Today, we’re talking Zombies.
Put your brains away, the shambling horrors I’m talking about are the ones that shuffle through your manuscript as storylines, characters, interesting events, and bits of action that, like the unquiet dead, do not play well with the rest of your setting.
Left alone, these story zombies can infect your entire novel, poison your theme, and eat the brains of your main characters until the worldwide epidemic leaves them struggling for survival instead of carrying your message to your readers.
Leaving the zombies to roam free in your story changes the very landscape of your world, and can sabotage all that careful worldbuilding and thematic structure that you’ve worked so hard on. So keep reading, arm yourself, and avert the apocalypse!
Virus or Voodoo?
Sometimes the zombies arise due to human hubris–a virus escapes and decimates the world, causing us to look to our neighbors first for help, and then for their tasty, tasty brains. Other times, the undead don’t stay dead because we’ve pissed off the Big Beard in the Sky with our sins.
The zombies in your story sometimes come from failure to plan. Others come from the lack of synergy to the rest of your setting, plot, or theme. Story zombies can be those subplot threads that never quite end, leaving you with the “Whatever happened to…?” feeling that creeps over the heroes when the last survivor to escape the previous horde starts acting a little funny around the same time you notice the quiet guy in the back hasn’t been around.
You might find the undead infesting your setting in the form of smart-zombies–the recently-infected that still blend in thanks to modern preservative mortuary technology. Sure, they still blend, but they just don’t smell quite right when held up next to the rest of your setting–the characters who stand out because they stand for a conflicting truth in your story’s theme (the good-looking swindler who gets away with robbing old ladies while you and the rest of your story insist that Crime Doesn’t Pay and Every Villain Gets His). And like the smart-zombie, if left to fester, you’ll soon have a full-blown epidemic on your hands and discover that your novel’s theme isn’t what you intended (instead of “crime doesn’t pay” your novel’s theme becomes “pretty people can get away with anything”).
Shovels or Shotguns?
The scattering ammunition power of a shotgun is the most popularly effective way of warding off the hordes of undead shuffling towards your delicious gray matter, but shotguns have their weaknesses once the ammo runs out. Sometimes, your best friend is the spade you use for target-braining anyone with that craving for your brains.
When you encounter story-zombies, taking them out with a shotgun approach is as messy as taking out the living-impaired with buckshot. It can leave gore splattered all over your story, and what’s worse, if you use the shotgun approach when you really need the surgical slice of the shovel, you risk spreading the infection instead of simply removing the ambulatory limbs to allow yourself the ability to extract your story from their hungry and rotting grasp.
Panic or Preparedness
When you find a shambling horror with a craving for the human flesh of your story in revision, take time to assess the extent of the outbreak first. Is it a single subplot that can be extracted with careful application of the editing
shovel scalpel? Or is it an entire section of story (usually somewhere in the shambling sagging middle) that’s out of place and smells funny compared to the rest of your story?
Sometimes you do have to remove whole sections of your story, and the only thing remotely pretty about it is the splatter pattern, while the only one who’d find it pretty is Dexter. If you’ve come to that conclusion, best do it quick. In a survival situation, you don’t have time to spare a moment of silence for nostalgia.
For those times when you don’t have to spray into the hordes, it’s worth it to have a plan of attack. First thing you have to do is cut off the ambulatory limbs and prevent the zombie from chasing you, or in this case, your story. Finding and removing all those points of influence won’t be easy, and it will take a steady hand, but zombie apocalypse survivors–no matter their background or original circumstance, all have a few things in common.
We are resilient. Creating isn’t easy, and if fiction writing were easy, everybody’d be doing it. And in times of great need–like the great need for the best story–we make that extra effort to make sure our abandoned shopping malls are the most defensible, and that our defense barricades can hold up against the pounding of mediocrity.
We are prepared. Even if you’re a pantser, you can still take some time between draft and revision to identify the plots and subplots you’ve created in your initial discovery binge of writing.
We will survive. Unlike the infected undead, our hunger drives us to become better. We improve until we can make that single headshot that means the difference between a fight and a bite. We get better at recognizing the signs of early infection so we don’t wake up to find the snapping jaws at our foreheads.
We will fight for a better tomorrow, and a better story.