When it comes to zombie fiction, there’s two basic themes. The first is best illustrated by the start of 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead, where you have a character who has no idea what’s going on. Here, all the tension is developed by the unknown. The character (and indeed the viewer or reader) knows something has changed, but they don’t know what. Suspense is built as they (and, by proxy, you) move through a world filled with some unknown threat which is eventually revealed. The second theme is where the characters know exactly what’s coming, through past experience, or through news broadcasts and the media, yet they’re powerless to do anything about it, but fight or flee. Here the suspense comes not from wondering what’s out there, but how to escape its clutches.
The question is, if it were really to happen, which would be scarier? Would it be the unknown and the unexpected? Or would it be knowing exactly what’s coming, yet being powerless to prevent it? Personally, while I like the first in my zombie fiction, the second would be much, much worse to have to endure for real. If you don’t know what’s out there, you can at least persuade yourself that it might not be as bad as you imagine. If you do know, then you’ll know exactly what you’re up against, and when it comes to zombie hordes that would be truly terrifying.
Indeed, if a zombie apocalypse were to happen, the chances are most people wouldn’t be faced with the unknown, especially in the modern, highly-connected world. The moment the first dead started to rise, or the disease starts to spread, the 24 hour news channels would spring into action, doing their best to capture the story as it develops in full technicolour and high-definition, while Facebook and Twitter would be inundated with out-of-focus pictures and shaky video as people posted what was going on outside their front doors.
In short, pretty much everyone would know exactly what was coming to get them as they barricade the doors or take to the streets to run for their lives. They’d see it on their screens from every possible angle and they would be frightened beyond measure. Yet, this is rarely portrayed in zombie fiction. Instead, we seem to prefer the single, somehow ignorant, character point of view as they face the unknown. I’m not quite too sure why this is, but I think it might be to do with that childhood fear, when going to sleep at night, of whether the world will still be there, unaltered, when you wake the next morning or whether it might all change as you slumber.
From a writer’s perspective, there’s possibly also something more appealing about writing about someone dealing with the unknown. It’s easier to build suspense and create tension when the reader doesn’t know what’s waiting for them out of sight, but just around the corner. The reader also gets that vicarious thrill when they follow the characters as they do something they clearly shouldn’t, given the situation (you know, those moments when you want to scream out advice, like ‘Don’t open that door!’ or ‘Don’t go into that basement!’).
Yet, there are also many interesting possibilities to explore when people know what they’re up against. The tension can come not from what’s coming to get the characters, but from when it will arrive, and whether they will survive. The plot devices which you can employ have also been used less often, so it’s easier to be original rather than ending up with something which reminds the reader of something else. For example, there’s only so many times you can have someone waking up in a bed in an abandoned hospital before it starts becoming a cliché. Similarly, the emotions which you can explore aren’t the usual confusion and disbelief, but rather the fears and horror of knowing exactly what’s happening just outside the door while being powerless to stop it. This means if you’re going to write a zombie story, it’s worth considering whether ignorance really is bliss, or whether a little knowledge would be a much more dangerous, and terrifying, thing.
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.