Monday, August 22, 2016

Warning Signs

In good fiction, foreshadowing natural disasters with warning signs is a great way to add a layer of realism to the story. Real natural disasters often have warning signs.

Pompeii in 2016
In many disaster movies, warning signs are often just ignored or covered up (often by uppity or greedy politicians) until the hero shows up to warn everyone. But that's always seemed like a stretch to me, and makes it hard to suspend disbelief: a more realistic approach is simply that either the signs are seen too late, or not understood.

Back in AD 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted over Pompeii, the people had no idea what a volcano was. There were many signs, a drawn-out horror of minor disasters stacking on top of each other and no one actually knowing what they meant. Earthquakes had rattled the land for nearly two decades before Vesuvius erupted. They were so common, as noted by Pliny the Younger, that they were considered not a cause for concern. And while many people did leave the area, others focused on constant rebuilding, or came to study the events.

Of course, among the other hallmarks of bad disaster movies are probably-doomed, adrenaline romances, and bad science so bad it has less chemistry than the forced romances. And let's be completely honest: I like bad disaster movies; their awfulness is part of the appeal.

But disasters show up in fiction from historical to fantasy, and good writers can foreshadow them in with warning signs. Even science fiction (and its often non-natural disasters) can warn readers of things to come. The trick is framing the events from the characters' points of view: "It happens all the time" might be a explanation of constant earthquakes, or perhaps rumors of distant giants could explain the shaking ground. An obelisk with ancient carvings, including some that are warnings, could be mistaken for artwork or an ancient war. Old high-water mark statues could be mistaken for ancient temples.

What fiction have you seen that makes use of disasters, and does it do foreshadow them well? Or does it stretch your suspension of disbelief a little too far?

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