When you’re in the trenches (and by that I mean when you’re at your keyboard) you must stay true to your vision. There are artistic choices to be made that will challenge some readers’ expectations. Choose more conflict and damn the torpedoes.
For instance, at the beginning of This Plague of Days, the protagonist’s sister, Anna Spencer, isn’t particularly likeable. She’s not over the top, but she is a hormonal teenager whose brother is on the autism spectrum. She calls him Ears because he has big ears. She loves her brother, but she can be mean. She’s jealous of the extra attention he gets because of his challenges. She treats him the same way many siblings treat each other in their formative years. If you’ve ever had a sister, or been one, you’ll recognize her turmoil as she matures. Now add the plague apocalypse (and later, scary, infected cannibals) and you’ve got tense family relationships facing a storm of trouble raining down evil doers and crazy cakes.
Readers who only read Episode One might not care for Anna much.
Impatient readers will never get to see how badass she gets. (I’m revising Season Two now and she’s nicer, but still working her way to badass.) If they quit reading at Episode One, they’ll never find out how circumstances and time transform her into an interesting, brave and responsible woman. Anna Spencer has an arc. All my characters have arcs and their own stories to tell. To have those stories, and the complexity I insist upon as a storyteller, the characters can’t begin as static, happy stereotypes.
This Plague of Days has nuance. Some characters you think are good now may surprise you with what they’re willing to do later. Characters you assume are bad may have altruistic motives that aren’t clear up front. Some writers say we shouldn’t even write “characters”. We should write people in all their complexity. The people you write about have to transform, and I don’t mean from likeable and nice to slightly more so.
Think how ineffective Breaking Bad would be if you didn’t watch Walter White’s transformation through the show’s seasons.
He starts off as a nebbish who reached for the brass ring and fell short. A cancer diagnosis turns him from an ordinary Chemistry teacher into a cold and calculating drug kingpin desperate for respect and safety. The cool thing about Breaking Bad is, today’s solution is always tomorrow’s problem. His character arc is entirely logical each step of the way. Throw in a fatal flaw and a few reversals and he ends up in an insane place that is believable over time.
If Walter White had started out evil, you don’t get grim fun and complexity. You get another stupid, failed TV show (starring cast members who used to be on Baywatch) cancelled and forgotten after half a season.
Another example: Points of view must change.
In This Plague of Days, I made choices to introduce more family strain. This Plague of Days isn’t just about viruses, zombies, fires and firepower. It’s about people under pressure.
The mom is a Christian. The father is an atheist.
Faced with mortality, the mom becomes a Christian with doubts and the dad becomes an atheist with doubts. I believe in readers and I follow the story wherever it leads (i.e. toward more conflict.)
Issues of atheism versus faith are not presented all at once. This isn’t a college seminar. Near the beginning of Season One, the atheist has his say. That may repel some readers who won’t stick around for his confession, feelings of abandonment and transcendence. Too bad those same readers won’t hear the mom’s counterpoint, either. Impatient readers might seize on one aspect in the early going (for or against God, depending on when they stop reading.) I feel it’s an honest, necessary exploration woven into the fabric of a much larger story. (Not that it should matter, I’ve been a believer and an atheist but not at the same time.) I’m not pushing an agenda. I’m pushing for brain tickles. If you want to be pulled into warm marshmallow, read Chicken Soup for Something or Other. I write suspense. Not everything is for everybody.
Readers will draw their own conclusions about religion (or ignore that small aspect of the story completely.) Zombies turn some people to God. For others, zombies turns them away from faith. Put a wife and husband at the edge of the end of the world and I guarantee religion’s going to come up. It’s not my job to make up anyone’s mind. It’s my job to tickle brains and make the debate honest and interesting while the struggle for survival gets harder. Context is everything.
Don’t pander. Follow the Art and the Conflict
People will draw conclusions about you from what you write. Don’t be afraid of that or your story will suffer. You’re a writer, so we already know you’re brave and have an unreasonably high estimation and expectation of the human race. Live up to that commitment with every chapter.
Respecting the reader doesn’t mean that you try to make them like everything they read. However, most readers stay longer with stories that challenge them, make them think and make them laugh. Don’t let it come out as an info dump or a teaching moment. Let it come out naturally. Don’t make your story a seminar on your beliefs. Do let characters have strong, conflicting points of view. Have a spine, but don’t force conclusions. Let the reader do that work for themselves. Always leave room for doubt.
For the Readers
I guarantee, when you read This Plague of Days, you’ll read things you’ve never read before. You’ll learn things you probably didn’t know. (I did!) And you don’t have to agree to anything. It’s a book. It’s not a threat to the tenets of your existence.
A fun book is a ride at the carnival, an exorcism of fears, a voyeuristic pleasure, an extended brain tickle and a happy distraction, first class on the Crazy Train. All aboard to the end of the line.
- Horror Authors And Religion (chazzwrites.com)
- Why Breaking Bad Is The Best Show On Television (theforeversoapoperaofmylife.wordpress.com)
- TV: For Our Consideration: Why the end of Breaking Bad doesn’t (and does) matter (avclub.com)
- Top Showrunners Explain What Made “Breaking Bad” So Good (fastcocreate.com)
- 3 Storytelling Lessons From Breaking Bad (business2community.com)
- Breaking Bad Walter White’s Heisenberg Evolution (guardianlv.com)
- Ask the Writing Teacher: Story Arc(s) (themillions.com)
- Dystopian Braingasm: For word nerds and horror readers who love autistic heroes (chazzwrites.com)
- Anna Gunn Talks About Skyler White’s Role as ‘Breaking Bad’ Begins Final Episodes (usnews.com)
- Season One of the World’s First Autistic Zombie Apocalypse Novel is Complete! (thisplagueofdays.com)