I’m not big on rules, especially when it comes to writing, and I think that sometimes would-be writers spend too much time trying to learn about the rules of writing rather than just sitting down and getting on with it. After all, the best way to learn to write is by doing it and then seeing if you, or indeed anyone else, likes what you’ve created. However, when it comes to zombie apocalypse novels, there are a few rules which, if remembered, can greatly improve your writing. They’re not hard and fast rules, but they’re always useful to have in the back of your mind. So what are these rules?
The first is known as Chekhov’s Gun Theory, after the Russian writer Anton Chekhov who is credited with creating it. To quote Chekhov himself:
‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’
This is a very useful rule when writing zombie apocalypse stories, and can be rephrased as follows: If you mention that someone has a weapon of some kind, then you are creating an expectation in the reader’s mind that it will be used. If it’s not, it will leave the reader wondering why. The same goes for other elements within the story, such as vehicles, scavenged objects and even characters. If they’re not essential to the story, you need to get rid of them, no matter how interesting or cool they are, or how much it shows how intelligent or well-read you are.
The second rule is related to the first and is based on Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor states that the simplest explanation which is consistent with available evidence is the most likely explanation. In terms of writing zombie novels, this means that your characters’ actions need to be as simple as the circumstances you have created allow. As a result, if you are going to have characters acting in complex or unexpected ways, this can’t just happen out of the blue as this will leave your reader wondering why they did it rather than something more simple or obvious. Instead, you need to change the circumstances to justify what the characters do and effectively paint them into a corner so their actions are the only logical ones available to them, even if they seem overly complicated. For example, if someone has to fight their way through a horde of zombies, you need to justify why they didn’t just turn and run away (which, let’s face it, is what most of us would do in the same circumstances!). The same goes for getting out of cars or other vehicles, going into buildings which may contain zombies and so on. This isn’t to say that you can’t have characters doing these types of thing, just that you need to tweak the circumstances to justify why they do them. For example, you can have a car run out of fuel so that people have to get out and walk, or someone develop an illness which means that a supermarket has to be raided to get some medicine or else they’ll die. After all, we all know never to enter a darkened building if there might be zombies inside – unless you have no other choice.
The third rule is to avoid MacGuffins at all cost. A MacGuffin is a plot device with little or no narrative explanation. In zombie stories, this can be things like introducing a character just to provide some background information, or so that they can get killed in a spectacular or gruesome way. Oddly, MacGuffins can work quite well in films (think of Twinkies in Zombieland or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction), but in prose, they tend to just annoy the reader. This is because MacGuffins violate Chekhov’s Gun Theory and Occam’s Razor as they are generally irrelevant to the main story or plot. This doesn’t mean you can’t have little throwaway lines, asides, or even the occasional ‘Easter Egg‘ (I’ll say more that particular subject in another post), just that they need to be worked carefully into the story so that they don’t stand out as something which needs to be explained. After all, there’s nothing worse than leaving the reader scratching their head and wondering ‘why on Earth did he mention that?’ or ‘what was the point of that character?’
The final rule I want to talk about here is foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is the introduction of elements into the story which prepare the reader for what will happen later on. In zombie apocalypse stories, foreshadowing can be really important and can cover things like how a character knows how to handle a gun or a specific weapon, where a weapon which will be used at a crucial moment comes from, how characters will respond to specific events and so on. They’re also really useful for setting the rules for your world and specifically how your zombies will act and how they are created. I’ve written about these before (where I called them plotlings) and they are the really important seeds that you need to plant in your reader’s mind before something becomes critical to how your story unfolds. If you don’t get the foreshadowing right, you’ll find the readers are left wondering how or why something happened, and the story will seem much less believable. It is particularly important to foreshadow major plot twists in some way, but you need to get just the right balance between providing hints as to what might happen and having your words jump out at the reader screaming ‘I’m a plot device: remember me, I’m important later!’.
As I’m sure you’ve realised by now, these four rules are all related and, indeed, can be viewed as variations on the same basic theme. This is that you shouldn’t mention things in a story if they don’t turn out to be critical, and you can’t use characters or other things, such as weapons, at crucial moments without introducing them earlier in the story.
Of course, it’s not only useful to know these rules, but also when to start applying them. I’d argue that it’s not when you’re writing the first draft, but rather when you’re editing it after you’ve got the basic plot and structure of your story down on paper. This is because you’re likely to change things quite substantially as you edit your story down, and if you start seeding your story with foreshadowing and Chekhov’s ‘guns’ too early on, you may find that they might turn into MacGuffins as you change exactly what happens within your basic framework. Indeed, in my own writing, the way I end up with MacGuffins in my early drafts is precisely because I’ve changed something as I’ve re-worked the story and I’ve failed to go back and remove related elements that were previously important for foreshadowing what was going to happen. This means that when you’re starting to bash your first draft into shape you need to make sure you’re thinking whether every character, every weapon or object mentioned, every line of dialogue and every scene really is needed or whether the story would work just as well without it. If it will – not matter how attached you are to a specific element you’ve created – leave it out. Similarly, you need to be thinking whether anything comes suddenly out of the blue and whether you need to go back and add a bit of foreshadowing to prepare the reader for it ahead of time. The time you spend doing this will be more than repaid by the improvements it makes to your manuscript and how well your story is received by your readers.
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.