Water coming to create my underground pool!
Water leaving to create my moldy basement!
I’ve been thinking about things like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, and forest fires. Well, actually, I’ve been obsessed with floods lately especially since a recent one in my area turned my basement into a swimming pool, then into a swamp, and now it’s just damn damp with accompanying mold and mildew and bugs, and… Well you don’t want to know.
I write a lot about disasters in my work. Since they’re on my mind now, I thought I’d give consideration to why I include them and how I use them.
- There’s nothing like a really good wild fire to spice up a book.
Obviously, you say. But it’s got to be more than that. Natural disasters do make a read exciting, but they need to grow out of both the plot and the setting. Since I write about small towns, these cataclysmic events seem to emerge naturally from the setting. Drought in an area can become a raging wild fire chasing people out of their homes and creating, well, romance for me. In Dumpster Dying a wildfire chases my protagonist Emily Rhodes along with her friend Donald into an alligator-infested slough. Should they become shrimp on the Barbie or bouillabaisse with the gators? Or just kiss before dying? A writer can use a natural disaster in any setting, as long as the groundwork is purposefully laid so that the disaster works with the plot and/or the writer uses it to say something about the character(s).
- Disasters are opportunities for character development
In my example above, the reader may have suspected Donald was romantically inclined toward Emily although I suspect Donald himself was surprised by his actions (the guy is not too in touch with his feelings). Put a character in a life and death situation and a flagging libido is set aflame. For Emily, the presentation of a fire brings out her courageous side, an aspect of her personality she is discovering as the story evolves. A writer can make the emergence of a personality trait especially significant if the disaster is one the character is particularly terrified of such as heights or fear of drowning. Using the disaster to throw this challenge at the character produces great tension and will get the reader rooting for the individual to conquer this fear.
- Bad guys think they can harness catastrophe
A tornado in one of my manuscripts seems to be just the right moment for the villain to take advantage of the heroine and her lover. It’s a great writer’s ploy to have the protagonist encounter the disaster paired with the evil workings of the killer. It gives the killer a moment of glee to think he or she can have their way. To the reader it seems as if evil will triumph, but Mother Nature can turn in a second. Not only can one not fool Mother Nature, but one ought not to mess with her either. A disaster can become the “Black Moment” for the protagonist, but in the hands of a writer who chooses to align the protagonist with cataclysmic events, it can bring down the villain. My villain couldn’t swim, so his pursuit of the protagonist in a boat damaged by the storm is his undoing.
4. Humor comes after
Don’t think because you write humor that you can’t use disasters to your advantage. The aftermath of a storm, fire, or flood is the perfect place to let your reader breath a sigh of relief and laugh at the same time. In the sequel to Dumpster Dying, Emily and her detective friend Stanton Lewis have abandoned their car because a storm has dropped a tree limb on the hood. They prepare to walk to shelter when Lewis notices Emily is not beside him. Emily, who is barely over five feet tall, has stepped into water up to her waist. When he asks her in exasperation what she is doing, she replies, “swimming.”
I’ll bet you can think of other ways disasters add to the story. I’d add more but I’ve got to buy another bottle of Clorox and get to the basement. Now where did I put that bug spray? Die, you little bugger, Die!
Lesley A. Diehl, author of Dumpster Dying “I like to put my characters in harm’s way.”