A key element of zombie apocalypse stories is, of course, zombies. However, good zombie apocalypse stories also need some sort of conflict. Think, for example, of The Walking Dead. By series three, they seem to have got a pretty good handle on how to deal with the zombies themselves, but add The Governor to the mix, and suddenly everything is so much more difficult for the survivors because they have to deal with not just one thing, but two. The same can be seen in 28 Days Later, where Jim and his fellow survivors are caught between the infected and the remnants of the British Army.
However, not just any old conflict will do. The conflict needs to be such that the survivors have to choose between keeping themselves safe from the zombies, and dealing with the other source of danger (what every that might be). This can be seen in 28 Days Later, where in order to survive Jim must leave the safety of the stately home and take his chances amongst the infected if he is to survive long enough to be able to rescue his two female companions from the soldiers who are holding them.
Conflicts can take a number of forms. Firstly, the conflict can come from within a group of survivors. Such internal conflicts are usually driven by either a difference of opinion on how to deal with the zombie threat (e.g. stay put or move on), or by a battle for control. Sometimes both of these can be happening at the same time (think of the conflict between Rick and Shane in series two of The Walking Dead). These internal conflicts often cause the survivors to take their eye off the other ball which is in play (i.e. the zombies), usually with disastrous, and deadly, results.
Secondly, there can be conflict between groups of survivors. Such inter-group conflicts are often the result of ideological differences between either the groups themselves, or their leaders. In series three of The Walking Dead, much of the conflict between Woodbury and those in the prison is driven by the different leadership styles of Rick (listens to others in the group, and gives them freedoms to do things on their own) and The Governor (requires total control and loyalty). Clearly Rick’s way of doing things is incompatible with The Governor’s, and this results in needless death and destruction as they fight it out. Again, this lets the zombies cause more havoc than they otherwise would if the survivors could concentrate all their attention and energy on dealing with them.
Thirdly, the conflict can come from the need to get somewhere. In these stories, staying locked away in a nice safe place would be the best for all concerned, but instead, for some reason or other, the survivors must leave the place of safety and head somewhere else. This is essentially the conflict in movies such as Zombieland and Shaun Of The Dead, and also in the TV mini-series Dead Set.
Finally, there are conflicts with the environment. Sometimes, it’s not just the zombies but landscape they are in which causes the survivors additional problem. For example, in Dawn Of The Dead, the shopping mall creates a conflict. At first, it seems to be the perfect place to hole up, keeping them safely locked away from the zombie threat. However, as the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the shopping mall is also a trap, and it’s one they will have to leave at some point if they are to survive in the long-term, and that will mean facing the zombies. In fact, by apparently attracting the zombies, the shopping mall is actually making their inevitable departure more and more dangerous as time goes on.
We, as humans, find these types of conflicts, where you have an increased risk of dying simply because the conflict is present, regardless of how you respond to it, naturally intriguing, and we will continually discuss what we would have done in the same circumstances. This may be because these are the types of decisions are brains evolved to have to cope with. In fact, they are something which many animals have evolved to cope with, and there’s a whole field in ecology devoted to studying them. Most notably are starvation-predation trade-offs. These are created when animals are hunted by bigger predators. This means animals face two choices: they can carry a lot of extra energy stores (in the form of fat), meaning they’re less likely to starve if they run into problems finding food, but they’re also more likely to be caught by their predators because it makes them less manoeuvrable. If, however, they choose the make themselves slimmer so that they can better escape from predators, they risk starvation if food supplies run low.
If fact, many zombie stories can be viewed through this exact same ecological trade-off lens, with the conflicts being between the need for finding food and safety, and the need to avoid being killed by ‘predators’ (in the form of either the zombies, or other survivors). This was something I noticed when I was writing For Those In Peril On The Sea, and there’s even a specific reflection by one of the characters on the fact that they’d find it easy to survive if it was just one threat they we up against, but not when it was two or, in this case, three, each of which required conflicting responses in terms of how they live their lives (this is surreptitious reference, for those who know me in my other life as an academic, to a paper I was working on at the same time).
Of course, a lack of conflict doesn’t mean that a zombie story won’t be any good. In fact, in short stories, adding such conflicts can just disrupt the flow. This is because short stories only really have room to explore a single theme rather than complex interactions between different themes. However, in films and full length novels, a conflict of some kind it needed to drive the story forward. Without it, the story will quickly become boring and repetitive as the survivors run from one zombie attack to another. With it, the story will become much more compelling, leaving the reader wondering how exactly the conflict will be resolved as the story builds to its final conclusion.
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.