Suspension of Disbelief- What “The Walking Dead” can teach amateur writers

large__5597079641Fantasy and Sci-Fi give your imagination a work-out. Which is precisely why we love them. Living in the vanilla of the regular world with mortgage payments, deadlines, taxiing kids, housework, homework, work work can be, well, obviously terrific and fulfilling and challenging, but damn, it can also be boring as hell. This is where and why we turn to entertainment, and where the entertainment industry, by visual or written medium, excels at transporting us into an alternate reality. We thank them. But it comes with a slight cost: in order to enjoy it, we must be willing to give the creators a little creative elbow room.

For instance, unless you are living off the grid and do not communicate with anyone living on the grid, you may have heard of a little television series called The Walking Dead. For demonstration purposes of this post, I’m going to assume you have no idea what I’m talking about, so here goes. The concept of The Walking Dead in a nutshell:

It is present day America and a group of diverse characters are trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic ZOMBIE infested world.

Okay then.

So, if I were an AMC exec, I would have stared down whatever dumbass pitched me this television show, showed them the underside of my shoe, and gone back to playing Castle Story on my iPhone. I would have said, “Screw that stupid idea, because I like my entertainment real, okay? Monsters and especially zombies aren’t real. Or Scary.” We can give a silent amen that I am not a television executive, because I would have been mostly wrong (the show is bloody brilliant) and a little bit right (zombies are merely the second scariest creatures on the show).

Which brings me to my point, and I do have one.

As writers, especially of the fantastical sort, but really anyone who creates fictional life on paper, we need to understand the concept of SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF like a motherfucker.

It means to believe the unbelievable, and people will do just that under the right circumstances. Apparently, a century ago, give or take, a guy named Samuel Coleridge coined the term and said something along the lines of (paraphrasing) “for entertainment purposes, people will go with whatever bullshit you throw at them as long as there is human interest and a semblance of truth mixed in.”

Yeah. What he said. And that’s why this goofy show works:

1.   Despite the concept, the show is really about how regular human beings interact with each other after all shit has hit the fan. Sure, zombies are a pain and an inconvenience, but are mostly manageable. The still living humans are the real troublemakers, because, surprise, even in the zombie apocalypse, people are sometimes lying, conniving cheats and jackasses, often by a factor of ten. This isn’t so hard to believe after all.

2.  There are rules. A dead body, a “walker”, in any degree of decay, can reanimate and walk around and use their regular non-carnivorous teeth to bite into people like they were made of room temperature Jello. Fine. BUT, if the brain stem of said walker is scrambled by either shotgun or toothpick, it is destroyed and can finally rest in disgusting peace. There are some other rules regulating the undead, such as noise attracting zombies, and a loose understanding of how one actually becomes a zombie, but the point is the writers have not created an anything goes world, because that would be stupid. So even in zombie infested America, there are some things that just can’t happen. A zombie that hates noise and scurries away in fear when confronted by it? C’mon, that’s just silly. The audience lives in a world governed by rules of society and physics. We understand rules. As long as the writers live their story by their own rules, we can live with them too.

What amateur writers can learn from crazy awesome shows like The Walking Dead, or Supernatural, or Dr. Who, and all the other shows that I’m not cool enough to know about yet, is that no matter how fantastical and logic defying they are, as long as the writers develop a system to tether their audience to reality, they will fight zombies side by side with them anywhere.

-AV Packard

What I’m reading now:  The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike


About avy packard

I write things and read things and am still searching for the right words to light it all up. View all posts by avy packard

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