Monday, August 24, 2015

What Writers Can Learn from Zombies

As a huge Walking Dead fan, I spent all summer looking forward to Fear the Walking Dead. My anticipation was, sadly, not rewarded. And looking at my Twitter feed, I was not the only one disappointed in Sunday night’s pilot. The writers violated two important rules, and lost their audience. Don’t make the same mistakes they did!

Rule #1: Your main characters should be likeable/sympathetic/empathetic. This is a rule that gets debated a lot. Google “unlikeable protagonist,” and the number of hits that come up is in the zillions. A lot of these links are complaints from writers who have unlikeable protagonists and are mad that they can’t find an agent or publisher. The rule does get a little muddled sometimes. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be nice. But there have to be reasons for the reader to root for him. Screenwriting guru Michael Hauge lists five things for screenwriters to do in the first ten minutes of a screenplay to make readers support your protagonist: be funny, be really good at a job, be kind to an underdog (stray dog or homeless person), be in jeopardy, or be nice. In other words, someone with a sarcastic sense of humor who is smarter than everyone else in the room at work can get away with being a jerk.

Last night’s Fear the Walking Dead opens with junkie Nick, who wakes up in an abandoned church after sleeping off a high. Everyone else is dead. He wanders around, looking at the remains of last night’s party, calling for his girlfriend. He finds her eating someone’s face. He takes off running, and ends up getting hit by a car.

This was a strong beginning, designed to pull in fans of the Walking Dead and, at the same time, emphasize what was different. The parent show began with hero Rick Grimes waking up in an abandoned hospital and finding the world overrun by zombies. Nick also wakes up, but instead of a completely different world, it’s the same traffic-filled Los Angeles.

The bigger difference, of course, is while Rick was in a coma due to injuries sustained in his line of work as a police officer, Nick was sleeping off a drug high. Immediately, the audience is primed to dislike him (except maybe for the junkies in the audience). Yes, he was in jeopardy, but his own actions put him there, which makes him unsympathetic. Nick comes across as weak and stupid, and as a result, everyone who cares for him – his parents and sister drop everything to be with him – comes across that way, too.

It would have been better to let Nick die when the car hit him, mumbling about people getting their faces eaten. My Twitter feed was filled with people wishing for Nick and his whole family to get eaten by zombies. This is not the way to build viewer and reader loyalty.

Rule #2: Your audience/readers should never be ahead of your characters.

Another reason people were calling for zombie deaths is because, as fans of the parent show, they knew what was in store, and they were anxious to get to it. While Carly Simon and Heinz ketchup are great fans of anticipation, there’s only so much of it people can take before they need to get to the good stuff. Because the Walking Dead began with Rick waking up after society had collapsed, viewers did not get a front row seat to how that all went down, and everyone knows how much we like to watch the world get destroyed. But 90 minutes of watching Nick’s mother and stepfather fret about their junkie son while waiting for the panic to start was too much.

A few months ago I read a mystery manuscript told from three points of view. Protagonist A was trying to find out what the reader already knew, thanks to Protagonist B. It was incredibly dull. Fear the Walking Dead put us in that same position. We know about zombies; we know society will collapse; we even know that anyone who dies will come back as a brain-muncher – not just those who are killed by zombies. Yes, we want to see how society collapses, but we don’t want to wait too long. And not with people we don’t care about.

Hitchcock had a saying about the difference between suspense and surprise; suspense is knowing the bomb is under the table, and surprise is not knowing before it goes off. While Hitchcock preferred the former – at least in the quote – the best work have a mixture of suspense and surprise. Imagine an entire 90 minutes of waiting for the bomb under the table to go off. Hitchcock himself talks about 15 minutes, but today’s reader/viewer would probably get bored after three.

I hope Fear the Walking Dead gets better, and I’ll give the show a few more episodes before giving up. But most writers do not have a built-in fan base that will excuse these errors and keep reading. If you want your readers to care about your characters and wonder what’s going to happen to them, don’t make these mistakes.

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