I've been reading The Walking Dead comic series for years now, with the kind of sick, compulsive horror that is the mark of great dramatic tension in narrative. One of the surest ways to establish dramatic tension is to have a characters in bad situations who are trying intelligently to solve their problems, failing, and falling into worse situations. Key to this is that the characters have to try intelligent solutions to their problems, because otherwise the story becomes an exercise in watching a fly batter itself to death on a windowpane.
The Walking Dead is one of those zombie stories in which the intelligent solutions attempted by each character represents a kind of local maximum, the best action for that person at that minute, but disastrous in combination. In that sense, it's a kind of extended riff on the collective action problem, the age-old conundrum of figuring out how to work together for a common goal that will improve all our lives in the end, when there's always a good, immediate opportunity to pursue one's immediate advantage -- and when, at any moment, someone else in the group might seize on that opportunity and shut you out of it.
So previous volumes of Walking Dead have demonstrated the problems and promise of strong-man authoritarianism, family groups, nomadic collectives, fortress societies, limited democracies, individual autonomy, and every other variation and permutation, presenting the reader with the twin fascination and horror of watching a group of characters each acting (more or less) intelligently, but collectively behaving like a fly battering itself to death on the proverbial windowpane.
Now, after 14 volumes, we have the fifteenth Walking Dead compendium: We Find Ourselves, in which the characters finally, finally figure out how to work for their common interests, after years and years of slaughter and tragedy and horror. I read the book over Christmas, and it was like a holiday gift from the creators to their faithful readers -- a respite in the relentless grind that these infuriating and brave people have had to endure and that we've had to watch.
And of course, I'm already feeling mounting anxiety at the thought of what will befall this embryonic glimmer of hope in the volumes that are to come.
And that's dramatic tension.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.