Something or Nothing? A Writing Exercise

Saturday, October 05, 2013
I regularly watch an ESPN program called Pardon the Interruption. (Yeah, I’m a bit of a sports fanatic.) One of my favorite segments is when the hosts debate topics on “Something or Nothing?” Like if losing three games in a row is a big deal? Or is this epic fail nothing to worry about?

And then I realized “Something or Nothing?” could work for my writing—and that maybe it can work for you. So today, I shall illustrate this exercise using zombies because really, what’s more fun than zombies? (Except maybe my teams winning.)

PREMISE: Is it Different Enough?

You have come up with a brilliant premise: Zombie invasion! The world is under siege, the zombie virus spreading, and your protagonist is going to save the day!

But now you must ask yourself if your zombie concept stands out, if there is something in your idea that differentiates it from all the other thousands of zombie invasion stories out there.

If you can somehow get Brad Pitt to star in your story, you may have something. But as your idea stands now, you have nothing. Either move on to the next idea, or consider another element. Like your characters.

CHARACTERS: Do You Have a Unique Character or Characters?

Your zombies are pouring over the wall and your protagonist has just stepped into the scene and it’s…Bob Smith, the bookish, reference librarian. And hold on! He’s brought along his friend, Sarah, the spunky girl who loves to read, with an imagination big as all outdoors! This team of unlikely heroes will save the day!

Or not. It’s true that unlikely heroes can be interesting. But the characters themselves must be interesting, and you must capture their unique voice. Readers want more than stereotypical, cardboard cutouts that you’ve propped up trying to do the job of carrying the story.

Think Johnny Depp, sashaying about in an outlandish piratical get-up, chasing the undead. He’s something quite different. But if your characters are ho-hum, you have nothing. Move on to the next idea or try the next element.

SETTING: Is It Out of the Ordinary?

Watch out! Your zombies are running amok in the…suburbs.

The suburbs? Really? That’s not saying that you can’t take an ordinary setting and use it; Stephen King is the master of this technique. But if you want your setting to be something, you have to think of it as a character in your story. Give it special significance to the plot, like a Civil War zombie infestation (Though you may still end up with nothing.) Time to move on again.

TWIST: Do You Have a Surprising Element?

So, you have zombies invading a suburban neighborhood. Your protagonist is a regular Joe, an unlikely hero, who runs down to the local bar whereupon he makes his stand.

It would appear that you have come up with a big fat nothing of a story. But wait! What if you add humor, dry, British wit, in the most unexpected places? Then you might have something. Specifically, you have Shaun of the Dead, which just happens to be one of my favorite zombie movies, when the comedic twist makes all the difference between something or nothing.

So that’s it, class. Have a little fun with “Something or Nothing?” the next time you start to write a story and go from boring to brilliant!

~ Cathy C. Hall (Shout out to the Atlanta Braves!)


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--Thanks. I need all the reminders/proddings I can get these days when it comes to improving stories and strengthening characters. I am not a sports fan--barely know how well the Cards are doing these days--so I wouldn't know about anything on ESPN without someone like you bringing it to my attention.

Briane said...

I think this is great advice, especially for anyone who's thinking about writing about something that's currently hot. I was an extra on a movie set recently (@zombiefrathouse) and it got me thinking about the zombie genre and whether I might ever write a zombie story -- and then I find this and have a good road map for doing just that.

(I'm thinking that the spunky reader girl turns out to be Brad Pitt doing a Johnny Depp impersonation because Johnny Depp got turned into a zombie just prior to filming Brad's movie, and he doesn't want the financiers to back out, because secretly he's using their money to build a time machine to go back to the Civil War to bring Johnny's grandfather to the future in order to talk Johnny out of eating people's brains.)

On second though... Nah -- that's been done a zillion times.

Renee Roberson said...

Too funny! Really, from what I've learned most recently, you can write a story that's been done a zillion times before as long as you have a great hook. That's what readers care about the most. And I'd say Briane's is pretty darned good!

Anonymous said...

Yep, Renee, I'd read Brianne's! :-)

When I was trying to remember the name of that Civil War movie, I looked up "zombie movies"--and there were TONS of these movies. I mean, you'd think there could only be so many zombie movies, but you'd be wrong. Dead--or should I say undead-- wrong. :-)

Margo Dill said...

This is a great guide for people planning their NANOWRIMO novels. :) Thanks, Cathy!

Unknown said...

Oh-- very creative! And easy to remember, which I need more and more these days. Thanks. :)

Linda O'Connell said...

You have inspired me. I am supposed to read my scary story at open mic on Tuesday. I shall go write it now. Thanks.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Great tips, Cathy.

Weird how zombies are on my mind also, although the ones I'm thinking about are all running Washington, DC.

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