Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Idea Garage Sale, Cont: Disasters, Threat or Menace?

Five new ones today, though it's thinning out in the west. That cluster between San Antonio and Kerrville just keeps sitting there, though.

So, where I was? Oh, yes, making narrative out of disaster.

The first thing to remember is that whatever you're writing, if you want it to hold the interest of the general public, must be a story; and a story, at its simplest formulation, is character + conflict. With a disaster, the conflict is a given. But unless you're writing a treatise on the mechanics of fires or shipwrecks or whatever - which is useful stuff to write about, don't get me wrong, but it's way outside my purview - if you're writing for a general audience, you'll have to find at least one character and structure the reader's experience of the disaster from that viewpoint.

Disaster narrative is a subgenre that benefits a great deal from multiple protagonists. Since most events worthy of the name are huge and chaotic, no one person will experience, much less understand, all the aspects of the disaster. If you're in one, you can only see a little piece of it - the piece presently trying to kill you. You may or may not understand where this wall of flame/water/whirling air/molasses (don't laugh; people died in the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 from drowning in the stuff - imagine having molasses in your lungs!) comes from; you only know that it's over there, rapidly coming here, and there's a very real chance that if you run and grab the baby it's going to cut off your escape route; and that your husband left this morning in the direction that wall is coming from now. Your husband, meanwhile, knows that he's safe, the wall is bearing down on home, and he can't call you because he just saw the cell tower come crashing down; but isn't sure whether you're home with the baby or have already left to visit your sister. It should be evident that the use of multiple viewpoint characters can enhance a disaster narrative considerably, both by making it easier for the reader to follow, and by ratcheting up the suspense by choosing the key moments in which to change viewpoint.

In a lot of novels, the writer is faced with difficult choices in characterization. To render the viewpoint character vivid and sympathetic, it is necessary to figure out what he has at stake in the conflict and make the reader care as much as he does. This is not a problem in a disaster story. Everybody's got the same base motivation, and it's real easy to care about, if the character is established well at all. But if his only motivation is "surviving the disaster," the audience can still fail to connect with him, and that will be the writer's fault. Maybe at the key moments of the narrative, survival is the only thing on his mind; but he's in the disaster area for a reason. He's got a life, to which this disaster is at base a dreadful interruption, like a traffic jam or broken plumbing, only - you know - freaking deadly. The narrative should not, then, begin with the disaster proper. It should begin with you and your husband and the baby getting into position, talking about little things - where he's going and why, what time you're going to leave for your sister's; for that matter, why you're going to your sister's while you're husband's going an entirely different direction. This means that the first pages are likely to be full of small establishing scenes and dialogs and exposition, mostly mundane in nature.

Which means they need to be well-written. Mundane is boring. You'll be helped some by the fact that the reader knows he's going into a disaster story and that all this mundanity is threatened; but if you and your husband and baby and sister bore him at this point, he's not going to care if you, the husband, or even the baby, die or not.

No, really, even the baby. Because - even if he knows he's reading non-fiction - at the beginning, he's reading a book, and books aren't real. So none of the characters is real till the writer chooses the correct mundane details, the ones that pop everybody into their proper three-dimensions so the reader grasps, emotionally, what he knew intellectually when he picked up the book: that this disaster affected real human beings who could as easily be him.

There is a certain kind of movie that I can only manage to sit through by playing the Plot and Dialog Prediction Game. Most disaster movies fall into this category. I'm sitting there watching the characters dance through their motions, and I start to recognize them, so I make a game of it. These two will survive.(Usually, The Lovers; usually, The Lovers Having Trouble With Their Relationship. Recent divorces are common.) There may be two sets of lovers, but only one is going to make it through the disaster, and the experienced viewer should be able to pick which one; based, alas, on age, ethnicity, and degree of domesticity, most of the time. This one will sacrifice himself to let others (particularly The Lovers) survive. That one will also sacrifice himself, and for him it will be a Redeeming Moment, because up until then he's been a jackass. The other guy will die first, and it's depressing how often First to Die will be instantly identifiable because he's the only non-white cast member. And so on.

Once I've determined death order, which can usually be done during the establishing scenes, it's time to figure out the difficulties before they arise: What initiates the disaster; in what inadequate ways the people who should be dealing with it fail to do so; which random chances will arise to drive people into their correct positions for their role in the plot; how exactly poor Mohinder or Martinez or whatever generic ethnic name First to Die goes by will in fact die; how the first solution on offer fails; what surprising development happens just when it looks like things are coming under control (that one's the most fun); and so on. And of course it's always fun to say softly: "That's crazy! You'll be killed!" or "Tell my kids I love them!" , or whatever, immediately before the dialog is spoken.

Well, as much fun as I'm going to get in this kind of movie, anyway.

I don't do this with books because if I find it happening in a book, I put it down and do something else. There's too many books to read out there without wasting time on one like this. But a movie is a social occasion; I can't just get up and walk out of it. Though possibly if I don't play this game quietly enough the people I'm with wish I would.

If you're going to write disaster narrative, for pity's sake, read and watch enough of these things to recognize the rhythm of the cliche, and keep its metronomic beat out of your work. You have to read a lot of trash to get really good at not writing it. Which is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

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