The Apocalyptic Post-Apocalypse & Me

post-apocalypseSo, my brother keeps telling me to see “This Is The End” and the TV keeps telling me to see “World War Z”, but I have a tenuous relationship with the Post-Apocalypse. The End of Days is all the rage now, what with the Mayans botching their calendar and the inundation of such stories on big and small screen alike. 

This year alone there will be more than 10 films that sport the world’s ending/ended theme, and that’s not counting the myriad of shows pumped out by the different networks to capitalize on the craze.

The thing is, I’ve never enjoyed Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic work. I read and watch, largely, for escape and entertainment, so to escape to a gritty place devoid of hope, a place where I would not have survived with Type-1 diabetes, is not an exercise I enjoy very often. Now, there are exceptions, the most ironic being that “The Matrix” (1999) is my favorite film of all-time. Generally, I do not enjoy the Post-Apocalypse, and as such writers, filmmakers and showrunners have to work doubly hard to grab my attention, and keep it.

See, AMC’s The Walking Dead has captured my attention, but I’ve never been interested by the comics, or any of zombie daddy George A. Romero‘s work. I was given a copy of Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War but it turned out to be one of the few books that I put down after about 100 pages. I couldn’t get into it. I found the storytelling disjointed and wandering. I’m a plot guy, but you can snag me with a compelling character or voice. Brooks’ book did nothing for me on either front, so I put it down.

What’s interesting about this genre is how some approaches work, while others fail miserably. No one, in their right mind, would say “Starship Troopers” is a good film. Watching a “Waterworld” and “The Postman” double-feature may one day replace waterboarding as a preferred form of torture. And, you’d have to pay me a sizable amount of money and ply me with plenty of liquor to go see “Pacific Rim”. While Hollywood is churning out as many of these flicks as possible, the genre isn’t new.

Mary Shelley (you know, Frankenstein) seems to have started the whole thing off with her 1826 novel The Last Man. (I haven’t read it.) And H.G. Wells brought it to the forefront with his novel The War of the Worlds in 1898. (It’s okay.) It’s even been tackled in poetry, with Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”. (Amazing.) But when you’re talking novels, Stephen King set the bar for the genre at The Stand (It’s great.) but then Cormac McCarthy hurdled that bar with his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road. I hated The Road, but I couldn’t put it down. It captivated me so completely, that I ignored the emotional distress to know what happened next. The story and those characters, McCarthy’s portrayal, shook me to my core. It scarred me in a way no novel ever has, but that’s what he set out to do. Kudos to him. Part of what got to me with The Road was the relationship between the father and the son, and the fact that had whatever cataclysm occurred in real life, I wouldn’t be able to do for my son what the father did for his. Killer.

Like I said, I enjoy The Walking Dead and another Post-Apocalyptic show, TNT’s Falling Skies, but I’m not a big fan of SyFy‘s Defiance and NBC’s Revolution lost me recently because I just couldn’t get into the characters (despite Tracy Spiridakos being a babe). See, plot and character are key, and if you’re going to have me trudge around a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I’d better have somewhere to go and be doing it with compelling characters. 

I’ve always preferred Gene Roddenberry’s outlook on the future. The world in Star Trek was as utopian as you could get, while still being able to generate consistent conflict. I’d much rather have a holographic doctor provide a quick, full-body scan, than any of the medical examinations one would receive in the post-apocalypse. Hacking off one’s leg at the knee to prevent zombie infection isn’t covered by my PPO.

Now, while I hope Mr. Roddenberry is right, I’ve already planned raids of my neighborhood Walgreens and Publix in the event of a catastrophe like extraterrestrial invasion, cybernetic revolt, the emergence of a technological singularity, supernatural phenomena, divine judgement, or, (Al Gore‘s favorite) runaway climate change. (Gore may have ghostwritten 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow”.)

While as a reader I’ve shied away from the genre, as a write I’ve boycotted it all together. I’ve never written a story set in the post-apocalyptic world, nor do I plan to. I feel that market is saturated at the moment, and while some would say this is the time to capitalize on it, I’d find it very difficult to piece together a narrative. Maybe I’ll take the challenge down the line, but not yet.

As for the movies, I might go see “This Is the End”, but I’ve heard a lot of the stoner comedy references moments from other films starred-in by the actors, and I doubt I’ll see “World War Z” until its available in some other format. And I’ll enjoy the Post-Apocalypse, but only if I can do so with an interesting group of survivors with a place to go.

Becoming a Storyteller: Don’t Panic, or, The Perils of Exposition

Don't Panic Badge
Don’t Panic Badge (Photo credit: Jim Linwood)

Ideas rattle through the cavernous recesses of my mind perpetually. They seem to come in all the “normal” places–you know, the shower, the car. While listening to a particular artist, while staring at the ceiling above my bed. I dutifully jot down the nuggets of these ideas and go about the rest of my day, as Ideas have the penchant for arriving at the most inopportune of moments.

As a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, my Ideas tend to manifest within that genre–science fiction, sword and sorcery, contemporary fantasy, you name it. Despite my unsettled agreement with the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I might be graced with an Idea or two from them.

Aside: My unsettled agreement with the post-apocalypse is simple. I’ll enjoy you if you don’t make me think about my own mortality too much. As a diabetic, I’ve already planned raids against Walgreens and Publix at the first sign of the end of times. So, while I’m wont to enjoy the fun of say The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Battlestar GalacticaFalling Skies, Zombieland or The Hunger Games, I have a tenuous relationship with something like The Walking Dead. (We’re working on it.) But Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, holy shit–we’re not even on speaking terms after what that did to me.

Back to my point. As someone whose Ideas tend to come with a lot of backstory, I find myself in a constant struggle with Exposition. I know there’s a thin line to tread here, a delicate balance to be struck–but it’s hard damn it! In reviewing my novel-draft ahead of some major revisions, I’m finding that much of the first fifty pages lands in the Exposition/Prologue bin–and that doesn’t work. So in my effort to become a storyteller, I’ve gone back to some valuable advice from literary agent and author Lucienne Diver, who orchestrated a “Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy and Paranormal” webinar for Writer’s Digest. Here’s what she said:

Ways to Avoid too much Exposition:

  1. Begin in the Right Place–don’t begin with backstory, but do begin as the elements that will be important to the plot come to a head.
  2. Avoid starting with Flashbacks, Omniscient Narration or Prologues unless completely necessary and put to good use.
  3. Don’t Introduce Characters before they appear. Once they appear, don’t stop the momentum to give us backstory but reveal it as it becomes relevant.
  4. Show, don’t Tell. (Use Body Language and Vocal Cues)
  5. Remember, POV characters are the lenses through which we see the story. If something isn’t relevant to them at a given moment, they won’t be thinking about it and the reader won’t be hearing it.

What resonates the most with me from what Lucienne Diver said can be distilled to one word: Relevance. If it’s not important at the very moment in the story, leave it out. If and when it becomes integral that the reader knows this information, then present it. Not a moment before. I can’t remember where I heard it, or exactly how it goes, but I remember being told somewhere along my writing journey that a reader should grant a story its premise.

I guess the implication there is don’t waste time explaining the premise, just get to the story.

I’m going to try this all with a short story I’ve recently imagined. The story will take place in a “world” I’ve already created in my head for a novel but haven’t fleshed out completely. I’m going to experiment with just diving in and providing only the necessary details along the way. I’ll keep you posted.