Colin M. Drysdale
When Max Brooks’ best-seller World War Z was first published it not only re-energised the zombie genre, it also introduced to a whole new audience to the world of the undead. With the film of the book coming out this summer, starring no less a figure than Brad Pitt, it’s likely that the audience for zombie fiction will explode as those who wouldn’t usually consider themselves zombie fans start dipping their toes into the genre. And to cater for this increased audience, we’re likely to see a whole slew of writers, both first-timers and more established authors, being tempted to give the zombie genre a go just to see if they can get their own slice of this burgeoning market.
But, many of those hoping to pen the next World War Z will soon find that writing a good zombie book isn’t as easy as might seem. This is because you can’t just throw together some random characters, pile on the blood and gore, and pump out an instant classic. Instead, you need to put effort into creating a world where zombies exist that’s not only believable but that feels so real the readers are left looking over their shoulders just to check there’s nothing sneaking up on them.
With this in mind, here’s my six tips for writing a good zombie novel:
1. Come Up With An Original Idea: If you’re going to write a successful zombie book you can’t just follow the well-trodden route of having a group of survivors trying to get out of a city as the undead close in. This idea have been done to death and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to anything with it that hasn’t been done a hundred times before. Instead, you need to come up with an idea that’s in some way different from all that have come before. You want it to stand out from the crowd; you want people talking about it round the water-cooler, and this will only happen if you do something new and distinctive. This was the beauty of World War Z (the book version at any rate). Instead of focussing on a single small group (as almost every other zombie book does), it took a wide lens to tell it’s tale of apocalyptic downfall and salvation through vignettes which showed how many different individuals survived or died. However, with so many other zombie books already out there, coming up with a truly original is easier said than done.
2. Decide On The Rules For Your World: All zombie books have rules that govern things like how people become zombies, what happens when one of them bites a human, how the undead can be killed and what causes the dead to rise in the first place. However, not all zombie books follow exactly the same rules; some have fast zombies, some have more traditional slow zombies, some don’t even have true risen-from-the-dead zombies but rather have living humans infected with a disease that make them act like zombies. This means that as a would-be zombie author, you need to set out the rules for the zombie world you’re creating; and then make sure you stick to them! Nothing puts readers off faster than a zombie book where the rules seem to change from one scene to the next.
3. Develop Your Characters: A good zombie book isn’t just about blood and gore. If people are going to connect with it, it has to also be about the characters. These characters can’t be two-dimensional stereotypes; instead they need to feel real. The readers need to like the nice ones and hate the nasty ones; they need to feel the pain when a characters loses someone close, or even worse gets killed by the undead. If you don’t develop your characters, you’ll find your book just won’t come to life in the readers’ minds and they’ll end up either not caring what happens to them, or worse, cheering for the zombies.
4. Research Your Locations: To be successful, zombie books need to feel real. After all, part of the fascination with zombie stories is seeing the world your so familiar with turned upside down by the arrival of something as unthinkable as the undead. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use real world locations to give your reader reference points. In World War Z, one of the key scenes is the battle for the New York suburb of Yonkers. By setting it there, Max Brooks didn’t need to describe the area in detail. Instead, anyone who’s ever watched TV or seen a film can instantly know what it would be like. This means you need to choose on a distinctive location and then research it so that you can place your story into the local landscape in such a way that the reader will believe it could really happen there.
5. Avoid Clichés: The zombie genre is riddled with clichés: the little girl zombie who surprises someone at the start of the outbreak, the fact that almost anyone can pick up a gun and start popping off perfect headshots instantly even if they’ve never held one before, the baseball bat, the lone zombie lurking amongst the shelves of an apparently deserted supermarket and so on. Avoid these like the proverbial plague as they’re one of the quickest way to alienate your would-be readers.
6. Think Of Imaginative Ways To Kill Zombies: This follows on from the previous tip. Readers of zombie novels want to see the undead dispatched in new and interesting ways rather than the same ones that have been used over and over again. Smacking them in the head with a baseball bat? Yawn – read that a thousand times already. A hockey stick? That’s a bit more original but not by much. How about the urn with your dead grandmothers ashes in it, grabbed off the mantle piece and brought down on the head of an attacking zombie? That’s more like it. Or what about mowing down a whole horde with a combine harvester? Messy but it’ll get people talking, and that’s what you want.
So now you’ve read my tips for writing a good zombie novel, why not give it a go?
If you do a good enough job, you never know, next time it might be the movie of your book that Brad Pitt’s starring in. The only thing that’s certain is that this can’t happen if you don’t write it in the first place!
Bio: Colin M. Drysdale is the author of his own zombie book For Those In Peril On The Sea, which was selected as one of only five finalists in the ForeWord Firsts Winter 2013 competition for debut novels. A professional marine biologist, he first ventured into writing when the idea for a zombie book set around the sailing community of the northern Bahamas came to him while he was working there. He now splits his time between writing zombie fiction, and studying whales and dolphins. You can find out more about his fiction at http://cmdrysdale.wordpress.com.