The Zombie Apocalypse as a writing tool

Walking Dead Screenshot

I’ve been playing the Walking Dead, season 2, a video game about the zombie apocalypse, as you can see in the screenshot above. It got me thinking, and I’m going to take a look at the zombie apocalypse from a writer’s perspective.

The science

The science is very simple: a zombie apocalypse is not going to happen. At least not in the way we see in movies and computer games. The most common depictions, with dead husks moving around and infecting others by biting them, are pretty implausible.

There are some alternative scenarios, which are slightly more likely, such as the parasitology books by Mira Grant. Still, ‘more likely’ still means pretty out there.

But, let’s assume for a moment that the science is wrong and the shit hits the fan. Will society break down?

The social

After playing several games and seeing a number of movies, I’ve come to the conclusion that the zombie apocalypse relies more on stupidity of the survivors than on the outbreak.

Why does each of these apocalypses start with people running around like headless chickens? Perhaps this is US culture seeping through, where the government is seen as untrustworthy and it’s every person for him or herself. Perhaps it’s to cover up the inherent impossibility of such an apocalypse. In any case, if people would band together and combine their efforts, no way it would turn into an apocalypse.

Where are the quarantine measures? If you look at the Ebola outbreak, the WHO tried their best to contain it. Since most of the world is still Ebola-free, I say they did a good job.

How can it be so difficult to defend a building from a mindless slow-moving dead person? Find a boarded up building some time, and try getting inside in slow-motion without doing anything smart. Pretty hard, I think, if not impossible.

There are books, movies, and games that do a reasonable job of handling this. The Last of Us for instance, has an actual society with safe zones and quarantine measures. Also, the contagion is airborne and not just spread through bites. Some things are still a bit unlikely, though.

Seeing how far-fetched a zombie apocalypse is, why is it so popular?

The writer’s perspective

To a writer, a zombie apocalypse is a tool. It’s a set of rules that allow us to achieve specific effects, like choosing to shoot a movie in black and white, or using hand-held cameras.

The first effect of using this tool, is that an apocalypse destroys normal communication and government. Without communication and government, the world becomes a lot smaller. This places more focus on your main characters, who are now the centre of their little world. It’s also very convenient for introducing obstacles for the main characters. Finding your spouse, finding food, and an endless list of things suddenly become more difficult when society breaks down. This kind of setting makes it much easier to steer things in the direction you want, without the rules and technology of the modern world getting in the way of your plot.

Digging a little deeper, the zombie apocalypse allows a writer to push their characters, hard. Pushing a character is needed to force them to change, and so complete their character arc. Viewed like this, the zombie apocalypse is like gasoline used to light a fire.

When characters are thrust into this new world, it also creates opportunities for group dynamics. The Walking Dead is a prime example of how this can go. A group of people is thrown together at random and is pushed hard by the harsh setting. This creates tensions between the characters, love triangles, coups, and camps. And because the world is so hostile, people can’t just get up and leave the conflict.

The bottom line is that a zombie apocalypse is a set of mechanics that a writer can use to push characters or stories a certain way. It’s also well-known, making it easy to set up. Unfortunately, it has the down-side of being heavily over-used. Any zombie story runs the risk of being very cliché, unless you have some twist up your sleeve. The Last of Us and the Walking Dead are very strong on characterization, which takes the focus off the worn setting. Another good example is Parasitology, which twists the setting itself and the characters, but I won’t spoil too much here (I may already have just by naming it, sorry).


The zombie apocalypse is a well-worn trope, but still a popular one, even though it’s scientifically implausible. It has some very useful properties for storytelling, and if you can give it a good twist it can still be used successfully.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands