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Disaster Story Ideas and Elements

Jun 30, 2019

Writing a high-octane disaster story? They’re undoubtedly fun for readers and writers alike, with pacy plots, heroes to root for and villains to hate. Let’s take a look at the most compelling disaster story ideas through the ages, and parse out the ingredients that make them so irresistible.

After all, readers need some sense in the chaos. 


If you’re looking for disaster story ideas, start with character-driven irony

Traditionally, a novel is one person’s moral journey towards acceptance of their place in the universe. The plot is contrived to challenge them on their way there, to throw them into circumstances they’re not well-suited to and force them to grow in some way.

Nail the human flaw and the perfectly unsuitable circumstances and you’ve got the irony that powers a traditional novel. But if you’re trying to unearth powerful disaster story ideas, turn up the volume on this irony; the hero of Jaws is afraid of water.

And while a novel is usually propelled by what the main character wants, tales of disaster often work quite differently. If you break down disaster story ideas to their basic premise, they’re all about what the hero doesn’t want to happen. And more often than not, boy, is it happening. 


Disaster story ideas hinge on the hero’s gift

Here’s another key distinction to keep in mind when you’re sifting through your disaster story ideas. Whereas we’re accustomed to the hero’s flaw being the driving force of a novel, in a disaster story it’s often their gift.

Although there will usually be a failing or fear that makes them ill-suited to the drama that ensues, there’s also likely a strength that gets them there in the first place. 

This is a great way to make your disastrous plot a rollercoaster ride for readers. Your protagonist is sent to the disaster zone as an expert! They’re our hope of survival, of averting this impending doom. 

Of course, you will quickly dispel this optimism in favour of potential apocalypse and apparent hopelessness. But instead of fleeing the situation, our hero digs in. And we get to sit back enjoy the drama until – hopefully – your heroes pull together and save the world. 


Key ingredients of a disaster story

If you’ve hit upon a great disaster story idea and want to check if it can be fleshed into a full and satisfying novel, see if you can include these elements: 

  1. Poignancy. Think, for example, of the common inclusion of a regular family whose humble ambition to raise children is thwarted. Noble, dead animals (but just one or two, shown briskly, as tokens of a human-caused tragedy).
  2. Physical revulsion and an attempted expulsion of the ailment at large. Disaster stories are often marked by 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.
  3. A straightforward villain. In a disaster story, members of the cast typically fall into one of two categories: selfless or selfish. Our villain is usually entirely selfish and deeply implicated in the scale of the disaster (if not its genesis). They’re rarely granted redeeming qualities or a backstory.
  4. The naysayers in denial. This group may well be assisting your villain, whether purposely or inadvertently. Ironically, they also tend to be first on the bus out of the disaster zone.
  5. Innocents.  Unlike the more hypocritical naysayers in our previous point, the innocents are simply too naïve to believe something so grim could be happening. They offer a good opportunity for a more tragic element, or heroism. 
  6. The good cynic. War-weary, badass and typically selfless, these people have seen worse but are usually willing to stick around and lend a hand.
  7. Exodus! While the selfless who are equipped to help stay, everybody else finally makes their escape before it gets really bad.
  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.


The moral underpinnings of disaster stories

The moral message of novels is often that, despite the mess humankind has made of this world, an individual can effect change. 

Disaster stories often hold a similar idea: one person (or indeed, many people, or nature) can wreak havoc, but by coming together we can set it straight.

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.

Disaster story ideas: learn from the greats

If you’re keen to explore more disaster ideas, take a look at how some other people have tackled crisis in fiction. The most popular disaster fiction books is a good place to start, or see why these seven were deemed the best of all time!

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