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Fiction Lessons from The Walking Dead, a guest post by Carrie Mesrobian

26 of the best Walking Dead memes at KilltheHydra.com

The Walking Dead is just a gory zombie story, right? Just a show about killing bad guys with sick special effects? It can’t teach us anything about writing, can it?

Dude. If you read or write fiction, you are out of your mind if you’re not watching shows like The Walking Dead. The potential for learning about what makes good story-telling is unbelievable. (Some spoilers for seasons that have already happened occur in this post. You have been warned.)
Let’s take a look at the two big ones: character and plot.
Character Motivation: Driver Of Plot
One of the most simple-yet-critical features about this show is that every character wants something. And not just wanting to stay alive. In fact, we’ve seen from a couple of characters in seasons 1-3 that staying alive is not a given. But, just like in books, when everyone wants something, the story keeps moving.
Rick Grimes wants to find his family. Andrea wants to protect the sister she ignored prior to the Zombie Apocalypse (ZA). Glenn wants to be valued in this life, as he wasn’t in the old – Daryl, too – as well as seek thrills not allowed to him in the former, orderly world. Shane wants Rick’s wife – his life, perhaps, too. Lori wants to hide her secret affair. Merle wants to take what the group has on the mountain. Daryl wants to find his brother, but he also knows that his survival might mean letting Merle go. Maggie wants to keep her family together while also being independent and acknowledged as an adult. Herschel wants to see if there’s a cure for the infection. Carol wants to find her lost daughter.

Carol in particular is a fascinating character. After she loses both husband and child, what’s next for her? No longer a wife, no longer a mother. What do we do with that kind of woman, besides plug her back into a love interest or care-taker slot? What can she have now, that she couldn’t have before? There is a gap in her motivation, then, and we know, as readers, that this vacuum must be filled if we are to continue to care about what happens to her.
Similarly, Sheriff Rick Grimes is an excellent character to helm a show about lawlessness and anarchy. What does it mean to have honor, to serve and protect, in a dangerous world where the dead are unyieldingly, monolithically amoral? 
Like Rick, fellow police officer Shane, also struggles with this. He wants to care for and protect people, but he arrives at his definition of what this means much earlier than Rick does. So they are at odds, twins with common purpose, but also with common competition: who will win Lori; who will be the leader; whose definition will carry the day as they struggle to survive.
Plot: States of The Monster
The Walking Dead’s fast-paced plot is often lauded. This is largely due to the nature of the Monster in the (ZA). The zombie as a monster is balanced with strengths (numbers, no need for sleep, single-minded desire) and weaknesses (lack of consciousness or community, very limited intelligence). But the rapacious nature of the zombies keeps the living on the run, unlike vampires, who must close things down during the day, or werewolves who only get to shine once a month. To paraphrase Murphy McManus in The Boondock Saints: The zombies are like 7-11; they might not always be doing business, but they’re always open.
Christopher Booker describes in The Seven Basic Plots the three states of the monster: monster as predator (actively pursuing his victims/goals); monster in holdfast (withdrawn to his lair, brooding over stolen treasure or kidnapped princess); and monster as avenger (unpredictable, lashing out without strategy). There is no holdfast for the zombies in The Walking Dead. They never rest; they can live without nourishment; they only stop when their brains are destroyed. The zombies are death itself, death come to vivid and disgustingly rotted life, always surrounding the characters in the story. Death is like that, anyway, in our real lives; but this story has presented death not as a concept but as an embodied ambulatory theme: death as a monster that we can see and touch, death, as a monster that never leaves us. 

There is so much more to analyze from The Walking Dead’s narrative elements. Setting, for example, is a big part of the show being so vivid, as is the use of time in flashbacks and dreams. Point-of-view shifts constantly, tweaking our sympathies for each character, which also adds dramatic tension. The show is a goldmine, really. Start watching if you haven’t. And if you’re up for more writing lessons and analytical dorkery, join me on Twitter, October 13, 8:00 pm CST when Season 4 premieres on AMC.
About Carrie Mesrobian
Carrie Mesrobian is a native Minnesotan. A former high school Spanish instructor, Carrie currently teaches at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her writing has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Brain, Child magazine, and Calyx. Her debut young adult novel, Sex & Violence(Carolrhoda LAB) received stars from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Her second novel, Perfectly Good White Boy, will be released in fall of 2014. She currently lives with her husband (Adrian), daughter (Matilda) and dog (Pablo), all of whom are pretty excellent.  Find out more than you probably want to know here: www.carriemesrobian.com 

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