Words and the Walking Dead

I’ve been following the latest season of The Walking Dead. Oh, I’m not actually watching it. Zombies freak me out and I can’t deal with the incessant tension. If I watch even one episode – make that part of an episode – I wake up in the night with an impending sense of doom, and no, I’m not talking about the fear of life in general, but a very specific TWD-induced low-level sort of panic. And then bye-bye sleep.

But my son watches it, and so to keep up with the long explanations of things I began reading episode recaps and reviews. And then I became addicted to the recaps and reviews, and now I know more about the show (almost) than my son (but not really because he reads the graphic novels too).

I promise I’m going somewhere with this!

So. Scary. I don’t do scary. I don’t mind gore – bring it on, GoT season 6*, and can we please have Constantine back? – but I draw the line at anything zombie related. On the screen or in books. Except for the undead T-Rex in Jim Butcher’s Dead Beat. Because, come on, who wouldn’t love one of those for the morning commute?

But reading about TWD, well, I’m just fine with that. The written word gives us the emotional distancing we need sometimes to be able to um, digest the ickier things in life. And I’m not just talking zombies and horror. Take a battle scene. In a book you get swept along, it’s grandiose, exciting. But it happens remotely. The same scene in a movie gets up there in your face, and is much, much scarier.

This works for the news, too. If you read about something that happened it makes less of an impact than if you see it on TV, or even if you see photos of the event. Your mind might be horrified, but the news story will probably lack the emotional impact an image provides.

For a writer, this is problematic, of course. Writers are never going to be able to compete with the screen in terms of immediacy of impact. So we have to be sneaky. We need to build tension slowly, with words, an ink-and-paper equivalent of the movie score that has everyone shouting, “Don’t open that door!” We need to wrap readers so entirely in our story that by the time we drag them screaming from a cliff along with our character, they feel the wind in their hair and see the ground rushing up to meet them.


Insert here all those long behind-the-scenes writerly discussions on passive vs. active voice, and ‘veil’ words, and other distractions from story immersion that we spend happy hours debating. We then spend not-so-happy hours tearing out our hair while trying to eradicate all this stuff from our work. It’s hard. And that’s why writers need beta readers and critique groups, and later on editors and copyeditors. Because it takes an incredible amount of effort to produce a story so smooth that it will hook readers and engage them emotionally, breaking past that barrier of intellect to grab them firmly by their still-beating hearts.

Of course, if all else fails you can always toss in a zombie or ten. That’ll do it.


*Except for the Others and White Walker scenes. Because zombies.

Son as TWD’s Daryl Dixon, Halloween 2014


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