5 Tips For Writing Zombie Stories
Zombies stories don’t have to be as shallow as the graves the undead rise from
We all love zombie stories. Right? Of course you do. In this article, I will look at 5 ways to make your zombie apocalypse stories stand out from the crowd.
1. Think about what zombies truly represent
The biggest mistake I see new writers make with zombies is that they think the horror comes solely from gore. They focus purely on the flesh-ripping, brain-guzzling, intestine-pulling, and blood-spewing aspects of zombies. Gore does not equal horror, and it certainly doesn’t equal terror or dread. Sure, it helps set the tone, but it’s not the most important thing.
When I watch movies that focus on gore and disgusting imagery, I am bored. Try watching a zombie movie from The Asylum or Uwe Boll and you’ll see what I mean. Zombies are mindless flesh-ripping monsters to be sure, but that’s not all they are. You have to dig deeper and think about why they are so scary, and what they truly represent.
Zombies usually represent loss of self and individuality (particularly scary to American audiences who were raised to fear communism). They also tap into our fear of disease, disfigurement, violation, and death. They can also be an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases if done well. Use that. A good zombie story revels in the gory stuff, but in service of our deepest, darkest, base fears. Think about what zombies really mean to you.
2. Make your characters behave believably
‘Believably’ doesn't necessarily mean ‘intelligently’ or ‘rationally’. In a horribly traumatic situation, people aren’t going to behave rationally.
What I mean is that the interactions and dialogue between survivors should be plausible. I’ve seen stories with dialogue that reads like an edgy 13-year-old writing a Tarantino movie, overusing curse words and punching for no apparent reason. I’ve seen otherwise intelligent characters decide to drop weapons and go down to the basement alone, simply because the plot needed them to and the writer wasn’t clever enough to come up with a plausible way to split the group. Your characters don’t need to be clever, but you do. Write all characters, even the stupid ones, intelligently.
Plausible motivations give rise to plausible actions. Remember that. Spend time thinking about the motivations of your characters. Of course they want to survive, but what else? Some people want power, some want protection. Some want community, some want solitude. Some want to fight, some want to run. Some want to kill, and some want to understand. Create a wide variety of motivations and desires for your survivors, and then show us the plausible conflict that arises from it.
3. Make your stories about the human heart
“Zombies” is not a story, it is a setting. You still need a story about a protagonist fundamentally changing because of their experiences. That’s what all stories need. You must have a compelling, sympathetic protagonist, who learns a lesson and grows up in some way.
Your story must be about something important. It must touch on the human condition, and make us feel emotions besides fear and revulsion. If your theme is “corpses are scary” or “people are awful” then it will make for a pretty shallow book. Try making a theme in juxtaposition with the setting: “Love conquers all,” “self-sacrifice is the noblest trait,” or “a mother’s love knows no bounds.”
Spend time letting us get to know the protagonist, and give us reasons to care about their plight. Otherwise, what’s the point? Shaun of the Dead is a great zombie comedy because the protagonist is really likeable, and there is a lot of love in the movie. Maternal love, romantic love, and friendship love. Love oozes just as much as blood.
4. Make your zombies unique in some way
A lot of zombie stories read more like “Night of the Living Dead” or “28 Days Later” fan fiction. Try injecting something original into the genre. Some zombies have a supernatural explanation such as demons inhabiting dead flesh, some have a natural explanation like a fungal infection, others come from scientific meddling such as a biological weapon, and some come from beyond this planet, such as mind-controlling parasites. You can create a variation one of these themes, or even invent your own.
What if your zombies are constantly screaming? What if they squirt infected blood from their eyes like horned lizards (look it up)? What if their minds are eaten away by a virus except for the areas controlling hunger and Monty Python quotes?
Have fun with it.
5. Think about the little things
What would it really mean for there to be an apocalypse? Think about what you would do in that situation, what you would miss if society collapsed. Would you take a fast car and speed through the streets? Or would you rather have a bicycle, a skateboard, or Segway? What would you wear for defense? What would be your weapon of choice? Would you rather live without music or toothpaste? Would you keep track of the date, or not bother? Would you rather stay in the city where there are shops to be looted, or head to the country to hunt and farm? Don’t just follow the standard tropes, put yourself into the story.
It’s entirely up to you what direction you want to take your story. Think about what deep fear you want to tap into, and make sure you focus on that. And above all, give us a proper story with a hero’s journey.