Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Keeping Zombie-Slayers Interesting

I've been reading a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels, both young adult and, um, regular adult, lately.

I've read several very good ones that have seized the fancy of the reading public and have, I think, bright futures full of happy sales reports.

But I've also noticed a trend in my reaction to these books.

They start strong with a high concept - an irresistible hook - and plunge ahead with gruesome world-building and, in the best books, well-constructed heroes/heroines and secondary characters.

And then....about halfway through the book...my interest fades.

I have a theory about why this is, and it may have something to do with the fact that I recently reread Vogler's HERO'S JOURNEY. Without going into all the approach-the-cave/elixer/return blah-blah-blah, the fact is that the emotionally satisfying story arc that we are used to, that we expect from our popular fiction, does not allow for prolonged battles with the Evil. Generally we want our heroes tested - once to set up the story, and again in the climax - and we want those battles to be limited in scope. Dramatic, yes, and fraught, but not endless.

In a post-apocalyptic story, whether it's zombies or Suicide Collectors (in Oppegard's debut book), much of the book is given over to a protracted engagement and struggle with the Other. And I think this can get ho-hum-inducing.

I was thinking of this in the context of that Hero's Journey thing. Vogler makes the point that American audiences have somewhat different expectations of a story arc than audiences elsewhere in the world. I'd go a step further and say that recent - young - American audiences expect a deliberate and structured escalation and resolution of a story. This is why, for instance, today's high school students might not be as enamored of THE STAND as their parents. Or to go way back - why story traditions like the Arabian Nights or Aesop's fables might not go over so well now: we want our stories to build on themselves, arriving at successive truths on a path to one Large Truth.

In a post-apocalyptic novel, we spend 30,000 or 50,000 words watching all the different ways that our heroes struggle with the World/their Foes. There is not an emotionally satisfying progression or escalation. Generally our hero learns more and more about the foe, through a variety of tests, until there is enough accumulated knowledge to launch a successful offense. This arc addresses the external conflict - how do we defeat the undefeatable? - but generally leaves the hero's internal conflict untouched.

And this may bring me to the second reason why I find myself occasionally disappointed in these books:

It's all about character.

Yes! Really. Even in a book like this. Fact is that, while I might be mildly curious about how the zombies came to live outside the village, or how some past war decimated civilization, I am far more interested in the characters who are left behind. Just because they have to save the world is no excuse not to make them as multi-layered as possible. They still need quirks. They still need to surprise, and touch, me. I need to find their love stories wrenching and their grievances agonizing. Otherwise - no matter what is going on all around them - it's still not going to be a riveting book.


sandra seamans said...

Congratulations on your Derringer nomination, Sophie!!

Carrie Harris said...

I absolutely agree with this. Zombie books can't just be hack-and-slash, or lurch-and-moan, or any other one-dimensional hyphenated phrase you'd like to use. They still need the same underpinnings as any other book: good characters that undergo development throughout the course of the story, a cohesive and logical plot that actually goes somewhere, a unique voice that draws you in. I love the camp factor just as much as the next person (and probably more), but I think it needs to have something deeper underneath. I think the same can be said for vampire stories... just because it's got what some people call a commercial hook, that doesn't mean that you can skimp on the good stuff.

Sorry. Getting off the soapbox now. :)