Tag Archives: creating disaster in the story

How the Written Universe Works: Choreographing Disaster #amwriting

The most powerful books in the Western Canon of Great Literature explore the human experience. Drama, heartache, disaster, and violence are the backdrop against which our lives play out.

Buddha quoteReaders connect with these stories across generations and across the centuries because the fundamental concerns of human life aren’t unique to one society, one technological era, or one point in time.

In my last post, we touched upon choreographing violence, but didn’t discuss some of the root causes. Violence often follows disaster.

Some disasters are caused by the cyclical ebb and flow of weather patterns, and others are the effects of human activity.

  • Possible effects of famine: food deprivation leads to starvation and disease.
  • Possible effects of severe drought: droughts lead to wildfires, famines, and pandemics.

Drought and famine feed societal unrest:

  • Lust for power: The bullies rise to the top, inciting their followers to violence against those perceived as weaker.
  • Lust for wealth: Bully warlords may mount an armed invasion to steal resources a neighboring society has acquired.

Even a slight lowering of the standard of living can feed civil unrest.

One disaster we may all face at some point is famine. Hunger exists in this world, and while many worthwhile charities do their best to alleviate it, famine is an enemy that takes no prisoners.

On a human level, hunger affects a person forever after. People can survive on very little, and unfortunately, many do. To have only enough food to keep you alive forms a person in a singular way. Their physical growth will be less than that of a well-nourished person, and their worldview is narrower. They have no energy to spare for anything beyond their day-to-day existence.

Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilværelsen_1889Acquiring food becomes their first priority. Having a surplus of food becomes a reason to celebrate. To go without adequate food for any length of time changes a person and makes one determined to never go hungry again.

Unfortunately, for some, their desire to be well-fed will lead them to make choices that challenge the accepted morality of those who are not hungry.

Droughts often cause famines and worse. To go without water is to die. Thirst is a more immediate pain than hunger. The human animal can survive for up to three weeks without food but only three to four days without water. Rarely, one might survive up to a week.

Even brackish water must taste sweet when one suffers from a lack of potable water. And when one is without food, foods they would consider repugnant under other circumstances will fill their belly.

Look at the continual strife in third-world countries (not Ukraine, which is different and not a third-world country). You will see how long-term droughts have precipitated widespread famine, leading to civil unrest. Gang wars are fought over the right to own a water source, and these conflicts can erupt into revolution.

We forget this when we have plenty to eat and never have to worry if we will have water in our faucet as long as we can pay the bills.

But if we learn anything from the empty grocery store shelves in 2020 and the current supply chain crisis, it is that our well-fed lives are perched on a one-legged ladder.

Disaster on a wide scale can and will happen. But what of those small tragedies people face each day, deeply personal catastrophes, which only they are experiencing? These are also the seeds of a good story.

ContrastsLove and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—the eternal themes of tragedy and resolution. Hardship contrasted against ease provides the story with texture, turning a wall of “bland” into something worth reading.

In real life, everything seems to be going along well. Life is good, calm, and peaceful. Then the tornado hits, the wildfire comes through, or the tidal wave—whatever the tool nature uses to destroy you, it decimates your home, your community, leaving you and your neighbors with nothing.

Then we must deal with the aftermath, cleaning up, searching for belongings, and searching for loved ones. This kind of disaster cuts deep into a person’s psyche.

Severe weather, fires, famines, and floods are terrible to live through, and many harrowing stories emerge from these experiences. Stories of apocalyptic catastrophes resonate because disaster drives humanity to bigger and better things, and those who survive and rise above it become heroes.

However, disasters regularly happen on what seems an unimportant level to people who have resources.

Consider the situation of a single mother working two part-time jobs. If she lives in my town, she lives where there is no public transportation. Other cities in my county have access to public transit, but not my community.

She struggles to pay for fuel, but what if her car breaks down? How will she get to work? All her money goes to fuel, childcare, rent, and utilities. What little she has left after those bills are paid goes to food.

She has no resources and no way to pay to repair her car. Without her car, she will lose both jobs. That is a profoundly personal disaster, one she and her children might not recover from.

How would you write her story?

Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883We writers must make our words count. We have to show the comfort zone in the moments leading up to the disaster, not too much, but just enough to show what will soon be lost.

Then, we have to bring on the disaster and write it logically so that the events make sense. We can’t tell the story. We must show it as if we were painters—and we have to inject real, believable emotion into the experience.

Open a new document and save it to your background file. Describe the disaster in great detail. Then save and walk away from it. Let that scene rest and move on to something else. When you return to it, re-read it, and see what you can cut and condense and still have the bones of the action. Use verbs and power words and go light on descriptors.

The window shatters, and I stare, dumbstruck. A two-by-four impales itself in the wall beside David amid a slow-motion shower of glass shards. The wind roars, tearing the door from my hand and slamming it shut.

Verbs in that scene are: stare, impales, shower, roars, tearing, slamming. Show the bones of the event by using verbs with powerful visuals, and the reader’s mind will fill in the rest.

Once the events are in order, we must show the aftermath of the calamity and the roadblocks they must overcome to recovery. We add the characters’ real-time reactions and emotions. Finally, we must leave our characters in a place of comparative happiness and security.

Employing contrast—ease against hardship—gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. When an author makes good use of courage in the face of personal disasters, readers think about the story and those characters long after it has ended.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

Struggle for Survival by Christian Krohg, 1889, oil on canvas.  Now hanging in the National Gallery of Norway. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg-Kampen for tilværelsen 1889.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilv%C3%A6relsen_1889.jpg&oldid=301415583 (accessed June 7, 2022)

Fatigued Minstrels, by Augustus Edwin Mulready, 1883, oil on canvas. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Augustus Edwin Mulready Fatigued Minstrels 1883.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883.jpg&oldid=335802594 (accessed June 7, 2022)

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Elements of the story: calamity, villainy, and the hero’s struggle

Tolkien's art work for Hobbiton-across-the-water

Hobbiton-across-the-water, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Most writing coaches agree that the first 1/4 of your story is where you reveal your characters and show their world while introducing hints of trouble and foreshadowing the first plot point. That is the first act, so to speak.

The Calamity:

Something large and dramatic must occur right around the 1/4 mark to force the hero into action, an intense, powerful scene that changes everything. Quite often, in epic fantasy the inciting scene will be comparatively disastrous, and one that that forces the protagonist to react. He/she may be thrust into a situation that radically changes their life and forces them to make a series of difficult decisions.

  • What incident or event will occur at the first plot point?
  • What negative effect does this event have for the protagonist and his/her cohorts?
  • How are hero’s efforts countered?
A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

A conversation with Smaug by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Villain:

Conflict drives the story.  We know a great story has a compelling protagonist, but in order to have a great conflict, you must also have a great adversary. The hero has an objective, and so does the villain.

  • Identify the opponent–who is he/she, and what is their power-base?
  • What is the adversary’s primary goal, and who or what are they willing to sacrifice to achieve it?
  • Do the hero and the villain know each other, or are they faceless enemies to each other?
  • How does the adversary counter the hero’s efforts?

In fantasy, and often in thrillers and horror, we have an adversary who is capable of great evil. They may have supernatural powers, and at first they seem invincible. Their position of greater power forces the hero to become stronger, craftier, to develop ways to beat the adversary at his game. A strong, compelling villain creates interest and drives the conflict. Write several pages of back-story for your own use, to make sure your antagonist is as well-developed in your mind as your protagonist is, so that he/she radiates evil and power when you put them on the page. If you know your antagonist as well as you know the hero, the enemy will be believable when you write about their actions.

Bilbo comes to the huts of the raftelves by J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo comes to the huts of the Raft elves by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hero’s Struggle:

Now the story is hurtling toward the midpoint, that place called the second plot-point. The characters are acting and reacting to events that are out of their control. Nothing is going right-the hero and his/her cohorts must scramble to stay alive, and now they are desperately searching for the right equipment or a crucial piece of information that will give them an edge. The struggle is the story, and at this point it looks like the hero may not get what they need in time.

Their weaknesses must be first exploited by the adversary, and then overcome and turned into strengths by the hero. The hero must grow.

During this part of the story you must build upon your characters’ strengths.  Identify the hero’s goals, and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  • How does the hero react to being thwarted in his efforts during the second act to the midpoint?
  • How does the villain currently control the situation?
  • How does the hero react to pressure from the villain?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the hero and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  • What complications (for the hero) arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict, and how will he/she acquire that necessary information?
  • Midway between the first plot point and the second plot point, what new incident will occur to once again dramatically alter the hero’s path? This will be a turning point, drama and mayhem will ensue, perhaps offering the hero a slim chance. What stands in his/her way of realizing that small chance and what will the hero sacrifice to attain it?

the hobbitThe first half of the book can be exciting or a bore–and because I’m always growing as an author, my new rule is “don’t write boring books.”

I say this because the books I loved to read the most were crafted in such a way that we got to know the characters, saw them in their environment, and bam! Calamity happened, thrusting them down the road to Naglimund or to the Misty Mountains.

Calamity combined with villainy creates struggle, which creates opportunity for great adventure, and that is what great fantasy is all about.

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