Coach Carter has been a writer and freelancer for 15+ years. She enjoys sharing what she knows and loves about creative writing.
Story Elements: Disasters and Emergencies
Disasters are certainly not a new element of stories. They are one of the few story elements that aren't going anywhere, ever; which is music to the ears of most suspense writers!
Disasters, whether natural, man-made, or intergalactic, are often used to force both antagonists and protagonists into seemingly uncontrollable situations. In terms of following the traditional hero's journey (which most writers do subconsciously as much as consciously), a disaster often becomes either the element that forces your main characters to act in a heroic or villianous way, or the element that comes in near the end of a story as a dramatic twist that can lead to further episodes in a series.
Disaster elements are also awesome because they can be the main focus of your story, or they can just be a passing obstacle that your main characters must overcome. In these ways, Disasters are some of the most flexible plot elements you can weave into your stories, and assuming that you'd like to start doing so now, I've divided the majority of disasters into "type" categories to make them easier to define, and then under each type there will be three writing prompts for you to use to get your creative juices flowing.
1. Physical Disasters
This category is all about disasters that include the body. That includes human, animal, extraterrestrial, and so on. If it's a living being, it can be hurt and thus can be the subject of some form of physical disaster.
The table below lists some ideas for physical-type disasters you could use in your stories and novels.
Physical Disaster Ideas
MC trips over a tree stump & fractures ankle
SC trips over a small rock & breaks a finger.
SC becomes deathly ill after drinking poison & cannot guide the MC through trials
MC eats faery food & becomes too intoxicated to move forward
SC's socks keep getting wet & create a foot infection, preventing them from walking...
A super important and beloved headmaster is hit with a killing spell & removed from the MC's life.
MC gets shot by a BG & is forced to rest after nearly dying
SC get's a bad paper cut that allows a zombie virus to infect them
MC's beloved protector & pet is killed by a BG
Writing Prompt 1: Ouch!
You're Main Character is shot after throwing a ring into an outdoor fire-pit. After the ring hits the flames, the Main Character suddenly keels over and starts writhing in excruciating pain. What's happening and what led up to this moment?
Writing Prompt 2: No One Left Behind
Your Main Character is carrying their friend; an important Supporting Character, through dense jungle brush in a foreign country. The friend has a broken ankle and has taken a buckshot to the lower right abdomen. They are still conscious, but can barely move and are losing precious liters of blood by the hour. Your Main Character has less than 2 hours before their friend will be dead. What does your Main Character do to save their friend and does it work?
Writing Prompt 3: Tear Jerkers
Your Main Character is walking down the path back to their home village, their trusted canine at their side. It seems as though they are home free until they can see the archway to the village. They get about 30 feet from the arches when a shot rings out into the air and the canine falls dead to the ground. What just happened?
And up from the rooftop, came such a clatter...
— Twas the Night Before Christmas
2. Environmental Disasters
Environmental disasters include anything that can happen to the world around your characters. That could include things as big as cosmic planetary disasters and worldwide apocalypses or as little as someone throwing a cigarette butt on the ground and accidentally lighting up some dry grass.
These types of disasters are often used as obstacles or as ways to completely reshape the world the characters know. You can use them in the same ways, or make up your own completely knew environmental disasters. That's one of the best parts about creative writing; everything is up to you!
Environmental Disaster Ideas
A plane crashes into the MC's house
BG's light the MC's home village on fire, forcing out everyone who lives there.
The MC sneezes and kicks off an avalanche
An unexpected earthquake bubbles up from the earth & swallows the BG's army
Just when the MC thought everyone was done, a Tornado forms in the distance.
A Giant meteor is headed towards the planet threatening to distroy everyone...
Writing Prompt 1: Duck and Cover
Write about a time when you were a kid at school, and the whole class practice an emergency disaster drill of some kind. It could have been an earthquake drill, a fire drill, a flood drill, a tornado drill; whatever you experienced.
Writing Prompt 2: What Would You Do?
What would be the most frightening natural disaster you could imagine yourself in? Write about finding yourself about to experience and then experiencing that very type of natural disaster, and what you would do to survive it.
Writing Prompt 3: Valuables
Create a character who is experiencing a natural disaster that hits without warning and starts destroying their home. Your character gets out of the house with any important people you include, but then he/she goes back inside. What three items did they go back in for, where were they and what did they have to do to go in and get the items and get out before the house was totally destroyed?
3. Psychological Disasters
Psychological disasters can draw in both authors and readers alike, for years or even decades of fun, and are often the primary form of disasters used in crime dramas, sci-fi thrillers, murder mysteries, and horror flicks.
Psychological disasters are also some of the oldest used types of fictional disasters. The mind is virtually infinite in how it can be messed with, at least as far as modern science can tell, which means there is no end to the types of psychological thrills, chills and bedeviling obstacles you can place in front of or more correctly; inside of, your character, to increase drama, decrease movement, create new bonds, or completely rewrite how your character interprets their reality.
Use the examples and prompts below to try out using psychological disasters, or come up with some of your own!
Psychological Disaster Ideas
MC loses a job that they associated with their self worth & plummets into a major depression...
Pushed beyond starvation, a SC gives in and decides to try eating a berry from an unknown bush. Within 30 minutes they're deeply hallucinating that the clouds and sun are dancing ballet and playing improve with them while the MC tries to keep them moving up a mountain...
a SC mixes up which cup had the horse tranquilizers in them & accidently gives the wrong one to the MC who then spends the next 12 hrs hallucinating that they've been locked in an insane asylum when they've really just been taped to a chair by a scared and concerned SC...
a SC falls into an extremely deep existential crisis & puts their spouse & the MC, into several super crazy but hilarious spiritual, sexual and psycho-social situations trying to figure themselves out...
Through a strange set of unexpected circumstances, the MC realizes that they really enjoy being a male submissive. Right when the MC feels they finally have a grasp on this new reality, someone finds out and tells the whole town. Now they must try to explain themselves to their friends and family before they've even really figured it out themselves...
a SC ends up in a car accident that puts them in a coma with no way to predict when or if they'll wake up. That SC had a child w/Aspergers & a love for redefining boundaries, who is then dropped off at the MC's house with a letter explaining that the child was their son/daughter...
One day the MC just cracks. They quit their job & start planning a trip to the Netherlands to find the "one who got away", though before they can take off, they first need to figure out who left a dead body in the trunk of their car and why they want to meet...
Know there's no other way out, the MC uses several forms of covert hypnosis to play on the fears of the BG & get them wrapped up in their own anxieties & insecurities, while the MC figures out how to escape...
Writing Prompt 1: Temporary Insanity
You wake up in a mental institution. The doctor comes to see you and tells you that you were institutionalized almost four years ago, after you had a psychotic episode wherein you injured six people and put another person in a coma. What caused the psychotic break, who were the six people and what does the doctor and/or the courts require you to do to get released with a clean bill of health?
Writing Prompt 2: Forgiveness
Your Main Character has just completed the majority of the rehab steps needed to earn them a clean bill of health after 20 years of being a hardcore alcoholic. Now your MC has to go and try to make amends with everyone they hurt, including their ex-spouse. Upon reconnecting, they find their ex-spouse is now 'happily' remarried. The MC realizes they're still in very much in love with their ex-spouse and feels like life would not be worth living without that love back in their life. After some minor investigation (snooping) just to make sure their former lover is doing okay, they find out that their former lover is not as happy as they pretended to be for your MC. That places the MC in the position of trying to push away their renewed obsession to do everything possible to make amends and get back with their ex, while finding themselves in way too many situations where they're seriously tempted to start drinking again. What does your MC go through before they decide what they're going to do, what do they end up doing and what did they have to do in order to achieve the outcome they decided on?
Writing Prompt 3: Medical Testing
You decide to answer a classifieds advert looking for folks to test out new pharmaceuticals. They are offering a huge amount of money and will require you to sign a binding NDA. When you get to the testing facilities, they take you to a room with a couch, small bed, some kids coloring supplies, an ipod, some books, and a few other casual but unexpected leisure items. They get you all ready to go and give you the first dose, after which they tell you that you will be there for as few as five hours or as many as 48 hours, and then warn you that you might experience some hallucinations during this period. What happens next?
4. Relationship Disasters
Relationship disasters are a wealth of writing gold when you think about it. If there's one thing that always goes along with humans, it's relationships; which can cover both the interpersonal as well as the inanimate.
Get your feet wet by thinking about all the types of relationships you've already experienced or observed in your own life, such as:
- Love/Intimate Relationships
- Familial Relationships
- Professional Relationships
- Internet Relationships
- Educational Relationships
- Platonic Relationships
- Polyamorous Relationships
- Legal Relationships
- Arranged Relationships
- Criminal Relationships
- Temporary Relationships
- Unexpected Relationships
- Former Relationships
- Medical Relationships
- Religious Group Relationships
- Political Relationships
- Competitive Recreational Relationships
- Non-Intimate Physical Relationships
- Non-Physical Intimate Relationships
Once you've laid out that list, think about the different sorts of positive and negative interactions that can happen between two or more people involved in them. You could have a loved one who ends up in an accident that leaves them with only 48 hours left to live. You could have two characters who were once desperately in love and now find themselves at each other's throats nearly every day. You could have a narcissistic relationship between a parent and adult child.
There is no lack of options for writers who want to include some relationship disasters in their stories. Not to mention, they are often the most riveting kinds of disasters for readers, because they connect with our instinctual need to be social and to be worried about what sorts of interpersonal disasters might befall us and remove all social support from around us.
Play with them and have fun!
Relationship Disaster and Emergency Ideas
MC randomly runs into their soulmate while getting coffee, two days before they're supposed to get married
MC comes home to find an envelope on their table labeled "Divorced" w/a note that reads, "Sign These!"
MC their lover will be forced apart from each other if they cannot figure out how to stop the bank from selling their apartment building to a developer
MC is feeling extremely lonely but is still too emotionally scarred to accept or ask for any dates...
MC's family have banded together to line up all of the towns most eligible bachelors/bachelorettes, which they want the MC to pick from and then settle down
Two fighting lovers are determined to make it work... somehow... So the decide to sign up for a couples retreat in the Amazon.
MC is ready to settle down, but every person they think is "the one" turns out to be crazy. Is the MC cursed in love?
MC's well meaning friends decide to slip some esctasy in the MC's drink at a party. The next morning the MC wakes up in bed with another person who is not their partner...
After creating a huge seen and getting arrested, MC and their spouse are sentenced to hard labor -- In a Marriage Boot Camp.
Writing Prompt 1: Exiled
Your Main Character has been exiled from their home village. They could go to another village and try to make a new life there, but instead your MC chooses to become a hermit and live alone in the wilderness. This is all fine and good until the MC finds a wild forest child laying unconscious near a stream. The MC takes the child back to their shelter and weans them back to life. Then the MC tries to get the child to tell them where they came from and where they can go back to, but they child refuses to tell and refuses to leave, which infuriates the MC, who wanted to live alone and is now feeling forced into a parental role. What happens next?
Writing Prompt 2: Re-Divorced?
You have two characters who got married on a whim, then got divorced after six months, then got remarried after a year. Now they find themselves having been together for two years (since getting remarried) and constantly fighting again. They are both contemplating getting "re-divorced," but they have a one-and-a-half-year-old and a baby on the way. What do they do?
Writing Prompt 3: Bae or Bail?
Your Main Character finds themselves the victim of a prank pulled on them by their current fiance, who signed them up as contestants on the internet show Bae or Bail. The premise of this show, is to test the pranksters partner to see if, when put into a seemingly life-threatening situation with their partner, would stay and try to save their partner or flee like a coward. The prank used by your MC's fiance was one that touched upon a legitimate and serious phobia of your MC, who instinctively bailed before they had time to process what was going on. In mid-run, your MC ends up running into a car, knocking themselves unconscious, during which time they pee themselves. This episode was aired live, so theirs no way to prevent all of the MC's friends from seeing what just happened, resulting in near-instant ostricization once the completely livid and emotionally hurt MC gets home with their fiance, who is also upset because they think they've been bailed on. What happens to the characters next, and what becomes of their engagement?
I can see dead people...
— The Sixth Sense
5. Metaphysical Disasters
Enchantments, spells, powers not working, potions, etc...
These are the kinds of disasters that you might see in a show like supernatural, or in the recent depiction of the Grimms Brothers tales. Metaphysical disasters can cover everything from a week spiritual awakening, all the way up to a supernatural showdown between demons and prophesized Saviors.
One of the greatest things about using metaphysical disasters is that you really aren't bound by any limitations when it comes to the types of disasters that can occur. You can literally create an emergency situation using anything within the realms of your imagination, like having a student's desk turn into a giant furry monster that's now chasing the student body through the school. Or you can take any character from any mundane, ordinary reality, and have them walk through any door or fall into any hole in find themselves in a completely different realm or dimension.
We as human beings comma also have an interesting in symbiotic connection with metaphysical disasters comma especially if you're brave enough to delve into the many worlds described by shamans, druids and other spirit realm explorers throughout the centuries
With metaphysical disasters, there are literally are no skies that can limit your disaster creation opportunities
Metaphysical Disaster and Emergency Ideas
MC is ready for more adventure in life. Makes a deal with a hedge witch to liven things up in all the wrong ways
Mc is visited by a beautiful woman in his dreams every night for 2 weeks, until he meets her in real life...
MC has a nasty but playful poltergiest following them around everywhere causing trouble, one time of which gets the MC fired.
BG's get together and cast a huge curse that will remove all magic from the world if the MC doesn't stop their evil plans.
MC is a cocky jerk at magic school and sees no reason to change until their little brother is kidnapped and no one wants to help find him.
MC opens their front door to find a huge egg on the doorstep with some flameproof gloves and a note that's signed by the "Dragon Master"
Writing Prompt 1: The Price of Magic
Your main character ends up inheriting a small chest of trinkets and possessions left to them by a far off relative. Also inside of this chest, is a small spell-book. Not knowing any better, your MC decides to recite a few of the spells. You spell seemed harmless, and work nothing more than a few chance that offered to bring them more money, more love, and more confidence. The NC didn't expect the spells to do anything, but when they find out that they actually got what they asked for, they're pleasantly surprised. When the MC ends up finding out that performing magic always has a cost, they're definitely not pleasantly surprised. Write about what sorts of shenanigans get created because of their naivete.
Writing Prompt 2: The Invitation...
Your Main Character comes home, enters their house and immediately trips over a box that was forced through the mail slot on the door. It's addressed to them specifically, and inside the box is a pile of objects, one of which is an invitation to a super-secret club of magic.
Writing Prompt 3: Down the Rabbit Hole...
Your Main Character thinks they've been hallucinating lately because they keep seeing a white wolf everywhere. They're convinced it must be a hallucination, because every time they try to approach and follow the wolf, the wolf disappears. Until one day, the wolf lets the MC approach and touch it, but then it quickly takes off with the MC now in hot pursuit, determined not to let the wolf disappear this time...
Creating "Oh! Crap!" Worthy Plot Twists
Creating cringe-worthy plot twists isn't complicated, especially when cringe-worthy disasters or emergencies are tossed into all the right places.
To assist you in learning how to do just that (or how to get better at it), here are three handy tricks to help you design the perfect disaster scenario or emergency situation for your story.
Trick 1: Mind Mapping
Get out your favorite mind-mapping app, some new Post-It Notes, or just a good ole pad of paper and a pen; then get your noodle cooking in a deep pot of thought about what sorts of disasters and emergency scenarios make the most sense with your current plot.
If you're writing a love story set upon a space station near the Andromeda galaxy, it would make sense for there to be these types of
- Oxygen Production Crisis
- Attack from an Alien Armada
- Drifting through Pockets of Time
- Something Escapes from the Labs
- Something takes control of the Captains Mind
- Strange & Contagious Alien Virus Infects Everyone
- Serious Ship Damage from an Unexpected Meteor Shower
Trick 2: A Dose of Reality
Some of the most gut-wrenching and adrenaline producing disasters and emergencies, are those that readers could actually imagine happening to them. Yes, there are some Emmy award–worthy disaster scenarios that are completely out of this world, but they're more of an exception to this rule. Most plot twist emergencies and disasters are going to be more riveting when they give readers a shocking dose of reality. Try it out to see what I mean.
Trick 3: Break All the Rules
This is one of my favorite writing exercises. Whereas in the first two tricks are more about using disasters and emergencies to capture your readers attention by fitting in with their expectations, this trick is about completely shattering anything their weak and soggy imaginations could've ever dreamed up.
3 Reasons I Love This Trick So Much:
- The books that have remained most memorable in my mind, have been the ones that took me somewhere new, stretched my imagination and kept me guessing throughout the tale.
- As someone who writes for a living, I find myself with fewer opportunities to write truly creatively, which for me, comes from a place of boundary-breaking, reality mutations, bias banishing and getting as far away from expected norms as possible; using writing to birth new worlds and characters that defy every universal law from every dimension. What's more fun than that? And what better way to break all the rules than start with a . . . Great . . . Big . . . DISASTER?
- More often than not, it's the disasters that break all the rules, which leave the most lasting impression on readers minds and end up becoming the talk of the town or future book club staples.
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