Disaster, Inc.: Or, Why Bad Things Must Happen in Fiction

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 11.44.38 AMAs writers, we’re advised to make things hard for our characters. To heap misery upon them—everything that can go wrong must go wrong! Everything that is gained in the story must be worked for! Don’t make it too easy on those suckers! Personally, I’ve always wondered why.

Maybe that’s because, as a writer, I’ve always been inspired by life. My own in particular. And my life–thankfully–hasn’t been filled with a whole lot of misery and disaster. What is has been filled with: long-term relationships in a multigenerational rural community. Loving parents. Good friends. Good love (with a few exceptions). Not to mention such items as the beauty of a sunrise after an ice-storm in the Smoky Mountains, and the darting of purple martins in flight.

But I’ve come lately to the realization that life is life, and story is story. And story is a beast with a fairly specific list of demands. (I’m reminded of an essay of Annie Dillard’s posted by the New York Times in which she says, “The writer studies literature, not the world.”)

Which is to say, we care more about the long-term relationships in the multigenerational rural community when Farmer John breaks that big taboo by sleeping with the midwife, his wife’s best friend. Thirty-some years of goodwill and co-parenting suddenly look a lot more interesting when that goodwill is challenged, do they not? The exception reveals the rule.

And that glittering sunrise, those dancing birds? Those images are going to be a whole lot more poignant in your fiction if the character observing them is, say, grieving the loss of a child, rather than simply reflecting on the beauty of the natural world.

They say adversity builds character. This may be figuratively true in life, but I’ve come to believe that it’s literally true in fiction. Disaster shows us who our characters really are.

I seem to keep returning these days to Lisa Cron’s book on brain science and fiction, Wired for Story. Perhaps because it feels as if this book helps to explain why so many of the things we’ve been taught about fiction actually work.

Cron states the opinion of a good many learned people in saying that the evolutionary purpose of stories is to prepare us for the unforeseen. And the unforeseen is almost always a disaster. In general, we don’t want our lives to change. (Unless it’s waking up to discover we’ve somehow magically lost that nagging ten pounds.)

Disaster is a commodity, as it turns out, across the aisle in prose, as my good friend Tabitha Blankenbiller, a nonfiction writer, recently posted on this topic via Hubris Press. (If you haven’t read this post, you should, as it is, among other things, hilarious.) In this post, she bemoans her own lack of a disastrous (personal) narrative as fodder in crafting compelling memoir.

Tabitha has a point. If Cheryl Strayed hadn’t lost her mother–and taken it hard–it seems unlikely that her trek up the Pacific Coast Trail would have seized the imagination of so many readers the way it did. Such a story would have been, with all apologies to Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods.

Call it rubbernecking. Call it human nature. Call it the fiction in its most basic form. Disaster hijacks our limbic system, and therefore our attention.

Neuroscience says that we’re constantly on the look out for what’s going to help or hurt us. What’s going to help us may be a little different for everyone (though Happily Ever After is generally a good place to start). But on average, absolutely no one wants to lose their mother. Or come home to find that their house has been foreclosed on.

And lest we conclude that disaster is simply some unfortunate but necessary bit of melodrama in fiction, consider its deeper purpose.

As Cron points out, disaster is simply an extreme form of change, and change is what fiction is all about. When we read about characters who manage to overcome adversity–and even go on to thrive–some part of our brains dedicated entirely to our survival and wellbeing is paying very close attention. And when disasters actually become opportunities, this little scribe is working overtime.

Disaster not only builds character, it shows us who we really are. In calling up all of our resources, it shows us what our resources are. It gives us high-stakes decisions to make, with consequences for making them. All of which we not only want, but demand from the stories we spend time with.

It doesn’t mean that trouble can’t come in smaller guises, more closely resembling our everyday lives. But we’re generally trying to stay the same in our everyday lives—maybe with a slight tweak here and there. Big Change calls us out into the realm of the heroic—the place where Story lives.

I’m reminded of something Barry Lopez–who writes both fiction and nonfiction–once said at a talk he presented at a Pacific University MFA residency, to the effect that when you build a map from the heart of despair to the heart of life, you have, in some way, healed the world.

Personally, that’s something I aspire to. And if I have to turn up the heat on my characters to accomplish that, well, so be it.

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6 thoughts on “Disaster, Inc.: Or, Why Bad Things Must Happen in Fiction

  1. OF COURSE bad things must happen to your character — otherwise there is no story. For me, as a mystery writer, the bad thing is pretty formulaic. Murder is a VERY BAD THING — as a rule, it grabs the reader’s attention. Then the writer must exercise creativity in leading the reader — not too fast — down the trail that leads to apprehension of the killer.

    • Yes, I think this probably pretty obvious when the disaster is built into the form, as it in mysteries. But it’s something to keep in mind as you pursue projects with less set parameters, such as memoir. =)

  2. In the manner of Cron’s ideas, there is Lisa Zunshine’s engrossing book “Why We Read Fiction,” which argues that we are universally drawn to stories that engage our “theory of mind.” – “He knew that she thought that he was lying, but he doubted that she knew what his brother had revealed,” and so on and so on, to our delight.

    (I’ve recommended this book to many people – if this is a repeat, my apologies.)

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