What Are The Ingredients For A Successful 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.

A disaster story brings these into sharp dramatic relief. As one of my writers pointed out this week, the hero of the Jaws movie is afraid of water.

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

The narrative path as outlined in The Five F's of story at The Novelry, finds its immaculately opposite form in a disaster story. The negative image. Perhaps that's not surprising, for is a novel is propelled by what the main character wants, in a disaster story it's all about what they don't want to happen.

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.

These elements are perfectly turned in the brilliant series Chernobyl which is a masterclass in the Disaster genre. 

Our online creative writing courses, outlines the ingredients of the big epic stories, allowing writers to pick and mix from the tried and tested.

Here are some of the ingredients of 'The Disaster Story' for you to play with:

  • economy of 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.)
  • physical revulsion, attempted expulsion of the ailment at large - an emetic response. Vomiting hits the spot. Once again, a highly economic 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 the Classic Course.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

'Chernobyl', the mini-series, exemplifies this with its setting in Soviet Russia where the will of the people is religiously invoked, and the miners take their trousers off to show how to be one of the people, balls-out.

Excuse my whimsy. A disaster brings out a playful side in me, because it's such a blessed relief when it's over. Schadenfreude brings days of beatitudes after the experience of a brilliantly wrought tale of eucatastrophe.

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.

I commend this genre to you as the great art form of big society, it shows us how what we value regardless of caste or creed is commonly humble. 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.

Perhaps one or two of you will write something disastrous in the near future. Oh, let the eucatastrophe remain in story form only as a warning, and let us all hope that one day soon we will stop playing penny-pinching party politics while the planet bleeds.

Great Disaster stories for further reading for those interested in the moral unification of the species:

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.

Members News.

Congratulations to Romla Ryan who has been offered representation by PFD (Peters, Fraser & Dunlop) for her wondrous novel. Romla took The Classic Course, The Ninety Day Novel and the Editing Course with The Novelry and is one of our beloved writers. So the cheering continues this week at The Novelry. We'll keep you posted when her book hits the shelves. Beautifully written, fast-paced and sparkling with wit and affection for her roguish hero, it's sure to provide a much-needed tonic in these times.


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