What Writers Can Learn From World War Z

In doing my reading challenge on Goodreads, I finished Max Brooks’s World War Z a couple of weeks ago.  I first listened to the audiobook.  Then, while visiting Vromans in Pasadena, I flipped through a printed copy and saw there was material left out of even the “unabridged” audiobook.  I bought it.  I read it.  I loved it.  World War Z‘s oral history format was drew me in.  It’s a form of epistolary fiction, a story composed from documentation (letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, emails, etc.).  Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula does the exact same thing.  I love zombies and I love documentaries that feature interviews, so getting this book seemed like a no-brainer.

World War Z also left an impression on me as a writer, which is the oral history’s broad reach.  The story concerns an even that’s global in scale.  It’s so massive that you can’t rely on one character to cover everything.  We’ll call this character Brad Pitt since that’s a totally made-up name.

If Max Brooks had written World War Z like the film with a the reader following a central character, it wouldn’t have been as great a story because he’d have to force the character into certain situations.  He’d have to figure out how to get that character from the initial outbreaks in China to a very public outbreak in South Africa to witnessing the nuclear war between India and Pakistan to reporting the Battle of Yonkers.  That’s a trajectory I just can’t believe in, the idea that one person could be present at key events all over the world.

I also believe that partitioning the story makes for faster reading and faster writing.  The longest interview in World War Z was about twenty pages.  Off the top of my head, we follow a couple of dozen characters.  Now imagine you’re a writer working on this project and the average interview is six or seven pages.  That’s something you can easily draft in a day, and then you’re on to a new character the following day before you have a chance to get bored with him or her.

For a writer like me who needs sustained drive to see a story through to the end, that’s fantastic.  I don’t have to feel bad looking at a segment and worrying how I’m going to get through a whole novel when this one part is only a few pages.  I know it’s just one part among many that come together to tell a larger story.  I also know writers who are simply quick and to the point.  They tend to write a vignette at a time more than a complete traditional story with a beginning, middle, and end.

In addition to being a great read, I highly recommend World War Z be on any writer’s bookshelf as a source of inspiration.  We all interview each other throughout the day with stories of how our weekend was or what happened at work or how great last night’s concert was.  We tell these stories in a very condensed fashion so as not to burden our friends with overwhelming detail, focusing instead on several key factors that stand out in our minds.  In the writer’s toolbox, the epistolary novel and oral history should be included.

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