What I learned about writing from zombie plots

Hi, kids–

So I’ve been following the series Walking Dead, as some of you know. It’s a zombie apocalypse series, and what I find interesting about it is how interpersonal human drama plays out against a backdrop like this.

In that regard, Walking Dead is what I’d call a mixture of Lord of the Flies, The Road Warrior, and Night of the Living Dead. Because ultimately, what apocalyptic and dystopic scenarios come down to is the people dealing with them, and the power struggles within the groups of survivors.

There’s no story in a zombie apocalypse if there aren’t non-zombies therein having to cope with it. And there’s no story in a dystopic society in which a tyrant rules all unless there’s a segment of the population battling that or thinking about battling it. Stories are all about conflict, whether internal or external.

So let’s go have a think about that, shall we? 😀

How about the character Shane in the first two seasons of the Walking Dead. [NOTE: spoilers!]

This was a guy who clearly had a serious dark side that was fully triggered when the zombie outbreak started. As the plot arcs unfurled, you realized pretty quickly that this was a guy who had few compunctions about doing what he thought was necessary to survive, including maiming or killing someone he thought might be a danger to himself or the overall group. He clashed repeatedly with most others in the group, and his character became darker and darker as events unfolded.

In spite of that, he was weirdly likable, in a twisted way. I say that because it seems that he was trying to do what he thought was best for the group. After all, he stayed with that group until he ended up dead/undead/dead-dead, in spite of numerous threats to bail. He needed them to help define himself as a “protector,” and in spite of his loose cannon ways, the group needed him as the guy who would “go there” when they wouldn’t. After all, who encouraged taking out the zombies in the barn in season 2? That was Shane’s doing. Had he not done that, we would not have known what happened to Sophie (she was one of the zombies Hershel collected and stashed in his barn). And Hershel might have stayed in his deep denial about what was wrong with those people.

It’s also doubtful that Shane would have returned alive to the farm with the medicine that Carl (Rick’s son) so desperately needed to survive had he not done the truly horrendous thing he did. Not to suggest the ends justify the means, but Shane was operating from a place of weird loyalty to Rick, Lori, and Carl and that may have come from a twisted sense of trying to make up for his actions in season 1. I mean, this is a guy I definitely wouldn’t want to get close to, but if he was in my group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse, I know I could count on him for at least one sure thing: to do dirty work.

Shane’s issues thus created conflict with everyone in the group, whether in a major or minor way, and that played out in many different ways. But you also got a glimpse of some of Shane’s internal conflict. He was torn between his loyalty to Rick, his feelings for Lori, and a protector role toward Carl, Rick and Lori’s son. He had some guilt issues over leaving Rick in the hospital in season 1, and then hooking up with Lori, which was exacerbated when he attempted to force her into a liaison after Rick’s return but she managed to rebuff him. After Shane did the heinous thing to Otis when trying to bring medicine back to the farm for Carl, there’s an intense scene where Shane’s in the bathroom at the farm, and he’s staring at himself in the mirror, facing himself and what he did to Otis. He then shaves his head, sort of a ritual for the new role he decides to take, a metaphor for a new beginning and a new realization and acceptance of his dark side.

That’s some serious conflict. A new world, with new circumstances, and everybody jockeying for position, trying to reconcile the social mores and graces of the old world with the feral, nihilistic ethos of the new.

That’s why I find apocalyptic/dystopic literature so fascinating and, ultimately, useful as writing prompts for exploring conflict. Your characters are laid out bare, and the story and conflict isn’t so much between survivors and, say, zombies, but rather between survivors and the struggle to retain humanity in the face of absolute brutality.

Anyway. Here’s the trailer for season 3. Fasten your seatbelts. It’s definitely going to be a bumpy ride:


5 thoughts on “What I learned about writing from zombie plots

  1. That’s a terrific analysis of the show and of Shane’s character. He was my favorite for all the reasons you described so well.

    I think you just gave me an idea for tonight’s blog post.

  2. Pingback: Zombies and Morality | ericjohnbaker

  3. This is absolutely why I find Zombie films and post-apocalyptic anything so fascinating. I love the idea of humanity laid bare, and seeing all people’s good and bad parts intensified. Much like 28 Days Later. The first half being terrifying because of the zombies, the second half, terrifying because of how humanity reacts in response to the outbreak. I find the humans much more terrifying.

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