Writing the Apocalypse

     Telling the story of the end of the world is the second oldest profession for story tellers, the first being describing the creation of the universe. When the written word was first etched into stone and clay these were the first stories told. While creation stories are measured to conform to a religion or culture’s status quo, the apocalypse has always been an over-the-top affair. You’d think we’d be pretty good at it by now, but unfortunately this is not often the case. I’ve been writing an apocalypse story, and I confess it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I worry I am failing. I’m writing this for my own good, and to share my thoughts with others who might be considering their own world-killing tales.

I’ll start with best: Stephen King is probably the go-to guy if you want good apocalypse narratives. “The Stand” is a masterpiece, and if you’ve never read King (and if you haven’t what’s wrong with you?) then this book is a great place to start. Set against the backdrop of a bio-engineered plague, King whittles the human race down to a single digit percentage of the former population. Using his horror-writing skills he sprinkles the fantastic into “The Stand” in limited, but effective amounts, and the story settles into an exodus to a promised land, and a race against evil. “The Stand” is character driven, the plague is background, and the story comes with how the people deal with the many phases of the end of the world. It’s a damned good yarn. King has other apocalypse stories too: the short story “Trucks”, and the novel “Cell” are wonderful takes on the end of the human race, each with different catalysts, but all share the strong character-centric base.

James Gunn’s screenplay for the remake of “Dawn of the Dead” had many things to like, but the primary factor making it a great apocalypse story is its character-centered narrative. It’s a zombie movie, but the zombies are secondary to the story with the survival of the people staying front and center. The movie takes its time in places using monotony to build a feeling of hopelessness, and Gunn’s script is full of great dialogue which adds depth where so many movies like this rarely do.  While the movie hints the zombie outbreak might be terrorist- related, the source is never revealed, and this a key difference between Gunn’s story, and King’s various works. Not knowing the source driving the end of the world can be risky, the reader or viewer has no rule book or guide, and the risk of losing interest in the story goes up if the reader suspects that there is no hope. Gunn’s story flirts with going in this direction, but the action moves the story at a pace which doesn’t let the viewer dwell on the outcome. King’s stories give the reader a source, or starting point for the apocalypse so his readers know where the limits of the virus, or menace lay. This is found in the Bible with the story of Noah, God tells Noah he’s up to something, tells him to build an ark and fill it with animals, and then floods the earth.

The flip-side to this is the event-driven apocalypse story. Two prime examples of what not to do are the movies “The Day After”, and “World War Z”. “The Day After” is riddled with disaster movie clichés, characters are cartoon like with cartoon motivations, and are pushed aside by scene after scene of special effects. Nobody cares about the people in the story because they are poorly written. “World War Z” had the same problem. Brad Pitt’s character races from one set-piece to another where he meets one stereo-type after another in his quest to stop the virus behind the zombie outbreak. At no point does the viewer feel Pitt is in danger, and his ultimate success in figuring it out and getting back to his family are never in doubt – it is that badly written. I’m talking about the movie, and not the book. The book is pretty good, but it was adapted badly into movie form.

“World War Z” saved my story from going in that direction. My apocalypse story centers on a threat from the sea, and starts off in spectacular fashion. Luckily I had developed a stable of strong characters, and had used their points of view to describe the destruction. The temptation was to pull back the point of view to reveal the global scale, but after watching “World War Z” I changed my mind. Sure the world is still getting torn up, but my characters experience this through the television. I have already established the events which occur during the attacks, and I trust my readers with putting the rest together in their imaginations. This has allowed me to move the story faster, and keep the narrative crisp.

Trusting your reader is key. Stephen King and James Gunn just assume people are as smart as they are. This allows them to tell stories which can take risks, and keep their fans engrossed through multiple readings or viewings of their work. I need to remember this. In my defense my destructive force is unique to the apocalypse, so I have to do a little more work throughout to inform the reader about what is going on. At this time I am seven weeks away from finishing this novel, and this doesn’t count revisions in the future. I am glad I’ve taken a shot at the subject, I have a lot of great scenes in this story I’m proud of, and like I always tell people – there’s no such thing as wasted time while writing. There are a few other great apocalypse movies I should mention: “Omega Man”, and “Night of the Comet”. Both are character driven, and “Night of the Comet” is also just a lot of fun. Happy reading and joyful writing to you all.

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