We've all been there; sat down, staring at a blank white screen or sheet of paper, struggling to come up with some brilliant idea for a new undead tale that will wow people for centuries... and disappointed when nothing comes to mind. Don't worry. You're not alone. Post-apocalyptic fiction is my favorite kind of fiction, so I understand the struggle of trying to come up with fresh new takes on shambling monsters and hardened survivors. I still have a ways to go, but over the years I have racked up quite the repertoire to draw from whenever I'm coming up blank. Many of these are my personal collections of songs and pictures and thus tailored to my interests, but feel free to look into others!
1. Writing Prompts
I'll start with my favorite. Writing.prompt.s has an Instagram and a Tumblr, and he's definitely worth checking out. My favorite thing to do is mash together a couple of different prompts, then ask myself, "How can I add zombies to this?"
Music is a wonderful way to get creative juices flowing. I have a zombie apocalypse Spotify playlist that I like to play whenever I'm trying to think of some horror. Not all of the songs have to do with the undead per se; Fort Minor's "Remember the Name," for example, may be twisted to describe a lone zombie hunter's journey to fame. You can choose to reinterpret the lyrics however you wish in order to create a new, original story.
I have a couple of Pinterest boards that I sometimes scroll through when I'm at a loss for ideas. From text posts and short prompts that I've saved, to interesting pictures that I can imagine myself explaining, to even the "creepy image" search that generates more odd and unexplained photos, Pinterest is an amazing platform from which to draw inspiration.
4. Your Surroundings
It's easy to forget that the outside world actually exists, but sometimes it's a perfect way to spark ideas! What's hiding in that dark thicket in your backyard? What mysterious creature could be forming that odd shadow cast onto the building in front of you? Why is there a chair on the roof? Is the guy at the customer service desk really human?
I am one of those people that keeps a dream journal. On the rare occasion that I get enough sleep to dream, I definitely don't want to forget the odd stuff that my unconscious mind manages to come up with. Try getting into the habit of keeping a small notebook and pencil by your bed. Or, you can do what I do and keep a Word document of "dreams" on your phone. Slowly, you'll build your own personal database of odd and whimsical stories that you can write something off of.
6. The Zombie "Template"
Last but not least, the idea of the zombie itself. What if you messed around with the “template” of what we know as a zombie? Your new creature will still have to have some things that will give humans a chance to survive, but otherwise, have a field day. The stereotypical zombie tends to be a slow, shambling creature that will rot slowly. It moans for reasons unknown to people, is stronger than its living counterparts and has an insatiable hunger for human flesh. It reproduces by biting humans. It acts independently of other zombies, but will also not shy away from traveling in a large group. The only warnings of its approach are the sound of its shuffling footsteps and its groans, and the only surefire way to kill it is to destroy its brain somehow.
Ask yourself what you can do to change this template. For example, a recent short story of mine features what the narrator calls “Gross Dudes,” which are each walking shells that used to be humans. They lack eyes and have nostril slits and a lipless hole in place of a nose and mouth. They travel in small groups and secrete purple gas that induces paralyzing fear in any nearby humans. When they open their mouth, there is a mysterious purple glow in place of a throat. They move slowly and have short attention spans.
The key is to making your own post-apocalyptic creature is to ask yourself basic questions about its appearance, mannerisms, and quirks.
- What does it sound like?
- How does it move?
- How do humans know there is one nearby?
- Does it walk on two legs?
- Does it have fur?
- How are each of its five senses?
- How does a human transform into one?
- What does its skin look like?
- Can it glow?
- Does it travel with others?
- Does it have a mouth, and if so, what does it look like?
- Does it secrete anything?
- Can it alter a human’s mental state?
- How intelligent is it?
- How does it hunt?
- How does a human kill it?
- Can it speak? What does its voice sound like?
After that, put a whole bunch of them in your story! The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination.