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November 17th, 2012

I love suspenseful, scary movies and TV shows ("American Horror Story" is one of my favorites). And, well, add zombies or the CIA and terrorists? I'm hooked. But those shows offer more than just edge-of-my-seat TV: they both have great writing. And although it seems that my humorous tween style doesn't have anything to do with the undead or the downfall of the US government, I've learned a lot from these two hits. 

Five Things I've Learned About Writing from The Walking Dead and Homeland

1. It's not about the zombies. Or the terrorists.
The biggest complaint that I hear from people who've never seen Walking Dead is that they "don't like zombies." And yeah, there are zombies and grossness in the story. But the show is not about zombies: it's about people. These characters are thrust into a situation where they have to fight for survival, and that brings out some very intense emotional reactions and personality traits. Same with Homeland--although it's "about" terrorism, it's interpersonal relationships that drive the show.
Writing takeaway: Pay attention to how the characters are growing emotionally, don't let an exciting premise substitute for quality character development.

2. Up the ante.
Last season on Walking Dead, a child went missing. She got separated from the group, got lost in the woods, and was gone for most of the season. A child. I held my breath for at least 8 weeks while the survivors searched for her. In Homeland, Carrie, played by Claire Danes, perpetually makes bad personal decisions that put her career in jeopardy. With both stories, there's tons at stake--people's jobs, lives, way of life--big stuff is on the table, every week. This makes their audience super invested in every move the characters make.
Writing takeaway: Go there. Take risks. Your readers won't be able to look away.

3. No one is safe.
Oh man, anyone on the Walking Dead can be zombie-fodder, any time. Beloved characters, walk-ons...anyone. Those writers have some cajones, because they're slowly killing off their core group of survivors. It's so hard to watch sometimes--BUT SO GOOD. The zombie apocalypse is not real, but they're playing it real: people will die. People you love will die. Sickness, stupidity, bad luck--anything can tip the scales against you. And you know what? I'd lose respect for the show if the main characters came out unscathed all the time. 
Writing takeaway: Put characters on the chopping block (metaphorically, in my case). Ruin a relationship. Get in there and mess up their lives. The more protected a character is, the less a reader will connect with them. Life is not safe.

4. Invest in structure.
One thing that works unbelievably well in both shows is the way the writers have taken the long view on the plots. There are seeds planted in the first season of the Walking Dead that are just now starting to pay off. Homeland is all about the long game. Each episode stands on its own as entertaining and gripping, but, again, it's the far-reaching plot points that keep audience members hooked.
Writing takeaway: Especially for a plunger like me, the attention to plotting is key. What can I subtly set up in the beginning of the book that pays off later?

5. Pack the scenes.
Nothing is wasted in these stories--every scene reveals something about character or pushes the plot forward. There's no loitering, nothing irrelevant. In narratives that thrive on suspense, if you slow down you lose your edge. The key is moving forward, fast, without sacrificing character growth and depth. Hard stuff.
Writing takeaway: Keep that story moving. Evaluate the significance of each scene; brutally edit.

Although these elements of writing are ones that we've heard before, seeing all of them executed so well at the same time reminds me just how effective they are. 

And zombies and terrorists don't hurt, either.

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• Booklist says, "Some sisterly bonding, the sweet flutterings of a first romance, and a creatively contrived comeuppance for the mean girls make [TOTAL TRAGEDY] a cheerful read for younger middle-schoolers."