Three Random Tips For Making Your Zombie Story Stand Out From The Crowd

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the zombie genre again. This is, in part, because of the zombie novel (“Anno Mortis” by Rebecca Levine) that I was reading at the time of writing and partially because I may or may not have been writing something in this genre at the time of writing this article.

So, here are some random tips for making your zombie story stand out from the crowd. Apologies if I’ve mentioned any of these before, but they are probably worth repeating.

1) Historical settings: One of the best ways to make a zombie novel a bit more interesting is to use historical settings.

After all, the majority of stories in the zombie genre are set in the present day. Whilst this lends stories a certain amount of “it could happen!” realism, it also means that these stories use the same bland, realistic modern settings that everyone has seen a hundred times before. So, don’t be afraid to use historical settings.

For example, Toby Venables “Viking Dead” is, as the title suggests, a novel about vikings fighting zombies. Likewise, Rebecca Levine’s “Anno Mortis” is mostly set in Ancient Rome. These zombie novels instantly feel a bit more dramatic due to their unusual historical settings. However, one slight downside of this is that historical zombie stories can lack the scientific edge of more modern stories, giving them slightly more of a fantasy novel-like tone.

Even so, this can be turned to your advantage- albeit with a bit of creative licence. For example, although people in the distant past did have ranged weapons (eg: bows, spears, slings etc..), you only see these occasionally in historical zombie novels. Why? Because close-quarters sword fights with zombies are not only more suspenseful, but they also allow for more dynamic – and generally epic- combat sequences too.

Likewise, the presence of zombies also means that you can make your historical setting a little bit more stylised too. Although you should aim for as much historical accuracy as possible, the presence of something as obviously unrealistic as zombies gives you a lot more leeway for stylised, fantastical and/or anachronistic elements that add to the atmosphere, fun, awesomeness, drama, dark comedy etc… of the story. So, take advantage of this! For a good cinematic example, just watch the movie “Army Of Darkness“.

2) An unusual reason: Generally speaking, the reason why a zombie apocalypse has happened isn’t the most important part of a zombie story. Other things like suspense, horror, characters, drama, pacing etc.. matter a lot more than the precise reason why the world has been overrun by zombies.

After all, if someone is reading a zombie story, then they already know that zombies will appear in it. So, the reason itself doesn’t matter that much.

However, this isn’t to say that the reason behind a zombie apocalypse can’t be used in creative ways. The trick here is to come up with some unusual story mechanic that differs from the usual “being bitten by a zombie and/or exposed to a virus turns you into a zombie” rule.

Coming up with a different source of danger not only allows you to place your characters in inventively unusual suspenseful situations, but also allows for a lot of creative scenes of horror involving people turning into zombies (for unusual reasons) too.

3) Don’t include an apocalypse: This has to be handled well or the reader may feel cheated, but one way to make your zombie story a bit more distinctive is not to include the usual zombie apocalypse. Yes, your story still has to include zombies, but not focusing on post-apocalyptic survival means that you can focus on all sorts of other things that don’t usually turn up in zombie stories.

For example, Laurell K. Hamilton’s “The Laughing Corpse” is an urban fantasy/horror detective story involving Voodoo-style zombies. Because there are relatively few zombies in this novel, each zombie encounter has a bit more dramatic weight to it. Plus, someone being turned into a zombie is a more dramatically significant event when there aren’t hordes of zombies everywhere. Not to mention that the much more frequent contrast between the ordinary, normal world and the story’s undead horrors also makes the zombies a bit scarier too.

Another good example is a French TV series called “Les Revenants“. Although I’ve only seen the first season of this show, it isn’t really a typical zombie series. In this series, the “zombies” aren’t a mortal threat to humanity itself. They are just dead people who have returned to life as if nothing has happened to them. This, of course, allows for a lot more character-based drama, other types of horror (eg: the returned dead consist of both good… and evil… people) and stuff that you wouldn’t see in a traditional zombie apocalypse story.

Again, this is something that is a bit more difficult to write well and, if done wrong, then the reader will feel cheated (since they probably expected a zombie apocalypse). But, when done well, it can really help to add a lot of extra drama, variety and uniqueness to your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Three More Thoughts About How To Make Zombie Stories Scary

Although the zombie genre is probably one of the least scary genres of horror fiction out there, it is a lot of fun to both read and write. So, although I’ve probably looked at this topic before, I thought that I’d list several more ways to make zombie fiction a bit more scary.

1) Distances: Unless your story contains modern-style fast-moving zombies, one of the problems with zombie stories is that the easiest way for a character to save themselves from a slow-moving zombie is just to run away and/or find somewhere that the zombie can’t climb or walk into.

Likewise, although large groups of zombies can add suspense to a zombie story, there isn’t really that much suspense or horror in scenes showing well-armed characters fighting zombies from a safe distance (for a good cinematic example of this, watch “Resident Evil: Apocalypse“).

So, if you want to make your zombies a bit scarier, then focus on close-up scenes involving zombies. Have the zombie suddenly appear out of nowhere or place the main characters in situations where they can’t run away or attack the zombie from a safe distance. If your main character is in imminent danger of being eaten by a zombie, then this instantly adds a lot of suspense and horror to the scene in question.

In short, zombies aren’t that scary if they are a couple of hundred metres away from your characters. They are scary if they are only a few centimetres away from your characters.

2) Comedy: I’ve talked about this topic before, but there’s a good reason why horror stories will often include comedy elements too. In short, it is all about emotional contrast.

Scenes of horror will seem twice as shocking or scary if the audience has been laughing before they happen. The emotional gap between cheerful laughter and shocked horror is much larger than the gap between a more neutral mood and shocked horror.

So, including a fair amount of comedic moments in your zombie story can make the more gruesome and horrific moment seem even more shocking or horrific by comparison. This is especially important in the zombie genre, since your readers will probably already be familiar with the genre and are unlikely to find zombies particularly frightening on their own. So, emotional contrast is even more important than usual.

3) Implied horror: Zombie stories are one of the most gruesome genres of horror fiction out there. They are the closest thing we have to the classic splatterpunk horror novels of the 1980s these days. However, fans of the zombie genre have gotten used to all of this and, as such, are a lot more difficult to shock with hyper-detailed gruesome descriptions.

So, whilst your zombie story should include some grisly moments (since it’s kind of expected), don’t be afraid to leave things to the reader’s imagination sometimes. Scary horror is all about playing with the reader’s expectations and, if your readers are expecting a scene of ultra-gruesome horror, then a more subtle or implication-filled description can really catch them off-guard.

If you’ve already included a few gruesome moments in your story, then suddenly not showing one can also make the story scarier because your audience already knows what you will show. So, if you don’t show something, then your audience are going to imagine that it is considerably more gruesome than this (even if it isn’t).

Likewise, if you include a lot of implied horror in the earlier parts of your story, then a sudden moment of ultra-gruesome horror can also catch your readers off-guard and cause them to be a lot more shocked than they would be if they read a similar scene in a more consistently gruesome zombie novel.

So, a few well-selected moments of implied horror can really add a bit of extra horror and shock value to your zombie story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Making Your Zombie Story Stand Out From The Crowd

The day before I wrote this article, I started reading a zombie novel called “Dead of Night” by Jonathan Maberry. The really interesting thing about it is that it has so much more personality than another Maberry novel I’d read a week or two earlier called “Patient Zero“.

Whilst both novels feature zombies and ex-military protagonists (Joe Ledger and Desdemona Fox), one is a fairly standard military action-thriller novel with zombies in it and the other is this utterly glorious and unique low-budget grindhouse film of a novel 🙂

So, naturally, this made me think about ways to make zombie stories really stand out from the crowd.

1) Characters and/or settings: A really good zombie story often tends to be just as much (or more) about characters and settings than about shambling hordes of the undead.

The best zombie stories will often have an intriguingly unusual setting and an assortment of eccentric or unusual characters. Not only does this set the story apart from the crowd, but it also provides something other than zombies to hold the reader’s interest too. In addition to this, it evokes extra curiosity in the reader too.

An excellent example of this is probably Weston Ochse’s “Empire Of Salt“. This is a novel that is set in a run-down 1950s/60s-style resort town in the US. The sea beside the town has turned stagnant and the only people left in the town are a fairly eccentric group of people who either like the town enough to stay and/or who can’t afford to move. As such, this novel is incredibly atmospheric and fascinating even before the zombies really show up.

Likewise, another zombie novel called “Double Dead” by Chuck Wendig is fairly notable/memorable for the simple reason that the main character is a vampire who is accidentally awoken from a blood-deprived coma by the events of a zombie apocalypse. Although the novel contains fairly standard post-apocalyptic settings, the interesting choice of protagonist really helps to keep this novel notable and memorable.

Then there’s Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” – although this is technically a vampire novel (it contains “vampires” who act and look like zombies), it’s a really notable zombie story for the simple reason that it’s set in a rural part of 1980s Britain. Given how the zombie genre often tends to focus on the US, seeing an older version of rural Britain in a zombie story really makes this novel stand out 🙂

Then there are novels like Alison Littlewood’s “Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now” (which is set in Mexico) or Toby Venables’ “Viking Dead” (which is set in Viking-era Scandinavia). All of these novels are about a million miles away from the standard American cities, shopping centres etc… typically found in the zombie genre.

So, yes, intriguing characters and/or settings are one of the best ways to make your zombie story really stand out from the crowd.

2) Narration: One of the major things that helps a zombie novel to stand out from the crowd is the narration.

In other words, you need to make sure that your zombie story has a unique and interesting narrative voice. Whether your story is using first or third person narration, your story needs to have the kind of narration that your reader will want to read for the fun of it rather than just as a functional way to learn what happens next.

A good contrasting example of this can be found in the two Jonathan Maberry novels I mentioned earlier. In “Patient Zero”, most of the narration is fairly standard modern thriller novel narration – it’s fast-paced and it’s very readable, but it doesn’t really stand out from the crowd that much. It isn’t that different from what you’d see in a modern Lee Child, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown etc.. novel.

On the other hand, Maberry’s “Dead Of Night” has a much more unique style of narration – which often playfully combines more formal descriptions and the kind of informal, irreverent and comedic narration that makes you feel a little bit rebellious when you read it. This gives the story the atmosphere of a more high-brow novel, whilst also giving it the “edgy” personality of something like a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez film 🙂

Although “Patient Zero” possibly contains more large-scale drama than “Dead Of Night”, “Dead Of Night” is a lot more fun to read for the simple reason that the narration is a lot more interesting and unique. So, yes, unique narration matters a lot when it comes to making your zombie story stand out from the crowd.

3) The zombies matter less than you might think: Yes, you should be creative with the zombies in your story. But, the zombies themselves matter a lot less than you might think. Likewise, the reasons for your story’s zombie apocalypse don’t matter that much either.

What matters most is how the zombies are presented. Do they symbolise something? Are they there to add suspense? Are they just cannon fodder for action heroes? Are they lurking in the shadows or charging through the streets? Are they powerful? Are they weak?

Zombies are zombies. The stories that really stand out will get around this limitation by presenting the zombies in an interesting way. For example, in Weston Ochse’s “Empire Of Salt”, the zombies are a hidden threat that constantly lurks out of sight in the shadows. They’re Lovecraftian monsters of the deep. They’re 1950s-style horror comic monsters….

I could go on but, although they’re basically just the same undead monsters that we all know and love, they’re a lot more interesting and distinctive than usual for the simple reason that they are presented to the reader in a different way than usual.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

George A. Romero (1940- 2017)

“George A. Romero (1940-2017)” By C. A. Brown

Although I didn’t hear the tragic news until about two days after it happened, George A. Romero – king of the zombie genre- is no longer in the land of the living 😦

I’ve been a fan of the zombie genre ever since, as a child, I first happened to read about an exciting upcoming video game called “Resident Evil 2” in the game magazines I read at the time.

During my early-mid teens, I made a point of watching all of Romero’s famous zombie trilogy ( I saw “Night Of The Living Dead” and “Dawn Of The Dead” when they were shown on late-night TV, and I bought an uncensored DVD of “Day Of The Dead” during a holiday in France when I was about fifteen [thank heavens for lax French film censorship 🙂 ]). During my late teens, I also made a point of seeking out the remake of “Dawn Of The Dead” on DVD too.

In addition to this, amongst the many second-hand horror novels I read as a teenager, I also read Romero’s novelisation (co-written by Susan Sparrow) of “Dawn Of The Dead”. In fact, it still takes pride of place on the end of my shelf of ‘cool’ books.

But, George A. Romero has had much more of an impact on my life than this. After all, the modern zombie genre wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for him. “Left 4 Dead 2“? That was influenced by Romero. “Resident Evil“? Influenced by Romero again. “Shaun Of The Dead“? Inspired by Romero.

I could go on, but if you are a fan of the zombie genre, then Romero is the person you have to thank.

Three Advantages To Setting Your Zombie Story Or Comic In Britain

2016 Artwork Zombie stories set in the UK

Well, I’m still going through a “zombies” phase at the moment (since I finished preparing this year’s Halloween comic shortly before writing this article) – so, for today, I thought that I’d list several of the reasons why Britain is the perfect setting for anything in the zombie genre.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that I’m British (southern English to be precise). But, you have probably worked that out already from my rather formal writing style. If not, then just imagine this article being read aloud in something that sounds a bit like received pronunciation.

Although there are a fair number of zombie movies, comics, videogames and/or novels set in Britain, America is a much more common setting within the zombie genre. Most of this can be attributed to George Romero’s “Night Of The Living Dead” popularising the genre in the late 1960s and because America is a large and geographically varied country (that can contain frozen wastelands, arid deserts, dense forests, gigantic cities, small towns etc…) which allows it to be something of a “blank canvas” for many types of zombie stories.

Even so, here are a few of the reasons why Britain can be a much more interesting setting for zombie stories than you might think.

1) More suspenseful zombie encounters: One of the reasons why many zombie movies, comics, novels etc… are set in the US is because it’s a lot easier for the characters to plausibly get their hands on large quantites of firearms there. Guns, of course, allow the characters to fight the zombies from a safe distance.

However, if all of your action scenes just involve the characters shooting at unarmed (literally in some cases) zombies from a distance, then there isn’t really much suspense or drama. After all, your characters are at least several metres away from any danger and they have a massive advantage over the zombie hordes.

Britain, of course, is renowned for having some of the world’s strictest firearms laws. Not only does this lead to very low levels of gun-related crime in real life, but it also makes zombie stories/comics/movies set in Britain a lot more dramatic and suspenseful.

Because the characters in a zombie story set in Britain are much less likely to have guns, this usually means that they’ll have to use other weapons to defend themselves against the zombies. In other words, they’ll probably be using close-range weapons which place them in much more danger of being eaten than their American counterparts. This, of course, leads to much more suspenseful and compelling drama than long-distance gunfights do.

2) Claustrophobia: Although it doesn’t really seem that tiny to me, Britain is a fairly small country in global terms. It is also absolutely miniscule when compared to the vast expanse of the United States.

The best defence against zombies is, quite simply, distance. Unless the zombies are modern-style “fast” zombies (ironically, these were actually invented in Britain), most zombies tend to shamble along at a fairly slow pace and can only attack the characters when they are literally right next to them. So, running away from the zombies or setting up a zombie-proof fortress in a remote area is a lot easier in a large country.

However, if your zombie story or comic is set in a smaller country (like Britain), then there are fewer places for your characters to find sanctuary.

Yes, they might be able to reach hospitals, shopping centres or military bases slightly more easily on foot, but their chances of running into lots of zombies on the way there are significantly higher (especially when population density is taken into account). So, your zombie story or comic will automatically be more dramatic if you set it in Britain.

3) Culture and comedy: Although there have been zombie stories set in pretty much every part of the world, most of the major tropes of the genre come from America. Some of these can be applied to other settings, but many are America-specific.

Applying America-specific zombie tropes to zombie stories set in other countries can, of course, be a great source of comedy and/or horror. Having the characters thunder across the country in a large RV may seem dramatic in America – but, it’s British equivalent (the humble campervan) is probably more likely to provoke laughter and/or suspense.

In addition to this, culture can affect the entire atmosphere of your zombie story and/or comic. Culture affects how your characters see the world and how they react to the events around them. It can also affect subtle details within your zombie story too.

If you set your zombie story within a culture that appears slightly less often in the zombie genre, then this will make your characters slightly less predictable – although it may or may not require additional research in order to write well.

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As usual, I hope that this was useful 🙂