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: Plotter vs Pantser, or, Did Stephen King really just call me a Dullard?

Stephen King, in his seminal work On Writing, says the following about Plotting:

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...
Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Wait, what? I’m a Plotter! Or, at least, I was until five seconds after I read that line recently. See, these days I’ve been stuck in neutral, my tires spinning in the slick mud of the writing journey, despite the fact that my headlamps are fixed on this shiny new idea. I’ve started a bit of World Building, and I’ve decided the audience, but I haven’t begun drafting. Like I said, I’m stuck.

I’m someone who has always preferred knowing where I was heading and how I was going to get there. Tell me the plan, or I’ll be wringing my hands–having heart palpitations. With this new story, I know who my main character is, and I know what his general conflict will be, I just haven’t been able to shift the damned story into drive yet. So, the plan today was to do a bit of Outlining. Apparently, outlining will get you insulted by a publishing maven, and is frowned upon in some circles.

I can remember outlining the bulk of first novel idea. There were several versions of the outline, and would deviate from it here and there, but there was a plan. I thought it helped to know where I was going–nay, I had to know where I was going. In a recent article for Writer’s Digest, author Steven James says there’s is an inherent problem with outlining.

“Here’s the problem with writing an outline: You’ll be tempted to use it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more to uncover.”

James goes on to make an interesting point I had never considered when regarding the value of an outline. He says that outlining will result in weak transitions between planned scenes. When I think back to my manuscript, there’s no doubt I could shore up some of those links between the scenes I plotted ahead of time.

The Must Haves

In his article, James suggests a different approach, a more organic one. He says that a story must have the following:

an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climactic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of character or situation.

These must-have elements, especially the first couple, need to be planned. I’ve never be one for much meandering, but I could see how allowing the characters explore the conflict would be beneficial in terms of Believably and Causality. I think allowing the characters to roam might help in developing certain surprises, particularly for the reader. I see the value here, I’m just not sure I can practice this sort of writing.

This all makes me think of a quote from Bruce Lee.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

I realize there is a certain fluidity to the process of crafting a story, so, it might be time to listen to my good buddy, Bruce. At least he doesn’t insult me like Stephen.