Readers are drawn to stories about disaster, both real and imagined. When faced with a disaster in real life, our pulse quickens and our heart races. We are sometimes blessed with super-human strength, like the elderly woman who lifted up the back end of her sedan to free her grandson trapped underneath. We have moments of razor-sharp clarity that drive us to do whatever it takes to survive. In the world of story, every feeling and every action is intensified in the wake of a disaster. It's the foundation of drama itself.
A disaster ignites the narrative engine of the external storyline. Earthquakes, fires, and storms provide the writer with so many opportunities to test the thematic foundations of the story and the backbone of the characters. They are chock-full of the unexpected, danger, impossible challenges, and conflict. What would one person do in the wake of a hurricane as compared to another?
One author advised young writers to put your hero in a tree and then throw rocks at them. Disasters are equivalent to boulders, capable of crushing the very tree you had your hero climb.
Putting Your Heroes in Trees
Writing about disasters requires attention to detail and accuracy. You have to dig in and do the research. What happens when a sailboat gets caught in a typhoon? Or a tornado hits in the middle of the night? I don't believe writers must experience weather first-hand to write about it. But they do need to understand how the science works.
If you're writing about a documented disaster, go to the source. Interviewing those who lived through it or reading their accounts enriches the narrative, because of the specificity of the details. I traveled to New Orleans shortly after Katrina slammed the Crescent City and listened to the stories of the survivors. Many of the details of the hurricane and its aftermath were woven into the novel I later wrote.
One woman told me that when the flood water receded, it was followed by a deadly quiet. The ever-present birdsong of the city disappeared. She supposed that the birds had either escaped or died in the storm. But the silence left in their absence was heart-breaking. Her story made its way into mine.
I've also had to reverse-engineer research on occasion. Early in my screenwriting career, I wrote the television movie, Burning Rage, about a geologist who investigates a rash of coal fires breaking out in deserted, underground mines in Tennessee. Pressured by the network to complete a first draft of the screenplay quickly, I roughed out a plot based on imagination not science.
I then interviewed a geology professor from UCLA who was an expert in underground coal fires. He considered all the scenarios I envisioned and told me which ones were possible. Even more importantly he explained the conditions that would have to exist for a particular scenario to take place. He not only validated what I had only imagined, he provided the set-up to make it real.
Hope in Transformation
If the disaster itself provides exciting plot points for the external story engine, the message of hope resides in the interior world of the characters. Hope is centered in how your heroes react to the challenges, how the disaster marks them and how it opens them to change or transformation.
Some may say that books about disasters inherently give people hope because we identify with characters who survive. Experiencing their journey gives us a kind of faith in our own ability to make it through a crisis. But I think it goes much deeper than that.
The external story exists to test the protagonist's internal struggle and attitudes, which often manifests itself as failed life scripts or problems. Disaster stories provide a canvas of powerful life experience that affects how the protagonist navigates emotionally. We are inspired by characters who learn from their experience and who grow from it.
I don't think "characters must fundamentally change" in order to arc in the narrative. But they can transform. I prefer to think of it as becoming better versions of themselves. We like to see people deal with impossible situations with grace. With action. With humor. Because even in the darkest of times, we sometimes manage to laugh. And what could be more hopeful than that.
Amy Tan remarked in one interview that hope lies somewhere between imagination and empathy. I believe that hope is at the core of being human; it is the key to our survival as a race. A belief in the future is what sustains us as a species, even if it a false hope. Martin Luther said, "Everything that is done in this world is done by hope." And that includes the actions we take in real disasters and in the ones we imagine in books and movies.