Drama and disaster can and will happen on a wide scale in our real lives. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts—the path of a natural disaster is erratic. Sometimes they miss you, and other times, your home is in their way.
Lesser dramas might only touch us on a peripheral level, yet they can affect our sense of security and challenge our values.
On May 18th, 1980, my friends and I watched the eruption of Mt. St. Helens from atop a hill in the middle of nowhere. My children had visited their father for the weekend, so my friends and I planned a fishing trip to a beaver pond in the next county. It was a long drive on narrow, dirt logging roads, but the possibility of trout for supper was just an excuse for a day spent in the deep forest.
We loaded our gear into my boyfriend’s Land Rover and set off at about 5:00 am, all five of us laughing and having a great time. The radio never worked, but the cassette deck played Led Zeppelin, Robin Trower, Genesis, and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow as the soundtrack to our trek through the gorgeous country.
At about 09:00, we came up over the top of a treeless hill. The view was breathtaking, as if all of Lewis County lay before us in springtime glory.
Above it all towered a sight I will never forget, turning the blue sky black.
Conversations suddenly silenced, and we stopped, turning the engine off. We got out and stared, first at the raging column of dust, rocks, and lightning that dwarfed the mountain and then at each other. Helicopters and airplanes from news agencies and the USGS circled like so many carrion birds. What so many people had thought was just hysteria was true—the mountain had blown.
We never did make it to the beaver pond. The only fish we caught that day were the tuna sandwiches we had packed. Conversations were sober as we picnicked on that hilltop and watched the incredible show.
We had no way of hearing the news, but we knew it was terrible, that some people had died and others had lost everything. We had no idea just how bad it was, that one of our favorite places to fish, the Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake, had disappeared along with its cantankerous owner. Harry R. Truman had become famous in the weeks before the eruption for refusing to evacuate.
Toward midafternoon, we returned to Olympia, all of us grateful to have homes to go to. When I turned on the television and found that more than fifty people had lost their lives, I felt devastated for them.
The true story of that day in my life is in disaster contrasted against calm and tranquility.
The story is in the hectic start to the morning, of five friends off on a day trip to go fishing. It is in the peace of the deep woods along those old dirt roads.
The camera zooms out and now we see the idyllic serenity of a clear sunny morning on Spirit Lake and Harry doing his morning chores.
This allows us to see what will be lost.
Then disaster strikes. The side of the mountain gives way, and the eruption is on.
Contrast that catastrophe against five people serenely picnicking on a hill, observing the apocalypse as it happens. The drama is in old Harry R. Truman’s stubborn end, and how it didn’t occur to us who watched from a distant hill that we would never rent a boat from him or fish in that lake again.
The bad juxtaposed against the good is the plot, but the experiences of those who witnessed it is the story. Contrast provides drama and texture, turning a wall of “bland” into something worth reading.
Stories of apocalyptic catastrophes resonate because disaster drives humanity to bigger and better things, and those who survive and rise above it become heroes. Readers love the drama of it all.
Disaster isn’t always apocalyptic, though. Dramas regularly happen on what seems an unimportant level to people who have resources. Not everyone has money, and not everyone can surmount the odds. The story is in the battle.
Think about those small daily tragedies people face, deeply personal catastrophes, which only they are experiencing. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal are the eternal themes of tragedy and resolution. These are the seeds of a good story.
We writers must make our words count. We must show our characters in their comfort zone in the moments leading up to the disaster. Not too much of a lead in, but just enough to show what will soon be lost.
Then, we bring on the disaster and attempt to write it logically, so it makes sense.
Contrast is a crucial aspect of worldbuilding and storytelling. In the end, we want readers to think about the story and those characters long after the last paragraph has been read. Drama and resolution are the keys to a great story.