[Note to the reader: As of post time Tropical Storm Emily is no more. However, since I already had the post written I decided to go with it.]
Depending where and when you are when you read this, Tropical Storm Emily may or may not be a big deal. If you live on the east coast of Florida it is certainly a big deal. But no matter where you are, a storm like Emily is a big deal not only because of its rain and high winds, but because of its plot potential! I’ll get to that shortly.
As I write this post, Emily is about to pummel Haiti, then move onto Guantanamo, Cuba, and the Bahamas before threatening Florida. I say “threatening Florida” because the storm track is uncertain. Every time the National Hurricane Center in Miami updates its forecast the track is a little different. Sometimes it’s closer to the coast, sometimes it’s farther away. It’s that uncertainty that makes the tension almost palpable. Veterans of past storms know that once Emily hits the warm open water past Cuba, all bets are off. Even if Emily never reaches hurricane status the amount of rain delivered by a slow moving tropical storm can sometimes be more costly than a faster moving, although stronger, Hurricane. Tropical Storm Fay in 2008 is testament to that, having delivered $560 million in damages over five states. Emily is also a slow mover.
We don’t expect Emily to visit Central Florida until Saturday, but the local news has been in severe weather mode since Monday. Twenty-four hours a day all week the mantra has been the same: severe weather, severe weather, severe weather, Emily, Emily, Emily, get ready, get ready, get ready. Over and over and over. It’s all we see on television, hear on the radio, and talk about at work and at home. It’s all about the storm and how it will impact our lives. It’s enough to drive you insane.
Insane during a violent, ravaging tropical storm, a flawless segue to the plot potential of the imminent storm.
An imminent storm can be a background, a character, or a major theme in your novel. If a storm is to be an important element, here are some characteristics you may want to consider.
Some characteristics of a major storm’s approach:
- Storm preparation. Are your characters ready for the storm or have they not prepared at all, possibly taken by surprise? What is the situation that placed them in the path of the storm?
- Growing expectations. How do the characters react to the storm coming? Does it inspire terror? Maybe one or more of your characters deny that the storm will even affect them. Are some of your characters simply resigned to their fates? What made your characters feel the way they do? Do their attitudes put them in conflict with other characters?
- Psychological tension. Do your characters have psychological issues that become more apparent as pre-storm tension increases? Does the situation create tension, perhaps even sociopathic urges (think Stephen King’s The Shining)? Are psychological tensions exacerbated by external influences like the local news storm’s a-coming mantra? What other factors might affect mental stability and make the situation even more stressful?
- Uncertainty. Will the storm hit or not? Will it be more powerful than expected or fizzle out? Can the experts be trusted? How does the uncertainty affect your characters?
Some characteristics of the storm’s impact:
- Physical danger. Are your characters in physical danger? Are they sheltering in a structure that is vulnerable to wind, rain, flooding, fire. How are they impacted? How do they react to the situation?
- The awful waiting. Some storms move slowly. How do your characters handle a storm that is either over quickly or seems to drag on forever? What happens if they run out of food and water?
- Claustrophobia. How would your characters deal with the feeling of being trapped, possibly in a relatively small space with or without lights? Would they be at each other’s throats or just deal with it?
- Isolation. If the storm takes out communication, how would your characters deal with it?
Some characteristics of the post-storm:
- Physical danger. Is the post-storm world safe? Are there live electrical lines down? Are there ruptured gas mains? Are there gangs of looters, rouge cops, zombies?
- Loss. How do your characters deal with death, the loss of valued property, and changes in values (societal and their own)? Do they break down, fight back, fall into denial, or just resign themselves to change?
- Rebuilding. In the wake of the storm do your characters establish a brave new world? Do they just give up? Do conflicting attitudes towards rebuilding cause tension among your characters?
- Lingering effects. Does the storm result in long term changes in your characters? Does it make them stronger or do they fall beneath the weight of its impact? Does it build or destroy relationships.
The storm may be an essential character in the story or simply a background element to frame the story within. Either way, the storm isn’t the story, your characters are. Their relationships, motivations, and actions are the story.
The motivation for this post was a literal storm, Tropical Storm Emily, but the storm and the characteristics I’ve described needn’t be literal. A classic example is Margret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind which begins with the coming storm of the Civil War and follows Scarlett and Rhett into post-storm (post-war). I’m sure you could think of any number of other novels could provide further examples.
The important thing is to determine what the catalyst is for action in the story, what the motivation is for the characters, and what the theme is that will tie everything together. Catalyst? Motivation? Theme? Those sound like the seeds of another post.
Here in Florida there is a storm coming, and if it does arrive I wonder how many stories will be lived out as we anxiously wait for it to pass. I’ll be thinking about that as I wait for the grey clouds to subside. Maybe there’s another novel in it, I don’t know. What I do know is that my granddaughter, Hannah, is hoping for a sunny day at DisneyWorld on Saturday. That’s the only story she’s interested in.
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