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.
Readers 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.
Acquiring 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.
Love 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?
We 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)