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What Are The Ingredients For A Successful Disaster Story?

disaster story Jun 30, 2019

If a novel is one person's moral journey towards acceptance of their place in the universe, then the plot is contrived to give them a gift or gifts to help them on their way to which he or she is particularly ill-suited.

Nail those  - the human flaw and the perfectly unsuitable circumstances  - and you've got the essential irony that powers a novel.

Start with character-driven irony.

A disaster story brings these into sharp dramatic relief. It loves irony: the hero of the Jaws movie is afraid of water.

But there's more -  it's not the hero's character flaw that's so important in the grand scheme of a disaster story, so much as the hero or heroine's gift.

While a novel is usually propelled by what the main character wants, in a disaster story it's all about what they don't want to happen.

The hero's gift.

The starting point is the hero's strong suit, his or her particular aptitude. This means he or she is particularly well-suited for what the plot's throwing at him. Yes, it's you visiting the disaster zone as an expert! Then where false hope obtains in the 'roman' or everyday novel, the potentially apocalyptic nature of the disaster story and its apparent hopelessness is revealed next. Instead of fleeing the situation, our hero digs in. The climax of the story is not a perfect storm of fury, but relief, a stay against Armageddon. And where the resolution of a novel bids the hero to face their place in things, in a disaster story the hero gets to turn away from it all.

Here are some of the key ingredients of a disaster story: 

  1. poignancy - achieved by the inclusion of one regular family whose humble ambition to raise children is thwarted. Noble, dead animals. (Just one or two, shown briskly, as tokens of a human-caused tragedy.)
  2. physical revulsion, attempted expulsion of the ailment at large - an emetic response. Vomiting hits the spot. Once again, a highly economical way of depicting what Tolkien described as 'eucatastrophe' - the therapeutic benefits experienced by the reader or audience of passing through the abyss. (More on the eucatastrophe in our Classic fiction writing course.)
  3. spot the idiot. In a disaster movie, the members of your cast fall into one of two categories - selfless or selfish. The prize nutcase, our villain, is entirely selfish. He or she is the thoroughly rotten egg implicated in the scale of the disaster if not its genesis. No redeeming qualities or backstory necessary, thank you.
  4. the naysayers in denial. The rotten egg is assisted by the disaster-denying set. These will be first on the bus out of the disaster zone.
  5. disbelievers fall into two categories -  hypocrites (see previous point) and innocents. The hypocrites will eventually will give up the promotion for that seat on the bus. The latter you will know by their care for animals.
  6. the good cynic. A foil for the bad cynic above. War-weary and bad-assed, he or she nonetheless falls into the selfless category and is one of the chosen few who have seen worse.
  7. exodus! While the selfless who are equipped to help stay, the rest of us in the cinema join those hot-footing out of there, and enjoy their relief.
  8. the brotherhood of man. Two fixers who would normally be opposed ideologically find that a disaster is what it takes for human beings to get along.

If the moral message of that great Liberal vehicle the novel is that despite the mess humankind has made of this world, an individual can effect change then this is translated via the disaster trope as follows - one person can cock things up right royally, but the many can set it straight.


The disaster story is pure suffering, the plot advances with edge-of-the-seat setbacks, but its gift to us is magnificent. As both Derrida and Levinas concurred, it is only when disaster affects all groups alike that they see their commonality and wholeness and let go of vision in favour of unity.

A disaster story shows us what we value regardless of caste or creed. We want our children to live. We don't want to see dead birds fall from the sky or to have to shoot the dogs.

Great Disaster Stories:

Blindness - José Saramago

The Plague - Albert Camus

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

1984 - George Orwell

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

The Drowned World - J.G. Ballard

The Handmaid's Tale, or Oryx and Crake, or The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood.

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