A good few years ago, an Australian dramaturg I know stated the obvious (dramaturgs are good at that, and, damn it, someone has to do it); love first, then disaster, he said with power and panache as if it were a profound elemental truth of the world in general. I’m going unpack what the statement means, and then I’m going to point out the obvious—we don’t use this piece of advice enough when we are writing.
My most recent mistake in not paying enough attention to this advice of “Love first. Then Disaster” was in the initial draft of my latest play Here We All Are. Assembled. It is an odd play, for sure, set in a strangely unremarked dystopian landscape—everyone involved just takes it as read that the world about is in ruins and there is nothing to be done about it— and featuring two rather appalling no-hopers. During the course of the play, one or both of them is bound to die after their outpost encampment is infiltrated by a ravenous creature. Ok, a strange play. But no matter how strange the story, the question must be asked why should the audience care if these two live or die?
After reading it, my friend asked this same question. Heads up; it is an important thing for your audience/readership/listener to care deeply about the fate of the characters. This is not news to you, I’m sure. But so often we assume the audience will care about our characters, simply because…because what? the character is human? The character looks pathetic? The characters are funny? nope. witty? uh-uh. good-looking? oh, please.
Your audience will only care about the fate of the main characters if they see the beauty or the depth of the relationship between the characters— and if they see the love and vulnerability of the main character.
If you’ve ever read the first Hunger Games novel or seen the first film, you will remember that Katniss Evergreen suffers disaster very early in the story; her beloved little sister, Primrose, is chosen to fight the Hunger Games. What happens next propels the whole story forward; Katniss volunteers to go to the hunger games in her sister’s place.
If the author had not given Katniss and Primrose a beginning relationship of love, demonstrated by the way in which Katniss feeds and protects her sister in a hostile environment of their hometown at the beginning of the novel, that moment of sacrifice when Katniss volunteers to take Primrose’s place would be so much less powerful, perhaps even unbelievable. The driving force of Katniss’ actions is her love of family. Show the love first to make the disaster matter more.
Say it again. Show the love first to make the disaster matter more.
So when my trusted friend pointed out that my two whacky characters in Here We All Are Assembled lacked demonstrated love in the first instance, I refuted—sure they do. Can’t you tell? But on closer inspection, you couldn’t tell. Foolishly, I had assumed my audience would assume the love between them simply because I had put them together on stage surrounded by danger. I went back and allowed the showing (hey, not telling) of their mutual love and vulnerability prior to the disaster of being invaded by a disruptive creature who spelt their doom.
The advice is solid. It applies to all manner of stories and perhaps your own. Without the audience understanding what precious things could be lost should disaster strike, they simply don’t invest emotionally when disaster does inevitably arrive.