Hurricane Sandy’s recent impact on the Northeast United States, like most natural disasters or major events, will likely inspire a number of writers, professional and amateur. Whether it’s the real tales of heroism or tragedy or simply the profound power of something that big and catastrophic, such events touch something deep inside us. While a natural disaster can heighten a story, it isn’t always a good idea to put one in a piece of fiction.
As a general rule for pretty much everything in fiction, if something doesn’t add to a story in multiple ways, it should probably be left out. That said, let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of including a natural disaster in a story.
- When the storm or volcano or whatever a writer chooses takes on multiple meanings in a story, it can become a symbol, which can add great depth. For this to work, though, it can’t be forced. The connections much fit naturally in the context of the story, and they must occur throughout the tale, often developing in their own ways to mirror a theme, a relationship, or some other aspect of the story.
- A natural disaster can heighten the stakes of a story, usually to the threat of life itself. Again, if done well, the natural disaster should be hinted at and led up to rather than simply sprung on the reader or characters. Keep in mind, there are almost always warning signs for these events: earthquakes and ash before a volcano erupts, dark clouds before a storm.
- The natural disaster can be the antagonist. This is easiest in man verses nature stories. However, this doesn’t mean that another character can’t represent the natural disaster or that there shouldn’t be conflict between the other characters, but victory often takes on a whole new spin when it’s over a blizzard instead of an evil king.
- People can identify with natural disasters universally. Even if not everyone has been through one, we all have friends or family that have. Or a story can tap into the natural human fear and awe before the wildest that nature throws at us. No matter where someone lives, there is danger from something whether it’s earthquakes, tornados, volcanos, or floods.
- The best and the worst of humanity often come out when we’re put under great stress, like in or shortly after a natural disaster. This fact can become a great vehicle to develop characters.
- Natural disasters can distract from the real story. If a story is really about the relationship between two brothers, if they spend all their time running from or fighting wildfires, the true story might not ever fully develop and reach a satisfying conclusion. Since natural disasters are so big, a writer must be careful not to let him eclipse the real story they are trying to tell.
- Natural disasters can become an easy out for a story. It’s one thing to up the stakes, entirely another to throw in a random hurricane when the tension in a story starts to droop. Such events must have deep purpose in fiction and be used with careful intentionality.
- I would like to state a third, but really, all other disadvantages tend to occur when the disaster overpowers the story. As long as a writer remains aware of this, he can avoid most of the pitfalls.
Floods, earthquakes, volcanos, and any other natural disaster can have great and profound impacts on a story for good or for bad. Use them wisely.