Sunday, June 30, 2013

Five Writing Lessons From World War Z

Well the last one seemed to go over well, so let's do it again! Once more, spoilers ahoy, so be wary.

1. People Need to Care About Your Characters

One of the biggest criticisms I keep seeing about World War Z is that there's a lack of humanity to the movie. And that's about right. Aside from a few minutes at the start of the movie, and some of the early zombie incidents, we really don't care about Brad Pitt's family. The daughters hold the emotional weight of baggage and Brad Pitt's wife isn't much better. (I don't remember his character's name... Oh wait, I think it's Jerry. Gerry? Screw it, he's Brad Pitt.)

We all know Brad's out to save the world, but the movie wants you to think he's in it just to keep his family safe. But it falls flat, even when his family gets kicked off a ship and onto zombie-infested land, because we all know the world's in danger and there's no risk that Brad will back out of his end. Sure he could go get eaten with them, but what sense does that make? None.

I'm not 100% sure how this could be fixed, at least without a lot of work. Promoting Brad Pitt's wife to another main character would be a good start. Put her and the family in danger! Make us worry about them! Crash the damn ship into a zombie-infested oil rig! Why not? If they're in immediate danger, Brad has a choice between saving the world long-term and saving his family short-term. It's tension. We need that.

As long as people are reading your work, you want them to think of your characters as family. A distant, dysfunctional family, perhaps, but people they care about all the same.

2. Embrace Verisimilitude

Dead bodies rot. Dead bodies don't heal. Dead bodies don't get super leaping powers. Dead bodies don't get Flash powers.

One of the things that made World War Z (the book) a success was that Max Brooks put a lot of thought into writing a realistic depiction of a zombie apocalypse. Yes he got a lot of things wrong regarding politics and the military, but you could tell he was making the effort!

World War Z (the movie) doesn't quite manage this. The zombie virus takes 12 seconds from initial infection to kill and turn a person, so how the hell does it manage a global spread? 28 Days Later already made it clear that this wouldn't work. And how do the zombies leap so high? How does the Zombie Wall of Flesh work? How can they smell diseased meat if they're already frigging corpses?

Your audience is going to be looking for an excuse to call bullshit on your writing. Don't give them the chance. Check your facts! Do your research! Write things that make sense.

3. Mind the Details

Regarding the previous point, there is one line in the movie that addresses the "12 second infection" issue, when a sailor on the U.S.S. Safe House says something like "5% of the infected don't show immediate symptoms". This is probably meant to explain how the infection spreads - some people don't turn right away.

Which would be fine, except Brad Pitt spends the entire movie working off the 12 second rule. He gets blood in his mouth and doesn't turn after 12 seconds? Must be fine! The Israeli woman who got bit didn't turn in 12 seconds? Must be fine! And Brad's in the damn room where this point is proven false, so he should  know better. But he pretends that he doesn't, and the movie goes right along with him. At no point is the 12 second rule violated, even though we expect it could be, even though we're dying for the scene where someone turns late and Brad Pitt's all like "Oh, crap".

If you establish a rule, follow the rule. If you establish an exception to the rule, show us an example of that exception so we know there's a reason for it. Don't leave your readers hanging!

4. Be Ready to Edit

Have you heard about the original ending for World War Z? No? Okay, go look. Good, you're back. Are you crying? Why are you crying? There's no crying in writing! Yeah that's a lie. Let's move on.

Assuming you didn't follow the link, the original ending for World War Z was ridiculously depressing, with Brad Pitt drafted into the Russian army and his wife forced to prostitute herself for their children. Because The Walking Dead wasn't depressing enough. Then test audiences saw the footage and committed suicide en masse, so they decided to change it into something a little more uplifting.

If your ending isn't working, change it! Same goes for your beginning. And your middle and your dialogue and your characters and your settings and anything else. Granted, at some point you've got to call it "good enough" and stop, but don't do that when you know something's wrong. Especially if your beta readers agree.

5. Collaboration is Hard

I mean sweet Lord have you read about the filming process for this thing? By the end Brad Pitt wasn't talking to the director. His hand-picked director. And J. Michael Straczynski's original script got thrown out until the movie was so far off the rails that it looked like a good option again. And Matthew Fox was almost completely cut out of the film.

The point I'm making is that collaboration is hard. And writing by yourself is hard already, so collaborating with someone else is like Ultra Mega Chicken hard. So if you have any illusions that teaming up with another writer is going to make things easier for you, well, think again.

(Does this even qualify as a writing lesson? Or is it just an excuse to link that article? Okay, fine, here's a bonus for you...)

6. Clarity is Important

Hey, do you remember the moment in World War Z where for exactly five seconds, a freaking German Shepherd was part of the wave of zombies building a tower to attack Israel? No? You think I'm full of shit, huh? Well fine, prove me wrong.

I am willing to bet that you can't. I am willing to bet that after viewing the movie five times, you can't pick out enough detail in the zombie tower to tell me if there's a dog in there or not. And that's a problem.

In movies, clear visuals are important. The tidal waves of zombies that appear throughout World War Z are a lot less scary when all you're looking at is a blurry mass of flesh. In the Transformers movies, the robot fights are a lot less awesome when you can't tell who's doing what because the moving pieces are too intricate to pick apart.

In books, clear language is important. If you write a fight scene and the reader can't figure out where anybody is, the reader won't be happy. If your hero gives a motivational speech that makes no sense and it's not played for comedy, the reader won't be happy. If the reader can't imagine what your main character looks like because all your descriptions of him contradict each other and basic anatomy, the reader won't be happy. And that's bad.

You can make your audience work to understand your plot, your characters' motivations, and the secret histories that led to the state of your world. Do not make them work to understand the words on the page.

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