once they’ve eventually died (either through natural causes or if they’re killed by zombies), no-one will be left to remember them. Not to mention that their lives will have had no real significance or meaning in the grand scheme of things. So, yes, a good zombie story should be an extremely depressing story.
On top of all of this, one obvious consequence of a zombie apocalypse is that there are no more governments (but, on the bright side, no more politicians either). As such, the world quickly reverts to a state of complete anarchy. And, although anarchy might sound good in principle – in reality, it usually means that the people with the most weapons and the largest number of henchmen get to hold power over everything.
In other words, the kind of people who prosper in anarchic situations don’t generally tend to be very nice people either.
So, one of the most chilling things in well-written zombie stories aren’t usually the zombies, but the other survivors that the main characters encounter during their journeys. A particularly disturbing and malevolent example of what the other survivors of a zombie apocalypse might be like can be found in an excellent zombie novel called “Double Dead” by Chuck Wendig.
2) Gore: Whilst it’s technically possible to write more bloodless zombie stories, a good zombie story should be incredibly gruesome. This is mainly because most zombies can only clumsily attack people with their teeth and bare hands (so it’s going to be messy) as well as the fact that zombies (in most types of zombie stories) also tend to be cannibals too. In addition to this, the traditional “undead” type of zombie is, of course, literally a walking corpse.
Not to mention that there are usually a lot of zombies in a zombie story and they can’t really be reasoned with either. So, if the main characters stand any chance of surviving, then they are probably going to have to kill large numbers of zombies. This is, of course, is something which probably won’t be completely bloodless.
However, it isn’t enough to just splatter your story with blood and expect it to be horrifying and shocking. The fact is that most people who read zombie stories are fans of the genre, in other words they aren’t as easily shocked as other types of readers might be (since they’ve seen it all before).
This means that you have to be a lot more inventive when it comes to both what gruesome things happen in your zombie story (and how you describe them too ) if you actually want to shock and horrify your readers.
3) Innovation: Like the vampire genre, the zombie genre is absolutely filled with clichés. For starters, many zombie stories, films and computer games tend to take place in suburban and urban America where there is, of course, a large quantity of guns available for the survivors to use (zombie apocalypses are, in fact, one of the very few good arguments against gun control in America).
Whilst this might allow for a more action-packed story and whilst it might appeal to American audiences too, it is both incredibly clichéd and far less suspenseful than it could be.
After all, if there is a zombie apocalypse, then it is going to affect other countries than America too. Many countries (like Britain) probably don’t have 300 million guns just lying around.
Of course, if the survivors don’t have guns (or as many guns) and can’t easily kill the zombies from a distance, then this adds a lot more suspense and tension to your zombie story. Plus, setting your zombie story somewhere other than America will probably make it stand out a lot more.
In addition to this, try to look for other ways you can make your zombie story different from all the other zombie stories which you’ve seen too. Yes, some of the best ideas may already be taken, but there are plenty more which no-one has even thought of yet.
One of the most innovative zombie novels I read quite a while ago was one called “Viking Dead” By Toby Venables. As the title suggests, this is a story about a zombie apocalypse in Viking-era Scandinavia – and, yes, it is even more badass than it sounds. Read it.
Another innovative zombie story I heard of quite recently is a proposed zombie comic which is currently raising funds on Kickstarter called “Zombies Hate Kung Fu” which follows the adventures of a stoner and a kung fu expert during a zombie apocalypse.
4) Characterisation: This is important in every type of story, but it is even more important in horror stories. After all, if you’re writing about the adventures of a group of people who survived a zombie apocalypse, then your reader will only find your story scary if he or she cares about what happens to these people. If your characters aren’t well-developed enough, then your readers probably won’t care whether they live or die.
In fact, in any good zombie story, one or more of the main characters shouldn’t make it to the end of the story. So, if you want their deaths to mean something to your readers, then they have to be well-developed and well-written characters.
Plus, obviously, living in a world which has been overrun by zombies is going to have at least some kind of emotional effect on your characters. Whether they try to stoically ignore the horrors around them, whether they revel in the anarchy which follows a zombie apocalypse or whether they are horribly traumatised by it, make sure that your characters actually have emotions.
5) It doesn’t matter why: Yes, many zombie stories show a possible reason for the zombie apocalypse (eg: a “zombie virus”) but this isn’t always essential to a good zombie story.
After all, if a zombie apocalypse happens fairly quickly, then those in authority probably won’t have time to investigate why it is happening and, more importantly, the internet and news media would probably disappear fairly quickly too. So, even if the government or the military discovers the reason behind the zombie apocalypse, there’s also a fair chance that most people probably won’t know what it is.
Whilst the reasons behind a zombie apocalypse can be a central part of some zombie stories, it isn’t an essential part of all zombie stories. Plus, in many ways, mostly leaving the reasons for the zombie apocalypse to your readers’ imaginations can be a lot creepier than, say, telling them that it was caused by the “T-Virus” or “Green Flu” or whatever.
But, if you choose not to reveal why the zombie apocalypse has happened, then you should at least drop a few hints as to what might have caused it. You can do this by showing your characters coming up with their own ideas about the subject or through descriptions of the settings (for example, if it is a zombie virus – then briefly show that a few former survivors were wearing protective masks when they were attacked by the zombies etc…)
Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂