Tag Archives: Zombies

An Interview with Benjamin Rosenbaum

12 Dec
Benjamin Rosenbaum's story "Feature Development for Social Media" was published at Tor.com. You can find a complete list of his stories here.

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s story “Feature Development for Social Media” was published at Tor.com. You can find a complete list of his stories here.

Benjamin Rosenbaum is the author of The Ant King and Other Stories. His stories have been published in Nature, Harper’s, F&SF, Asimov’s, McSweeney’s, and Strange Horizons, translated into 23 languages, and nominated for Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Locus, World Fantasy, and Sturgeon Awards. He lives near Basel, Switzerland.

In this interview, Rosenbaum discusses social media in fiction, our ability to grow accustomed to anything (even zombies), the phrase first world problems, and a tabletop roleplaying game about teenage monsters.

(To read Rosenbaum’s story “Feature Development for Social Networking” and an exercise on story tone, click here.)

Michael Noll

I’ve been struck by the absence of social media in new stories and novels. In fact, the only social-media story I can think of is Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” which was written as a series of tweets. So, I love the sections of your story that are written as Facebook messages. What were the challenges you faced in using this form? Was it tempting to treat the medium ironically—to exaggerate or spoof the way people communicate via Facebook. Even though the scenario is far-fetched (zombie attack), the way the characters communicate seems authentic and real.

Benjamin Rosenbaum

I feel like there’s a certain amount of use of social media, instant messaging, etc, particularly in YA fiction. M.T. Anderson’s brilliant novel Feed comes to mind (not written exactly in an epistolary style, but in which the equivalent of IM’ing and tweeting is heavily foregrounded and substitutes for much of the dialogue), or Lauren Myracle’s ttyl.

Interestingly, the direction of my revisions was to tone down the realism of the Facebook usage. It’s not so much that I was tempted to exaggerate and spoof, as that my initial draft was very closely emulating real Facebook usage — for instance, the fact that the responses to a comment do not follow the comment immediately, but occur after a certain lag time during which other comments have intervened. In revision I simplified and threw away some of the peculiarities that are part of real Facebook interactions, but which weren’t thematically central and which made it harder to read smoothly as fiction.

I tried to be pretty naturalistic, rather than broad, because I thought the humor would mostly come from the contrast of the realistic, everyday style of discourse and the fantastical situation. I was going to say “familiar style of discourse” and “unfamiliar, dramatic situation”, but of course it’s really two familiarities — the everyday, real-world familiarity of social networking and the pop-culture familiarity of the zombie outbreak.

If anything, in revision, I made the satire sharper and the characters more distinct. Jewell got bubblier and more committed to lower-case abbreviations, Buster more self-serving and insensitive, etc. In that sense it actually became less naturalistic — the characters moved closer to being types, the way Dickens’s or Austen’s minor characters are. There’s always a balance to be struck between naturalistic and stylized.

Michael Noll

The actual zombie action takes place off the page, referenced but never seen directly. Even when the story’s characters see zombies, they don’t describe them with great detail. In a way, this seems to cut across the zombie genre, which almost always shows gore and carnage eventually. For instance, in this exchange between Facebook employees, one of them writes: “Suresh, you should check out the 2nd floor webcam. There’s not a lot of Grief and Loss Counseling going on up there right now. Nor do I recommend a massage.” I love that this detail is delivered as a literal P.S. to an email about the feature development from the story’s title. This particular exchange ends with one character writing, “Let’s not get distracted people!” On one hand, this is funny. On the other hand, it seems like it keeps the zombie-biting-people stuff from taking over the story. Were plot details like this one always dropped into the story so casually? Did they ever occupy a more direct space?

Benjamin Rosenbaum

So partly, I was going for a humorous deflation of the zombie story. If I’m juxtaposing the mundane detail of the everyday with the horrific detail of the apocalypse, and they are described with equal focus, the horrific details are going to take over emotionally.

Blood and gore are sensational: they force the reader to pay attention, demand an emotional reaction. On the other hand, if you demand an emotional reaction when you haven’t really earned one — when the reader isn’t sufficiently invested in the characters and the action — you get sentimentalism or melodrama rather than a real emotional response. The reader pulls back, because you’re rubbing their face into extreme stimuli without having won them over.

Kelly Link's collection of stories, Stranger Things Happen, includes the brilliant story "The Specialist's Hat."

Kelly Link’s collection of stories, Stranger Things Happen, includes the brilliant story “The Specialist’s Hat.”

So in a way, distancing the carnage is a double win: primarily, it’s funnier, because it allows the juxtaposition of mundane and extreme to be a balanced juxtaposition. But also, I think it may actually be scarier too, because the little details of what’s going on sort of slip in to the narrative. Something that’s just offstage is often scarier than something in the center of the screen. The end of the movie Blair Witch Project is far scarier than most horror movies where there’s an onscreen monster, because so much is implied, evoked in your imagination. However good the CGI or the rubber suit is, it’s never going to be as frightening as what your brain can project into the unknown. Kelly Link is an absolute master of this; I think “The Specialist’s Hat” is an exquisitely scary story, for instance, precisely because of what we don’t know.

In writing this, funny was more important to me than scary, but the little bit of scary helps bring the funny into relief, and makes it sharper.

There’s another related thing going on here, too, which is that I wanted to talk about habituation, which I think of as one of the most powerful mechanisms of the human mind. It’s like we can get used to anything. Like, in the first decades of aviation, flying was this incredible, awesome, unbelievably thrilling achievement. Human beings could fly — like birds! We had conquered gravity! To ascend to the heavens in a plane was mindblowing, it was this rush of absolute wonder and power. Now we get on a plane and we’re like, security sucks, my seat is uncomfortable, why do I have to put my tray table up, damnit my laptop battery is down and the inflight magazine is boring, what do they expect me to do, spend my time looking out at the clouds? This is actually hilarious when you think about it. And at the same time, people in horrific situations habituate to them too. I just re-read the Diary of Anne Frank, the new edition where they restored a bunch of stuff that had been cut out for propriety’s sake in the 50s. Anne Frank spends very little time on the Nazis. She occasionally remarks that it sucks that they have to hide, and that she’s worried about her schoolmates who didn’t hide in time, and that they’re following the progress of the war. But 90% of the time she’s pissed off at her mother, and at Peter’s mother, and at the guy she has to share a room with. Somebody’s not peeling enough potatoes and someone else is hogging the radio. That’s what life is composed of, whether you are an internet billionaire or a hidden Jew in occupied Holland during the Holocaust. Occasionally you stick your head up and think “hey, I could buy a small country!” or “hey, I’m probably going to be killed soon!” but most of the time you’re like “goddamnit, these potatoes are too salty” or “omg I think he might like me like me.”

That’s what’s deeply wrong, by the way, with this whole #firstworldproblems meme, you know that one? It’s supposedly an excercise in humility and perspective, but in fact it’s an exercise in arrogance. You know, like “my underwear is itchy #firstworldproblems” or “there’s too much goat cheese in my salad #firstworldproblems” or “I can’t get my favorite show on my cell phone #firstworldproblems”. You think people in Bangladesh don’t complain if their underwear is itchy? You think people in the dystopian industrial sprawl of China don’t bitch about their cell phones? There are 1.2 billion cell phones in China, four times as many as there are in the US, 89 per 100 citizens (in the US it’s 103 per 100 citizens). I just read the graphic novel of Waltz with Bashir — there’s this scene where there’s a firefight on the beach in Beruit, and the locals are coming out onto the balconies of their highrise beachside condo apartments to watch the gunfight like it’s a movie, leaning on their railings, smoking and kibitzing. Humans can get used to anything. Our focus is local. I grew up during the crack and AIDS epidemics, with most experts telling us that global nuclear annihilation was immanent, and I knew all that, but still I was mainly interested in playing D&D and going to 7-11, right? So it seems very clear to me that if there’s a zombie apocalypse, a lot of people are going to feel like that’s security’s job to deal with, and they need to get the next feature out. I mean we are currently dealing with the longest-running war in U.S. history, the irreversible melting of the polar ice caps, antibiotic resistant tuberculosis, and looming government financial default, but we’re still mainly interested in watching videos of cats. Why would zombies change anything?

I went back and looked at an early draft of the story — this dynamic, the foregrounded mundane and the offstage carnage, was in it from the beginning. Mostly what changed in revisions were plot and structure things. The story has a better ending now; it just kind of trailed off in earlier drafts.

Michael Noll

Zombie stories and other monster stories, especially vampire stories, are everywhere you look right now–and have been for a few years. They’re scary and thrilling, of course, but I wonder if their appeal runs deeper than just thrills and goosebumps. More than a few people have pointed out that zombies and vampires tend to reflect our fears as a culture (fear of outsiders, certain kinds of sexuality, fear of death). But I wonder, given the present wars and political violence, if monster stories don’t somehow put mass violence at a remove–in other words, putting our fear of such violence into a form that we can consume without being overwhelmed with fear or terror or grief. What do you think? What’s the power or appeal of zombies?

Benjamin Rosenbaum

I think this is a very good insight. It’s certainly one main job of the fantastic, in general, to put things at a remove where we can deal with them. When we think directly about dangers that really exist, we can get caught up in despair or anxiety, and sink. Adding an element of the impossible is one way of freeing up our minds, so that we relate to the danger with playful creativity. Often, this kind of distancing can make the emotional impact of a story greater. We’re less likely to get overwhelmed and shut down if there’s a balance between the absurd or imaginative and the horrific.

There are other techniques that can do this in realistic narratives. I recently read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, his memoir of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone. What happened in his life was, he had this relatively idyllic, calm, rural childhood, and then the war came and first he was fleeing and starving as a refugee, and then he was brutalized and drugged and forced to murder people, and then he got out and was rehabilitated. If he told it in strict chronological order, it would start out pleasant and slow, and then descend into just unbearable awfulness, and then level out into a long and difficult and slow, if hopeful, recovery. That would be really hard for the reader to take. When you got to the part with twelve-year olds killing and mutilating people, you wouldn’t be able to go on without checking out emotionally. So what he does is very sophisticated and wise. He starts out chronologically, but as it gets worse — in the part where they are wandering around starving and being chased away from villages and seeing people die — he salts it with flashbacks. You’ll be in some truly horrific scene and he’ll say “oh, and this reminds me of the story my uncle used to tell back in the village” and he’ll give you something whimsical or sweet. And it’s not cheap or gimmicky, because he’s not just doing it to protect you from being overwhelmed. He’s also honoring the village that was lost, he’s sharing with you the whole reality of where he came from, which is not just the horror of the civil war but also the humane, pleasant ordinariness of the lives it intruded into. He’s showing you that Sierra Leone is not just child soldiers killing people, but also uncles telling stories at dinner. And when he gets to the worst part — where he actually becomes a soldier — he gives us very little of it, before skipping ahead to the story of rehabilitation, and then gradually feeds us the horror in small flashbacks, interleaved with things getting better. The treatment of chronology is very deft. He’s protecting the reader, not in order to insulate the reader from what happened so that the reader doesn’t care, but rather so that the reader will care — so that we won’t get overwhelmed and start reading it as just a story of terrible people in some terrible place. He’s resisting being sensationalized, resisting the role of the victim, insisting on constantly putting forward his own and his people’s humanity and agency and ordinariness.

So that’s one thing. Fantastic elements can serve the same kind of purpose, of distancing us enough so we can connect.

Mass violence is one thing zombies can stand for. Pandemics are another — this is definitely a zombie story in the spirit of 28 Days Later, where it’s a grittily real medical catastrophe that’s going on. A related thing that interests me about zombies is that they’re about dehumanization. Someone is infected with something that makes them dangerous and violent — do you see them as a monster, or as a person with an illness? There’s a way in which the apocalypse is often used to grant the characters, and the readers, license to escape a world in which we’re expected to deal responsibly with other people, to tolerate difference, to resolve conflicting needs; if everything falls apart enough, we have permission to just chop off the heads of people who we find difficult. Zombie stories are also about isolation. When I moved to Switzerland the most recent time, and was feeling very disconnected, I found myself having obsessive daydreams about pandemic flu clearing the streets, about having to subsist on what was in my apartment, to bar my door.

Monsterhearts is a roleplaying game where players explore the confusion that comes both from growing up and feeling like a monster.

Monsterhearts is a roleplaying game where players explore the confusion that comes both from growing up and feeling like a monster.

Monsters can stand for a lot of things. There’s a really brilliant tabletop roleplaying game, probably the best-designed roleplaying game I’ve ever played, called Monsterhearts, about the messy lives of teenaged monsters. One thing that’s amazing about it is how the game explicitly instructs you to create fiction that operates on both literal and metaphorical levels, simultaneously. Your Werewolf feels out of control of his body, which is changing without his consent — like every teenager’s, but also like a werewolf. Your Ghost feels invisible and lost, trapped by the past and like no one can even see, much less understand her, plus she actually can walk through walls. Your Vampire is about temptation and emotional manipulation and dangerous desire and also bites people. The game captures the balance that fantastic fiction strikes at it best — the fantastic elements evoke emotionally real things without being reducible to them. It’s not allegory, it’s symbol, which means it doesn’t collapse into a hidden meaning like a code, rather it radiates out meanings, generating echoes of echoes.

December 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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An Interview with TJ Danko

11 Apr
The Dead We Know is a zombie novel in the tradition of epics like The Walking Dead and Stephen King's The Stand

The Dead We Know by T. J. Danko is a zombie novel that follows in the tradition of The Walking Dead.

T. J. Danko’s novel The Dead We Know has been called “a smart twist on the usual zombie lore” and “gripping, tense, creepy, edge of your seat.” The Kindle-published e-book follows a pair of oil-field workers and two teenage girlfriends who set out in an apocalyptic zombie world where they must work together to survive.

In this interview, Danko discusses the tricks of genre fiction: dialogue, the rules of survival in a zombie world, and the reason why zombie stories always begin with the main character waking from a coma. A writing exercise inspired by the opening of the novel—especially how key information is parceled out through dialogue—can be found here.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue that opens the novel. The banter between Nick and Eduardo is short and snappy and really establishes the dynamics of their friendship. A lot of writers would struggle with this opening scene. They know that something big must happen–a zombie encounter–and that they must somehow set the stage for the encounter. As a result, a lot rides on everything that comes prior to that encounter. How did you approach this scene?

T J Danko

Thanks! There were a few things I wanted to work out in the opening scene, but you’re right, it was a balance between providing what was necessary to establish character and set up the plot without telling too much. The priority of the release of information had to be in the scene itself, knowing there was plenty of time to tell how the epidemic began. Partly it’s a little easier on a zombie book because there’s a familiarity to the scenario.

But the opening scene was also a way to try new things by writing an unfamiliar type of story. In many ways, my zombie book was a reaction to my own dissatisfaction with pieces I’d been working on. When I read stories that could be classified as genre, whether it’s Gone Girl or the Stieg Larsson books, I often found myself compulsively flipping through the pages, eager to get to the next part. When I looked at my own stories, I worried that people wouldn’t read it with the same excitement. There sometimes was a static quality, a lack of forward propulsion, which bothered me. I wanted to study how those writers did it and try it out for myself.

The dialogue was not only to establish character and hopefully be funny, it was a way to put off the zombies, to try to heighten the expectation of their introduction. My thoughts tied into Alfred Hitchcock’s famous idea of suspense versus surprise. He says that the difference can be illustrated by a story. You have two people at a table, talking. A little while passes, we listen in. And suddenly, a bomb goes off under the table. Surprise. Now

Alfred Hitchcock on Mastering Cinematic Tension

Click to watch video of Alfred Hitchcock discussing bombs and tension in an AFI Master Seminar.

if we take the same scene, a couple having a conversation, but this time the camera pans down to show the bomb, or we heard earlier about someone plotting to blow up the coffee shop and how the bomb will go off at 1 PM and we see it’s 12:45, and we show the couple talking about trivial matters, the audience will be watching tensely, waiting for the bomb to explode, wanting to warn them. That’s suspense.

In a similar fashion, I approached the initial dialogue as a way to stretch out the moment before the zombies appear. They’re going to make an appearance; we know that. But if we can extend the scene for as long as possible, there’s hopefully a chance to increase the sense of dread. And also, I thought there might be a chance that the tension would make the dialogue a little funnier by contrast.

Michael Noll

The opening scene also hews pretty closely to horror-story convention: two characters on the road, late at night, and a chance encounter that goes horribly wrong. If this scene was being discussed in workshop, people might advise you to find a less cliche way of entering the novel. But it seems to me that in a work of genre, cliche is important. First, as the writer, you know where to start the story, rather than needing to create a beginning out of the limitless possibilities. Second, the cliche/convention exists in the first place not only because it’s a convenient way to begin the story but also because it rings true to us. Driving at night in the middle of nowhere is a little scary, even under the best circumstances. Walking alone through the woods is scary. As a result, it seems to me that you must begin the novel this way. But, of course, you need to make the convention seem fresh, which you do. How did you choose this opening scenario?

T J Danko

It is a pretty standard scene in a horror movie. I wish I could say that it was some clever idea about fairy tales and how walking in the woods is a subtle message that we’re moving out of our world into something supernatural, or that I was deliberately tweaking the genre. But it was mostly because I had an image of a family of zombies illuminated by headlights on the side of the road, and I wanted it in the opening chapter.

Could I bring up another thought? The fact that Nick and Eduardo were ignorant of the sickness and were driving into a world where the zombie apocalypse was already going full-swing was due to a reluctance to begin with the first diagnoses of the first zombie. The spread of zombie-ism is like an epidemic: a slow rise before it reaches the tipping point and spreads rapidly. If you start at the first incident of the disease, it would take too long for the story to ramp up. I think that’s the reason why The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later begin with their main characters in comas, waking up to a world already overrun with the infected.

How important is a coma to The Walking Dead? Check out this official plot summary from the show's website.

How important is a coma to The Walking Dead? Check out this official plot summary from the show’s website.

For this reason, I tried to side-step this beginning of the epidemic by isolating Nick and Eduardo, having them hear the rumors but not believing them; I could save the spread of the sickness in a later scene through a short flashback. But how to isolate them? I had a news story I’d been holding onto for a long time. Have you ever found research just because it’s interesting and you thought you might be able to use it someday? I have a list of those. A year or so ago, I heard about temporary communities set up in North Dakota for oil drilling. They’re called “Man Camps,” where the workers are paid very well but stay in these sprawling camps, next to the oil fields, populated almost exclusively by men. I’d been holding onto this place, waiting patiently for a story to fit it in. Even though it only appears at the beginning of the book and I’m not sure it’s the most elegant solution in isolating the characters, I was happy to finally find a place for it.

While the cliché of the opening scene wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, I did want to start in a familiar setting as a jumping off point to the rest of the book. In my mind, my real main character is the teenager Carly, who is introduced in the next chapter. This novel is her story: she’s the protagonist and the one who changes the most, moving from insecurity to the reluctant leader of the group. She turns from someone who is traumatized to a more action-orientated character. But the opening to her story wasn’t going to have the same immediacy or potential cinematic quality as Nick and Eduardo, alone in the woods being attacked by a family of zombies. Also, clichés are often clichés for a reason. They play to our fears, perhaps connect to something familiar that just feels right. My hope is that the opening is specific and individual enough to break out of the cliché.

Michael Noll

I once heard someone claim that horror stories tell us something about the national mood, our insecurities and fears. So, Godzilla came out of our fear of nuclear energy and the classic zombie films were born out of the Cold War. Also, in those early zombie movies, the zombies were always attacking teenagers parked on the edge of town, making out. In a way, the zombies were enforcing our threatened moral code. I often think about this claim whenever some natural disaster arrives, and someone like Jerry Falwell blames the death and destruction on homosexuals. Perhaps it’s in our genetic makeup to view disaster as God’s wrath and punishment. Have you ever thought about horror stories this way? Why did you choose zombie and not vampires, werewolves, witches, or mummies or any of the other standard monsters?

T J Danko

Those are good questions. When I started writing, I was thinking this exact thing, about how many monsters seem to be directly connected to cultural concerns. Zombies seem to have a strange place within the realms of monster stories. Vampires in the Western culture circle around transgression and sexual repression – Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Twilight series, as far as I’ve heard – and werewolves are about our nature and our own animalism. The George Romero zombies are often used as a metaphor for larger societal issues, where the films tackled themes like racism or consumerism. But somewhere these concerns seemed to change, and now the underlying sub-text behind zombies is the apocalypse and survival. It seems to be a concern for everyone, no matter where you stand in the political spectrum. The world’s warming up. Meteors are crashing into Earth. Survivalists are building bunkers and hoarding supplies. Zombies represent the breakdown of order, the worry about how we would survive when social structures collapse. I don’t think it’s an accident that many modern zombie stories explore the idea that other survivors end up being more dangerous than the zombies.

I did start writing with a sense of dread for the future. But there was another idea for the book. I thought about the rules of survival in the movie Zombieland, not to mention the CDC of all places. I thought this was a clever way of pushing the zombie genre further, but part of me also thought how these lists wouldn’t help you survive, not really, and would probably kill you. You think you know what a disaster will look like, but it will never be exactly as you expect. In other words, when the zombies do come for us (and they will!), the tactics will probably be useless, simply because zombies will not behave like the zombies in movies or TV shows. That was one of the central notions I had when I started the story.

 Michael Noll

You’ve written literary short stories and now a genre novel. Were the experiences completely different, or have you found one feeding or influencing the other?

T J Danko

While really great writers have dabbled in genre work, I sensed they were often winking at the audience. I didn’t want to do that. There’s a real power to genre that shouldn’t be discounted. There were some good lessons that I learned by expanding the scope of my writing.

Still, writing genre is different from literary fiction, especially if you add the self-publishing, e-book aspect into the equation. A literary novel can generally take three years or so, often much longer. The e-book market thrives on quantity. From what I’ve learned, you’re probably not going to sell much or be as able to market yourself if you only have one e-book. In genre, on the Kindle, it’s not atypical to publish two or three books a year, sometimes more. The speed in writing has to mean less time spent agonizing over sentences or worrying over plot and characters. Since I’m neurotic, I found writing in a genre liberating, concerning myself mostly with establishing forward momentum and creating set pieces. That said, it was impossible to let go of the tendency to want to write the best sentence possible, and I really hope my sentences are well-crafted.

In the end, I do think writing both genre and literary stories has enriched my work. I talked about how The Dead We Know gave me a place to explore tension. It also made me think about pacing and my relationship with audience. Readers of the horror genre want to be scared; they want to be entertained. While there is a tendency in a literary book to turn the camera inwards, to search for truths and expand the mysteries, it’s also useful to think about how you can play with the audience, how they can be shocked or surprised, how they can be kept in suspense. And maybe it’s helped me a little in finding new ways to make them turn that page.

April 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Reveal Plot with Dialogue

9 Apr
The Dead We Know is a zombie novel in the tradition of epics like The Walking Dead and Stephen King's The Stand

The Dead We Know is a zombie novel in the tradition of serial epics like The Walking Dead

Can literary writers do genre? Many people think not. A literary writer will get bored with the conventions, they say, and begin experimenting, producing a pulp/literary hybrid.  Recent history shows many examples of this: Michael Chabon won a rash of prizes for his detective novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and New Fabulists like George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, and Karen Russell embrace and explore the conventions of fantasy and science fiction.

But what about the pure genre novel? Is it really off-limits to literary writers?

T. J. Danko is the pseudonym of a literary writer who has published stories in various journals, but his latest work embraces one of the most popular forms of genre literature—zombies. The Dead We Know is not a Chabon-like crossover or a Saunders-esque ironic treatment. It’s old-fashioned page-turner that keeps you up after your bedtime.  You can read the first chapter of The Dead We Know here.

How the Novel Works

Works of genre, like all novels, deliver pieces of information gradually. One way to accomplish this is through dialogue, and this is where The Dead We Know excels. For instance, look at Nick and Eduardo’ argument about whether the truck window should be rolled up or down:

“I’m freezing. Why aren’t you freezing?”

He closed his eyes and began to drift off. Eduardo punched him.

“Ow.”

“What are you doing? You close the window and you go to sleep? Fuck you. You want me to crash or something?”

“Fine. Turn on the radio.”

“Fantastic,” Eduardo said. He switched on the radio, and there was a sharp crackle. He kept turning the dial, but there was only more noise.

“Nothing?” Nick asked.

“The whole trip I get nothing but static.”

Nick yawned loudly. “We’ve been driving in the middle of nowhere.”

“Help me stay awake,” Eduardo complained. “It’s boring driving in the middle of the night.”

The scene’s realism—Nick and Eduardo behave like every road-tripper who’s ever lived—is what heightens the tension. Through a realistic argument, we’re being told, indirectly, everything that will happen. Of course they will crash, and of course the crash will happen in the dark, in the middle of nowhere. This is a zombie novel, after all. It might be tempting, as a writer, to “reinvent” the genre, but the best genre novels stick to conventions. The writer’s skill is in making those conventions seem fresh and new. One way to do this is to avoid giving the reader information directly. Instead, focus on the characters, the ways their personalities clash. Give the characters lives that exist prior to the zombies. In other words, give the characters something to talk about, and then let the story intrude.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s play around with dialogue. For this exercise, write a scene (two pages max) in which you use only dialogue.

  1. Choose a setting (exiting a movie theater, approaching a rope bridge over a lava flow with pterodactyls flying everywhere).
  2. Choose a relationship dynamic (they’re fighting over…, they’re upset because…, they’re relaxed because…).
  3. Choose a goal (character will confess his/her love for the other, character will reveal a hideous secret)
  4. Now write the scene. But here are the rules: The characters cannot state outright the relationship dynamic or the goal. They must allude to or approach the dynamic/goal from an angle or under cover of some other piece of conversation.

These rules may seem difficult, yet you may discover that your scene begins to move in unexpected ways. Try it out.

Good luck.

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