A while ago, I did a post looking at the various ways you can successfully end a zombie novel. In this post, I want to look at how to start one. Here, the main issue is where along the time line of your particular zombie apocalypse do you drop into the lives of your character(s) and meet them for the first time?
There’s four broad possibilities here, three of which I think work quite well, each under different circumstances, and a fourth which doesn’t – or at least it’s very much harder to get it to work well. These are: 1. Finding the world has unexpectedly changed; 2. The descent from normality; 3. The zombie-filled world, and 4. The flashback. Each of these plays on slightly different aspects of the human psyche and will elicit different feelings and emotions in the reader.
1. Finding the world unexpectedly changed: In this option, a character, or group of characters, is somehow isolated from the world, and while they are no longer in touch with it, it changes in an unexpected manner (such as being over-run by zombies). Stories which start in this way feature the disconcertion and discombobulation of encountering a world which you both know and don’t know at the same time. Think, for example, of the start of 28 Days Later, where Jim wakes up to find himself in hospital, an unexpected enough event as the last thing he remembers is cycling along a road, but then as he progresses further and further from the bed he woke up in, he finds that he’s somehow been left alone in an apparently deserted city which should be teeming with life. The opening sequences are truly disconcerting for anyone familiar with London as they will never before have seen its streets so devoid of people. Indeed, this is the emotion which finding the world unexpectedly changed starts to play on, and indeed on the nagging worry in the back of people’s minds whenever they go to sleep that there’s no certainty that the world will be the same when they wake up. There is a similar nagging worry whenever you leave home, that there is a risk that it could all change in your absence. Really, I think that it boils down to humans struggling to deal with the fact that, in their absence, the world carries on without them and this means they are not the lead character – but rather just a bit player among millions on a larger stage.
The biggest problem with starting novels in this way is how you create a realistic and novel isolation scenario. The waking up in a hospital bed approach was done so well in 28 Days Later, it’s difficult now to use it without the reader instantly thinking you’ve copied the idea (even then, it wasn’t an original idea in that movie – it was ‘borrowed’ from the 1950s post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids). The Walking Dead also used this approach, and would invite further charges of plagiarism if you used it. Of course there are other possible scenarios which you could use: A prisoner being held in isolation, a group of people locked in a bunker for a military exercise, a spaceship returning to Earth after a long mission, or (and this was the scenario I used in For Those In Peril On The Sea), a boat coming back to shore after a long voyage. They key here is to make sure that your scenario can realistically explain why your character(s) don’t know what’s happened, such as a break down of some kind with the communication equipment.
If you do deploy this opening for a novel, you will need to fill in the back story as to exactly what happened at some point (because the reader will expect to be told). This is usually done through conversations with other survivors your main characters meet up with once they are over their initial shock at finding themselves in a world that’s suddenly changed. However, this has to be handled carefully and it cannot seem too much like a plot device to allow you to explain exactly what happened.
2. The descent from normality: In a descent from normality beginning to a story, you get a glimpse of what normal life is like for your character(s) before everything starts to fall apart. This can either be slowly (with little things just seeming a bit out of place at first, and then things getting progressively worse and worse – Max Brooks did this very well in the World War Z novel) or it can be very quickly, with everything going to hell pretty much in an instant (as occurred in the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead). Either way, the main emotion being played on here is the nagging worry that people have that, at some point , something will go wrong and their world will come crashing down around their ears. This means the reader can empathise with the characters as this happens, and wonder what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation.
The descent from normality option is probably the easiest for the novice writer to attempt as it allows them to use a relatively linear narrative, and no need to have too much back story in conversation with others. However, care must be taken to make sure that you strike the right balance between having just enough of the non-action scenes before the start of the descent for the reader to get a handle on what the character’s normality is, and not so much that the reader is left wondering when the apocalypse is ever going to start (after all that is why they are reading a zombie apocalypse novel in the first place!).
As a general rule, the more normal the character(s) lives and situation is, the less you need to reveal of their normality before you can start in with the zombies. This is done really nicely in both Dawn of the Dead (someone returning from work and going to bed) and in Shaun of the Dead, where we get a brief glimpse into a normal day in his life (so we can see he’s stuck in a rut so big, it will take nothing less than the fall of civilisation to jolt him out of it). However, if you are setting your zombie apocalypse story in a quiet different from the real world (such as some alternative future version of Earth) or with characters whose daily lives are more unusual, you may need to provide a longer lead in so that the reader becomes familiar enough with their normality that they can understand the effect of the descent upon it, and those who live in it, when things start to change. Indeed, this is probably the biggest mistake that people make when using the descent from normality opening as there is a tendency to jump into the zombie action too quickly (e.g. having the opening line of: ‘It was a normal day for Bob, until he saw the zombies swarming up the street towards him’ – a good opening line to a short story, but probably not for a novel).
3. The zombie-filled world: In this type of start to a zombie novel, you drop in on your characters in a world already over-run (or being over-run) with zombies, usually at a point when something has changed in their life. For example, it might be a new character arriving in a group, a safe house being over-run, being force to move to a new location because of some threat, or something about the zombies changing (maybe getting more intelligent, or the disease which creates them spreading in a new way). The emotions you’re trying to elicit within the reader here is thinking about how they would survive in a world which is very different from the one they live in, and one which they don’t have the experience or the skills to handle, and you’re doing this by throwing them in at the deep end of just such a world.
The reason you need to have this start at a point of change in the characters’ lives is simply so that you have a fixed starting point to work from. From this point, you can then move forwards and backwards to fill the reader in on how the world came to be the way it is, and what’s then happening with the characters. Although not zombie stories, this is used very well in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road and the TV series Falling Skies.
The main difficulty which you will face if you wish to use this type of beginning is that you will have to make sure you build your world in your reader’s mind, and it can be quite difficult to explain the rules of how your world operates to them. In particular, you don’t have the luxury of having an essentially naive character who needs everything explained to them as you do in the first option.
4. The flashback: In a flashback beginning, you join a character during a tense scene or at a given point of action, often close to the end of your story arc, and have the character questioning how they ended up in that situation in the first place (this is also the emotional response which you are aiming to illicit in the reader, that of how someone can end up in a very bad place because of seemingly inconsequential decisions they have made in the past). This type of opening allows you to go back to the beginning and fill in everything that happened. This way you can show each of the decisions and why they lead the characters to end up where they did, hopefully with the reader screaming at them not to do something because they know that it will end up badly for the characters and they’d save if they just made a different decision.
This can be an effective ploy for a short story, but in general for a full length novel, it (in my opinion at any rate) can be very difficult to pull off successfully. This is because the reader will either have forgotten the flashback situation after a chapter or so, or will be aware that a specific point will be reached at sometime, and will be expecting it to be resolved with every turn of the page. This means it is difficult to integrate the reveal of what happens to end the flashback scene with the back story action. This can be done by moving back and forth between the character’s past and present, and it is often successfully done in movies. However, this is because you can use visual elements (clothes, hairstyles, locations etc.) to passively inform the viewer which time frame a given scene is in. When writing, you need some sort of similar ‘signpost’ for the time frame, but this often leads to the writing becoming rather clunky as it disrupts the flow.
So these are the basic options for starting a zombie apocalypse novel, but which one is right for you? Well this depends on your characters, your story arc, the world you’re aiming to create and what emotions you’re aiming to elicit from your readers. Really the key here is to pick one which works for your specific plot and fits with how you want to reveal your characters to your readers, but be aware that you shouldn’t try to shoe-horn a beginning to your novel which doesn’t fit with how the story will develop. Each type of opening promises the readers some very specific types of resolution and if they don’t get it, they will feel ripped off. For example, if you’re using the first option, you need to reveal to the reader at some point what happened to the world or they will quickly become frustrated at not being told. Similarly, with option 3, they will expect some back story to explain how the characters ended up in their new world and how they learned to cope with it, and if this is not done, they’ll feel cheated.
Personally, I like stories which start with the first type of opening, and that was one of the reasons why I chose it when writing For Those In Peril On The Sea. However, when I started work on the next book in the series (The Outbreak), which follows another group of survivors, I realised I could use this opening again without it feeling very same-y. For this reason, I’ve gone for a descent for normality option for this one, and it is likely that I’ll use the third option the for next book in the series because it will see the characters from the two books united in the pre-existing zombie-filled world. If I ever get round to a four book, I might be brave enough to try a flashback opening, but only because the rules of the world in which I’m writing should be firmly established by then in the readers’ minds, and it will use an existing character who is looking right back to the events which started my particular version of a zombie apocalypse. If I was starting a brand new series set in a very different world, I wouldn’t have these options and so wouldn’t even consider it.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.