Monday, April 24, 2017

Lessons Writers Can Learn from AMC’s The Walking Dead

How the hit show can help you improve your writing—even if your story isn’t set in an apocalyptic world full of the undead.  ♦ 
Whether you’re a fan or not, there's no denying that AMC’s The Walking Dead is one of the most successful TV shows of the twenty-first century. You might be asking yourself, What things can writers possibly learn from this show? Well, there are many lessons to be found in The Walking Dead that relate to writing stories. The elements of the storyline that make the show so popular are what continue to draw the viewers back for more. If you watch The Walking Dead closely, you’ll find that there are four very important lessons that writers can learn and apply to their work.

Lesson 1: Create conflict between characters

Simply put, nail-biters are what draw people in. Tension between characters is what gets readers engaged. For example, if the characters on The Walking Dead think they’re safe, and then the camera pans to the right to show a horde of undead heading toward them, my eyes would not leave the screen. The show builds tension between the struggle for power and the struggle for survival between different characters, such as the main character, Rick Grimes, and the Governor of Woodbury, Phillip Blake. The Governor is the leader of Woodbury, a seemingly utopian community that is barricaded behind walls. He protects the citizens of Woodbury and provides them with shelter, food, and clothing. But underneath Woodbury’s peaceful facade, the Governor is brutal and authoritarian. His methods spark a series of conflicts that result in the deaths of major characters. The conflict reaches its peak in season four, when the Governor leads an army against Rick’s group, who have taken shelter at a prison. The Governor’s intent is to kill Rick and his group and seize the prison, and his actions lead to the deaths of two major characters in Rick’s group, Andrea and Hershel.
   Also, even though the story that you are trying to write may be different from The Walking Dead, creating character conflict and tension is a good way to hook readers. The situation above shows a clear struggle for power between two groups of characters. This example of a power struggle is easy to apply to any piece of writing, even if the story is completely different; however, the intensity of the conflict is decided by the author. The conflict appropriate for a story depends on a number of things, including the target audience, the genre, and the purpose of the story.
   Character conflict is important because it can make a story more compelling. By using it, The Walking Dead has become one of the most successful shows in the United States. If this element is applied to another work of fiction, who knows where that story could go?

Lesson 2: Make your readers care about your characters

A sharpshooter sheriff, a farmer with a wealth of knowledge and first-aid skills, a former pizza delivery man who is as swift as a fox—these are just a few of the characters in The Walking Dead whose specific skill sets have saved themselves and their fellow survivors countless times. Whether you’re novelist or a screenwriter for an upcoming drama, you need to bring the story to life with a complex set of characters, because their voices, perspectives, and insights ultimately shape the story being told. The Walking Dead excels at making the viewers care about the characters, as the creators have developed characters over each season and have dedicated episodes to one or two of the main characters.
    The show occasionally dedicates episodes to these characters in order to show the struggles they face in a world overrun by the undead. For example, the first episode of the series is
Andrew Lincoln as Rick and Sarah Wayne Callies as Lori in AMC's The Walking Dead
dedicated to Rick Grimes, who has just woken from a coma to find the world in ruins. The episode shows his struggle of coming to terms with what happened and his intent to find his wife and son. The show evokes its viewers’ emotions through the characters’ struggles, and it makes its viewers feel as if they are with the characters in those situations. As the characters develop throughout the story and overcome the challenges of tragedy and survival, viewers can identify with the characters’ struggles because some of them, like losing a loved one, are similar to what people face every day. When Rick loses his wife, Lori, he realizes he has to become a stronger and more vigilant person, but also that he needs to move on in order to protect his son and daughter.
    Having the characters change as a result of their experiences throughout the story is an essential element of The Walking Dead that can be incorporated into your writing. The development of your characters is what will make the readers fall in love with the story and stick with you.

Lesson 3: Answer mysterious questions in a reasonable timeframe

One thing that The Walking Dead doesn’t do well is answer mysterious questions. The show tends to drag out the mystery until viewers can no longer remember it. At the end of season one, the doctor at the Center for Disease Control whispers something into Rick’s ear, but viewers have to wait until the last episode of season two to find out what he said. In the finale of season six, Negan kills one of the characters, but the viewers don’t know who that character is because the screen blacks out and the only thing they can hear is the sound of screaming. The show leaves the question of who died unanswered until the season seven premiere.
   Writers can learn from these examples, as these lingering questions have often left viewers frustrated. The Walking Dead has some good mysteries—and, as a writer, having mysteries in your story is great, because they are necessary for creating tension and making the story a page-turner—but writers shouldn’t leave the mystery hanging for too long. The readers will either forget about it, and the revelation of the mysterious answer won’t make much sense, or they will be left waiting, growing frustrated. Eventually, they may just stop caring altogether. The last thing a writer wants is to have readers stop caring about the plot of the story.

Lesson 4: Balance plot and characterization

The Walking Dead is known for its large cast of characters. The show has thirteen main characters in its current season, with six others regarded as supporting characters. Each season has sixteen episodes, which are usually split between plot and characterization. Plot-driven episodes focus on a specific group of characters facing some challenge or quest, while the episodes that center around only one or two characters focus more on those characters' emotions, past experiences, struggles to survive and keep the group safe, and ways of coping with the apocalyptic world. The Walking Dead doesn’t employ this focus in every episode, of course; the show usually does this every few episodes in order to keep a perfect balance of plot and characterization.
     For writers, characterization and plot are both of equal importance. If you neglect the plot in favor of characters, readers will get bored and the story won’t be able to move forward. If writers find themselves ignoring characters in favor of plot, the characters will feel like contrivances designed to "do things" in the story, rather than real and complex people. You need to make sure you're balancing both characterization and plot in order to keep the story forward-moving while also giving the audience characters they can care about and feel invested in.
   These four lessons from The Walking Dead are important ones writers can draw from when crafting their own stories. The show itself provides a fantastic guide for what writers can achieve in their work and how they can make their stories ever-more effective. The question that remains is, Can writers learn even more from such a successful show? I guess you’ll have to watch and find out.
  • About the Author
    Christopher “C. J.” Carney is a sophomore Political Science major and Urban Planning minor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In his spare time, he enjoys writing, reading, watching Netflix, and hanging out with friends.

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