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This is the element of time that I was talking about. If you’re reading this post blog-roll, then you won’t feel the effect. For anyone else, it has been almost a month since the last time I posted about MB. It’s tempting the abandon the project and just write about writing. Although, honestly, that’s what this project is about any ways. So, we’ll stick with this framework for the time being.
In my attempts to parley my writing abilities into a sustainable living, I’ve spent quite a bit of time pitching story ideas or acting as a freelance consultant. During one of these forays into the potential literary world, I was pitching a novel idea for a zombie story. For the zombie-savvy, yes, I believe that there are still new things to be explored. Even with the semi-recent pop-culture zombie explosion, there’s still plenty to talk about. It was during a back-and-forth brainstorming session with my room-mate that I came upon today’s topic.
You see, my room-mate has a hatred for zombies that borders on the psychotic. Not the creatures, mind you, the concept. He’s vehemently opposed to the idea of a virus zombie, because he believes the science of it to be untenable. While I’m sure we can all agree that the science could only be softer if it were puréed on high in a diamond-tipped blending apparatus for several hours, it does raise an interesting point about realism. I’m not going to defend his lack of suspension of disbelief, and I’m well-aware that the inclusion of the virus narrative is solely for the purposes of exploiting and exploring contemporary fears. However, it got me onto a certain line of thinking that’s perfect for MB.
Before you can write anything, you need to come up with a concept. While many of you will probably agree that this is both the easiest and hardest part of writing, it’s also the one that gets overlooked the most. As writers, it’s taken as a given that we’ll have a deep well of ideas and concepts to reach into. The truth is that we spend our entire lives developing and refining them. However, we rarely talk about the process. Yes, sometimes you just have to wait for inspiration, but professional writers get good at synthesizing them. Let’s talk about that topic another day. What do you do once you have an idea? You figure out the logistics of turning it into a story.
With the virus example earlier, my friend was being pulled out of the experience of zombie movies by an insistence on explanation. By linking a foreign concept to something the audience understands, viruses make zombies more intuitive. However, in a different way, it also makes them completely impossible for some people. We’ve spent hours arguing about the physical and metabolic changes that would be required to make a “walker” a possibility. Whether or not it is isn’t the problem. It’s that argument. If I’m thinking about how a zombie could be possible, then I’m not thinking about the horror of the concept. Really think about it. Outside of medical horror, what purpose does the virus explanation serve? How is that explanation more valid or engaging than none? Every zombie story already possesses a scene where the bite-transmission thing is explained, so it can end up adding very little. It CAN add a lot, but you have to be telling the right story. Given its pervasive nature, I can assure you that it is being included in stories where it’s unnecessary. In fact, including it can be damaging. The virus explanation is everywhere; now it’s almost colloquial. Now, you may actually have to spend time explaining that it’s not a virus. That’s a discussion for another day, though.
Sometimes, not explaining something can be the best thing you do. Or, using a symbolic archetype. Or, even, just making something up. There are an entire mountain of stories that would never get made if we insisted on explanations and realism in everything, both as readers and writers. Lovecraft’s strange geometries and eldritch lights are perfect examples of this. The ancient stories of the Gods or tales of the spirit worlds could be enlivened by an explanation, but it would have to be integral to the plot. Giving a half-hearted excuse is, ultimately, going to damage your story.
That being said, a little bit of the unreal can spice of an otherwise normal story. Let’s stick with the zombie theme, but go big picture on it. To be extra pop-culture friendly, let’s also stick with the one piece of exemplary zombie fiction that I think everyone should read: Max Brooks’ World War Z. In many ways, zombie stories have almost nothing to do with the zombies within them. Contemporary pop-culture theory states that you could replace zombies with any similar natural disaster and craft the same story. Zombie stories are about isolation and the break-down of the civilized world. They’re about when we turn on each other as the lights go out, but, also, about when we don’t. World War Z is a piece of political fiction that uses zombies as a catalyst to create a landscape of political exploration. The zombies are horrifying, but we are the horror.
That’s just true. Humans can be frightening things. It’s not always easy to pull out of us. It’s harder still to look at or admit. That’s why a dash of the unreal, the walking dead, is so effective in Brooks’ work. Simply creating a realistic world-wide epidemic or conflict would have raised too many other questions. It would have complicated matters without adding anything. Thus, we use zombies. Ever wonder why so many people have zombie survival plans? Well, it’s not just because zombies are cool. Really think about what that plan represents. Think about what it means. That will tell you what we’re scared of. This is what horror does. It’s the genre-space we put aside for the truly, literally disturbing. It’s hard to call the first half of World War Z anything but that. It details the worst sins of contemporary society in cleverly obscured detail. This is where he needed realism.
Max’s book would have suffered greatly if the politics weren’t at least believable. We’ll leave out the word accurate, for obvious reasons. His story was about real contemporary politics, something we’re all immersed in. So, that portion needed to be realistic. It was going to reflect us, so it needed to do so adroitly. Similarly, if your story uses zombies to explore viruses, then make sure your depiction of viruses is realistic. Research how they spread, mutate, interact with cells and multiply. Think about transmission and counter-measures. In other words, focus your realistic explanations of fantasy in the areas where they’re necessary to your narrative. Otherwise, it’s okay to let things be fantastic. Unicorns don’t need to evolve from horses. Dragons don’t need to produce fire through a chemical reaction. Serial murderers don’t need classic pseudo-psych back-stories. Give your concept some room to breathe.
Once you’re at the drawing board, really think about what your audience needs to know to make the story work. Think about plot-holes. Pitch to other people and let them tear the threads of your story apart, as long as they volunteer to help you weave it back together. That’ll let you know where you need to get real and where you can let an idea hang tantalizingly out of reach. After all, it’s not worth it to let a tiny detail throw off your whole story. Unless you want someone to leave your story with that niggling at them in the back of their head, be willing to leave it out.
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