Tag: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

#BestsellerCode100: Writer’s Analysis of World War Z by Max Brooks

It’s time to wrap up our discussion of  World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks with a review from a writer’s perspective  (discussion started here). We’re going to focus on the traits emphasized by the authors of The Bestseller Code (see previous review).

This post contains spoilers.


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War* by Max Brooks (2007)

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

World War Z is an epistolary novel. In this case, the author wrote the book as a collection of transcripts of interviews with survivors of a zombie outbreak. Because the reader is seeing the characters through the filter of an interviewer/narrator, it gives some emotional distance from the personal accounts, and also gives a unifying connection between the diverse stories.

In her recent review, Karen tackled the topics/themes (The Bestseller Code Chapter 2) of the novel and the emotional turns or beats (The Bestseller Code Chapter 3).  I’m going to take up where she left off and discuss points made in Chapter 4 and 5 of The Bestseller Code.

Style (The Bestseller Code Chapter 4)

Each author has an individual writing technique. An author’s word choice, sentence length, paragraph length, grammar, etc. determine the tone and pacing of a novel. In The Bestseller Code, Archer and Jockers point out that the first line of a novel should give the reader important insight into the writer’s style.

First Sentence of Introduction to World War Z:

It goes by many names:  “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” as well as newer and more “hip” titles such as “World War Z” or “Z War One.”

What do you notice about this sentence? To me, the author uses a nonfiction tone, as if relating a list of facts. The sentence is grammatically complex, with the inclusion of a colon, which reveals a certain comfort with grammar. It’s also a bit conversational in tone, particularly the slang term “hip.” The tone is a nod to the fact that this is an “oral” history.

Other things to consider are whether there are numerous contractions (indicating realistic-sounding dialogue), use of ellipses (which also indicate good dialogue), and fewer adverbs and adjectives (resulting in shorter, cleaner sentences). Without a computer it is difficult to accurately assess how well Max Brooks met those criteria, but simply flipping through the pages it was easy to spot contractions and ellipses.



Title and Characters (The Bestseller Code Chapter 5)


The Bestseller Code analysis suggests the best titles for novels are places, events, things, or a character’s role. Using these categories, World War Z fits right in because it is an event.

Taking the analysis a step further, the full title, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a similar title to The Good War: An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel. This is not by accident. According to an interview at NPR, Max Brooks listened to Terkel’s history as an audio book and it made a huge impression on him. He liked the idea of a series of stories that people could read in order, or pick and choose what they read.


With over forty characters, Max Brooks set himself up with a difficult task by having to create a unique voice for every single character. Some reviewers have suggested the characters sound too much alike, but I thought he changed the flavor at least some of them enough to give the impression of different voices.

For example:

Former U.S. Army Infantryman Todd Wainio throws around technical terms and slang.

You had tanks?
Dude, we had everything:  tanks, Bradleys, Humvees armed with everything from fifty cals to these new Vasilek heavy mortars.

Director of Department of Strategic Resources Arthur Sinclair, Jr. talks like a college professor.

To be perfectly candid, our supply of talent was at a critical low. Ours was a postindustrial or service-based economy, so complex and highly specialized that each individual could only function within the confines of its narrow, compartmentalized structure.

Mercenary T. Sean Collins speaks in lists.

Maybe I was a mercenary, but you’d never know it to look at me. I was clean-cut, nice car, nice house, even a housekeeper who came in once a week. I had plenty of friends, marriage prospects, and my handicap at the golf club was almost as good as the pros.


World War Z is an odd mix. In some ways it seems like a brilliant analysis of war. In other ways it seems like a parody. It is hard to give weight to a novel that treats zombies as a threat. On the other hand, the horrors of war and the human behaviors under stress it depicts are very real. Whether you like the book may tip in one direction or the other depending on your own experiences and interests.

Have you read World War Z by Max Brooks? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog.

The next book is number 86. Easy Prey by John Sandford (2001) -mystery (series)- Discussion begins May 29, 2017

#BestsellerCode100: World War Z, A Reader’s Review

Time to start the discussion of our next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 list, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.  This book is categorized as Apocalyptic Horror and is a follow-up to Brooks’ zombie survival manual, The Zombie Survival Guide.  A movie with the same name was made from World War Z in 2013, starring Brad Pitt.

This post does contain spoilers.


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War* by Max Brooks (2007)

(*Amazon Affiliate link)


Zombie War Interviews

World War Z is different from any of the other books we’ve read so far in that it is a series of interviews of survivors of the Zombie War, which decimated the earth’s population and drastically altered the political and religious makeup of the world.  Since the interviews are of survivors, it’s obvious that humans won the war against the non-humans, although there are still millions of zombies “surviving” in the cold zones of the world and in the depths of the oceans.  In addition, the interview format creates a “distance” from the events that seems to minimize the “horror” aspect of the story, which was good for me, as I am definitely not a fan of horror anything.

In my last review (Weird Sisters), I mentioned that I was going to read The Bestseller Code again in an effort to make more sense of how the books we’ve read so far made it on the bestseller list and hopefully better appreciate the subsequent books we plan to read.  In fact, both Roberta and I wanted to read The Bestseller Code again, so we decided to give ourselves a three -week window for reading and reviewing World War Z.  As so often happens, though, life intruded and I have not yet completed The Bestseller Code, but it’s time for this review, so I’ll go with using the information gleaned from the first two and a half chapters.

Understanding the Theme and Topic

Chapter Two of The Bestseller Code talks about theme and topic, and Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, the book’s authors, often use those two words interchangeably, which I found rather confusing. I was taught to think of theme as being the main idea or underlying meaning of a book, while topics (or subjects) being the avenue used by the author to present his underlying meaning.  In high school English class, theme seemed to be an important thing to figure out if you wanted to pass the test, but it doesn’t seem to have much bearing on whether a book is a bestseller or not.  Instead, the topic is much more important and The Bestseller Code goes into great detail about what topics are used most frequently in bestsellers and those rarely used.

It’s easy to confuse theme with genre.  One of the most popular book genres is romance novels, but the theme of romance novels isn’t really “romance” as much as it is the experience of love.  Readers want to feel an experience – an emotional, mental, imaginative experience.  And in order for the author to convey that experience, the topics they choose are vital.  Equally important are the percentage of topics used within the novel.

Signature Topic – Human Connections

Surprisingly, the computer model created by Archer and Jockers showed that some of the least successful topics to use if you want to write a bestseller are sex, drugs, and rock and roll.   The most successful topic is human closeness and human connection.  The most successful bestseller writers who have mastered writing about “human closeness” and “human connection” are Danielle Steele and John Grisham.  In Chapter Two, The Bestseller Code states that these authors “have only one signature theme, not two, that takes up a whole third (on average) of each of their novels.  This likely helps with their branding.  All the many other topics each writer employs are used in tiny percentages.” (This is one instance where the authors use the term “theme” when it really seems they mean topic.)

So how does a book about zombies and a global war become a bestseller?  It does so by employing the topic of “human closeness and human connection” in each and every chapter.  World War Z main theme is a social commentary on several fronts, including government ineptitude, corporate greed, and isolationism.  Each chapter highlights this theme by interviewing another zombie war survivor who relates his/her story of family loss, fleeing zombie-infested zones, and fighting side by side with comrades.  Each chapter is a roller coaster ride of emotions – anxiety about which family member might present symptoms of the zombie virus next, fear of being found by zombies and infected themselves, hope when they discover other non-infected humans they can band with, and relief that they might just survive after all.

The Story Beat

These emotional highs and lows in each chapter, or moments of conflict and resolution to use more literary terms, produce a “beat” that is discussed in Chapter Three of The Bestseller Code.  Those beats, or emotional turns, as Archer and Jockers refer to them, cause the reader to “feel” the book like one would feel club music.  “The more frequent the peaks and valleys are, the more of an emotional roller coaster for the characters and for readers.”  The Bestseller Code presents 7 different graphs that plot out the moments of conflict and resolution, and while they don’t reveal which of these graphs go with each book on the 100 Bestseller book list that their computer algorithm created, World War Z obviously fit one of those seven graphs.

World War Z is not a book I would have chosen to read on my own and while it was a bestseller, it didn’t impress me much – a week after I finished reading it, I could remember only one character from one chapter.  Possibly that is because I never bought into the whole “zombie” or “undead” premise, so it was difficult to become emotionally encumbered by any particular character or the book as a whole.  I did find certain themes thought provoking, though.  Specifically, I had an interesting conversation with my husband about the fact that during the Zombie War, the least useful individuals in the new world order were highly educated professionals and business people.  In a world without electricity, without modern day conveniences such as computers and cell phones, CEOs and accountants and computer specialists were essentially dead weight, while people who had a skill or had worked what were considered “menial labor” jobs – farmers, plumbers, carpenters, etc. – were suddenly at the top of the social hierarchy.  World War Z highlighted a disturbing trend in our present day world, where so many people can no longer do simple repairs or grow their own food, and only know how to rely upon technology to find an answer to a question.

What did you think of World War Z?  Were any of the characters memorable to you?  Did it inspire you to tell anyone about the book or discuss any of its themes?

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective
  4. After you finish the book, you might want to drop by to take our survey.

You can also join us on social media:


What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog.

The next book is number 86. Easy Prey by John Sandford (2001) -mystery (series)- Discussion begins May 29, 2017

#BookBeginnings World War Z by Max Brooks

Today we’re featuring the next book in The Bestseller Code 100 challenge, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted at Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!


Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War*  (2007)

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:   World War Z is an example of an epistolary novel.  It is written as a collection of witness accounts of the survivors of a zombie apocalypse.

First Sentence:

It goes by many names:  “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” as well as newer and more “hip” titles such as “World War Z” or “Z War One.”


The quote is from the “Introduction,” which reads like the introduction of a nonfiction book.

Neither my co-blogger, Karen, nor I are fans of horror, so this is going to be challenging for us to read. Hopefully the journalistic voice will help distance the reader from the more gruesome events.

Zombies were a popular topic when this book was written. Do you think it has remained relevant?

Have you read this book? What do you think?

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