Why Every Story Needs a Zombie

As you may remember, earlier in the year Amanda Hocking made news in the literary world when she became a millionaire through her self-published e-books and then signed a 7-figure book deal with St. Martin’s Press.

With all of the hype, I was curious about Hocking’s books. So when Hollowland became available for free on the Kindle, I decided to give it a try even though I’m not normally a dystopian genre reader.

Normally a book that has zombies who hunt down and eat the flesh of living human beings isn’t my idea of a cozy evening read. I prefer to stick with lovely bygone eras where the Black Plague, thumbscrew torture, and maggoty food are everyday problems.

Nevertheless, I read Hocking’s book. And I ended up going to bed petrified that a virus would overtake the world while I slept and that I’d wake up to Zombies pounding on my door trying to break in.

After my nightmares, I’m thoroughly convinced I will never write dystopian. But in thinking about Hocking’s heart-pounding, blood-curdling book, I realized every book needs a zombie, particularly if we want the kind of story that will hold our reader’s attention and keep them turning the pages late into the night.

Our books can also benefit from having a virus, creepiness, a struggle for survival, and the need for a cure.

Let me explain:

The Zombie Factor: (the Antagonist)

I like the idea of thinking of our antagonist (or the enemy/bad guy) as a zombie. The more threatening, bigger-than-real-life, scary, and dangerous we make the antagonist, then obviously the more heart-pounding we’ll make the adventure for our readers.

I fully realize that not every antagonist will be a living being. In fact, in the latter part of The Doctor’s Lady, the antagonist is a mountain range that the party of travelers must cross before the snow strands them. Even so, I made that mountain range into a zombie. It’s not a nice easy gentle climb for the weary group. Instead it’s steep and jagged, slick and cold with snow, with the added danger of a lurking mountain lion.

An antagonist can come in many shapes and can have positive as well as negative qualities. But to make our antagonists truly threatening to our characters, we need to find ways to turn them into zombies—so that they elicit fear, worry, and tension in the heart’s of our readers.

The Virus Factor: (the Danger)

In addition to the zombie (the antagonist), our stories can benefit from having a danger factor. Maybe it won’t be an infectious virus that threatens our characters at every turn, like the virus in Hollowland that the characters can easily catch from blood or saliva.

But the more danger we can put around our characters, the more shivers we’ll give our readers. In The Doctor’s Lady, during the journey west, the danger comes from the elements—the river crossings, cholera, wild animals, and the warring natives. In every scene, I made sure my characters were facing some kind of new danger.

The Creepiness Factor: (the Suspense)

In any story, we’ll have changes in our pacing. We’ll have higher-octane scenes with more action, and then scenes that are slower with more internal reflection. It’s easy to keep the suspense and tension high during the action scenes where our characters are fighting the “zombies” and battling the “viruses.”

But even during the slower scenes, we can add in the creepiness factor. By setting the mood, leaving questions unanswered, foreshadowing, and never wasting words, we can make our readers sit on the edge of their seats even during the slow scenes. We can keep them thinking that every noise, every knock on the door, and every detail is going to lead to more problems (and they should!).

The Survival Factor: (the Struggle to Survive)

To vamp the tension even more, we can add in the survival factor. We do this when we keep our readers guessing how our characters can possibly survive all of the obstacles (the zombies, virus, and creepiness). In fact, we can make it seem like our characters won’t possibly be able to survive the odds stacked against them.

In The Doctor’s Lady, in addition to all of the outside danger and the antagonists, my characters face the struggle to survive—thirst, hunger, illness, the weariness of traveling, and the emotional strain. Can this band of travelers possibly survive the trip to finally reach the West? This is the question I continually want my readers asking.

The Cure Factor: (the Driving Need)

Another way to keep the reader’s attention is to give our hero/heroine a driving, all-consuming need. In Hollowland, the heroine has an obsessive need to find her brother who is immune to the virus. He represents the “cure” to the zombie problem.

Our characters must have a driving need that pushes them almost obsessively forward so that they’re willing to face danger and even death in the process of getting that “cure” or need met. The stronger the need, the more invested our reader becomes in seeing our character succeed amidst the danger.

So writers, does your story have a zombie? And on a different note, have you read any dystopian lately? And does it creep you out as much as it does me? *grin*


  1. I don't read zombie books, but I loved this parallel when it comes to writing, whatever the genre. Great post!

  2. I've read some dystopian. I've really liked some of them. They aren't all creepy! I'll read most anything, depending on the writing and premise!

  3. Love your analogy and yup a good zombie thrown in is always a plus!!! :O)

  4. Great analogy, Jody! Kind of gives you a whole new way to look at plotting!

    And I never read dystopian. Life is heavy enough without fiction dragging me down. I just find to too bleak, I guess. *reaches for Jane Austin*

  5. Love how you've taken one genre and applied the various elements of it to every genre!

    And nope, I never read that genre either.

  6. I generally love dystopians (try Divergent, Matched, or The Hunger Games if you want something without zombies). I don't like zombies and I don't like creepy/horror, but luckily there are lots of other choices out there. :)

  7. I think most people like survivor-types, those special few who can beat all the odds. When my brother and I used to watch horror movies (a lot), we made a game of figuring out who the "survivor" would be.

    Thanks for another great post, Jody. Running off to add some more pain to my mc's life.

    Umm, how much pain is too much?

  8. Great post! I'm not a huge zombie reader either, but these are some great ideas for writing in general. We all need something to grab our readers,

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  9. Love this post! And I totally agree, we could all use a good zombie plot.

  10. I caught your tweet and had to come over. I totally agree with throwing a zombie in. I wrote them into my novel Soul Reborn (paranormal/dystopian romance). My zombies are called revens (cursed human souls).

    I think we yearn to be stripped down to the basics- where love and survival mean something.

    Jean Murray

  11. Charmaine asked: How much pain is too much?

    My thoughts: I do have to say, that I think most of us err on the side of not adding enough of the zombie factor to our stories (or rather wimpy antagonists). On the other hand, we do need to vary the pacing and that is one thing I noticed in the Hollowland book--Hocking didn't let up in the pacing until the last quarter of the book. And that constant friction/battle brought on some fatigue at times. All that to say, we do need to vary our pacing and that is indeed a technique to master (one I'm still learning myself!).

  12. I've been really into The Walking Dead (drama on AMC). The writers do an amazing job with pacing and keeping the tension high. The zombies are always popping in and out, but the dramas in the survivors' lives keep me entertained.

    And the only zombie book I've read is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies--hilarious!

  13. Only you, Jody, could make me even consider the value of zombies ... and the possibility of putting one in my work in progress (even metaphorically speaking.)
    A most excellent analogy, Obi-Wan.
    I continue to learn so much from you.

  14. What a clever comparison! The zombie metaphor is sure to stick in my mind. Thanks

  15. What a brilliant post, Jody! (Did that sound British?)

    I have not read Amanda Hocking. I usually don't do zombies, but I love the show Dead Man Walking. But I digress...

    As far as dystopian, I've read the Hunger Games trilogy and Matched by Ally Condie. They don't have actual zombies, thankfully.

    I'm plotting, currently, (replotting, actually), and I'm definitely putting this "zombie" advice to use.

  16. Oohh, love the creepiness factor. I love characters that one loves to hate, or hates to love. Whatever, just scare me!

  17. You're a master of ramping up the tension in your stories, Jody, and you do so without a zombie in sight. =)

    The only zombie book I've read is a writing buddy's WIP. I can handle it because she has an amazing voice and the story is a comedy.

  18. Jody, I was stuck on a major section of my rewrite. When I prayed for inspiration, this post was the next thing I saw. When I got to the last point, the cure, I realized this was the one I needed to up the volume on in my manuscript. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart!

    Because I know how busy you've been with your blog tour, I don't always leaves comments, as I know how long it takes to respond to all of them, but please know that I read and enjoy all of your posts and save many of them. Wishing you continued success with THE DOCTOR'S LADY; I still am thinking about this incredible book.

  19. Great metaphor, Jody! I love the coziness a good Plague story can stir. ;)

  20. I love a great mystery. I can handle a certain amount of violence, but zombies are just plain creepy. My two adult daughters are much like me ... we even close our eyes during gory scenes on TV, or get up and leave the room. I would never have thought zombies could have such great writing lessons to teach us. LOL!

  21. I love that you've been able to draw these comparisons between zombie fiction and your own writing. In my WiP, the zombies are my main characters - meaning they are their own worst enemies. Can they defeat the zombie within? ;-)

  22. Carol, I can totally relate! I can't watch horror movies AT ALL. I totally freak out. :-)

    Cally, great point about our characters having zombie that they're fighting within themselves. I think every main character should have that internal conflict, although it might be less subtle in stories where the external plot is more of the focus. however, I think that it's probably good to try have a mixture of external and internal conflicts our characters are dealing with.

  23. Great analogies, although the picture that came into my head when you spoke about zombies and "The Doctor's Lady" in the same sentence was pretty bizarre ;).

  24. Excellent advice as usual, Jody. Thanks!

    PS. I don't get the appeal of zombies either! (And who came up with the concept that they eat people? Can't they eat animals like a normal human being?!?)

  25. The zombie factor hahaha it sounds like a new title ! great advice sweetheart. keep on working!


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