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*