There are 5 deadlines, or ticking clocks, that consistently show up in bestselling novels.
In the last four posts, we talked about the Story Deadline, the Resource Deadline, the Character Deadline and the Chase Deadline. If you haven’t read those, I strongly encourage you to go check them out. Today, I’d like to focus on another deadline common in bestsellers – the Disaster Deadline.
Before we dive in, here’s a quick review of all 5 Deadlines:
5 Deadlines That Show Up in Every Bestseller
Character Deadline (life and death)
Remember, too, the nonnegotiable elements of a deadline: a time limit, a clear threat to a character in the story and reader awareness of both the time limit and threat. In bestsellers, characters sometimes know about the time limit and threat and sometimes they don’t. However, readers always know so that they can care, fear and worry about the characters.
The Disaster Deadline
Let’s start with a practical, applicable definition: The Disaster Deadline occurs when a natural or man-made disaster threatens a character or characters under a specific, tight timeline.
Maybe you can already notice the the essential elements of a Disaster Deadline. Here we break down the definition into individual parts for deeper clarity:
- One or more characters (example: lead character and supporting cast)
- Natural or Man-made Disaster
- Deadline – time limit
Almost every story – novel, script, etc. – includes a Disaster Deadline. Some stories, such as On the Beach, The Age of Miracles, Support and Defend, The 6th Extinction (and many others) revolve around this deadline.
Most stories include a series of disasters or “near-disasters” against which the characters must struggle (and hopefully overcome). Think avalanches, explosions and resurrected dinosaurs, oh my!
Perhaps you’ve guessed already that we are taking a very broad definition of “disaster”. Disasters can be weather-related (tornado, flood, storm, sink-holes, earthquakes, asteroids), man-made (disease, warfare, etc) or smaller, but no less deadly, disasters like the a suicide bomber or government secrets getting into the wrong hands. Any looming threat, in fact, can fit into this category of disaster.
The Sneaky Trick of Designing Disaster Deadlines like a Bestseller
Bestselling Authors often pepper Disaster Deadlines generously throughout their stories, spicing up acts, chapters and scenes. Disaster Deadlines generate action, interest and engagement – if done well.
Many writers attempt to apply Disaster Deadlines by dropping disaster after disaster on the heads of their characters. This is not necessarily a bad idea. However, the biggest difference between Bestselling Authors and others in handling Disaster Deadlines is….
Wait. Before I tell you, what do you think the difference is? Really, take a moment and think about it. If you do, your writing will improve. Just by asking the question and reflecting, your mind can begin to shape the answer – in truth, some part of you already knows the answer. That part of you that understands story at a primitive, raw level. Take a moment to compare bestselling novels to other, less well-recieved stories. Great movies versus good movies. Both include disasters. What makes the disasters in one movie or story more effective than those in another movie?
Ok, the biggest difference I see in how Bestselling Authors handle Disaster Deadlines is that disasters in great stories connect deeply to the plot and character(s).
How to Connect Disaster Deadlines to Your Plot and Characters
- Write or type your plot (premise) in a sentence or two at the top of a page
- List each your main characters (including the antagonist) and their main goals on the page
- Write the setting of your story on the page
- Next, list as many disasters as you can think of on the page (order doesn’t matter at this point) that relate to your plot, characters (and their goals) and the setting
- When you can’t think of any more disasters, take a 10 minute break and then force yourself to come up with 10 more disasters
- Once you have a complete list (at least 20 disasters), get rid of any disasters that don’t clearly relate to your plot, characters and setting (yes, all three)
- Organize the remaining disasters by scope (typically, smaller disasters occur before larger disasters) and story (disasters naturally occur at specific points as characters struggle toward their ultimate goal)
Other than sheer creativity of the type, scope and substance of the disasters in your story, the most critical step above is #6 – connecting each disaster to the story, setting and characters. The more connected, the more powerful and effective the disaster.
As you narrow down your disasters, keep asking yourself these questions:
- Does this disaster evolve naturally from the plot? For example, an avalanche in a story about a team of mountain climbers makes sense. The disaster prevents story progression toward the ultimate goal of reaching the peak.
- Does this disaster emerge naturally from the setting? In other words, what part of the setting can become a disaster? Cars explode, buildings crumble, mountains avalanche, etc. Creativity is essential, but attempt to avoid forcing a disaster into story space where it doesn’t make logical sense.
- Does this disaster promote character change? If the mountain climbers resolve conflicts, deal with loss, or gain resilience from the avalanche, so much the better for the story.
I hope you have enjoyed this post. If so, please add your comments below and feel free to share this information with anyone who might benefit.