Episode 86: Epidemic, Pandemic, Outbreak – disease & disaster in literature

On March 14th Kasie and Rex decided to talk pandemic. As in literary representations of panic and disease. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Epidemic, Pandemic, Outbreak: Disease in Literature


  • Disease as a device
  • Books that have used epidemics
  • How to add one to your novel
woman holding face mask
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

From Wikipedia: “Diseases, real and fictional, play a significant role in fiction…”

Is it significant? Why or why not?

What are the ways disease is used? 

  • As the background of a story — something that creates specific conditions, sets a story in a certain era, or shapes a society’s values (like how it treats the poor)
  • As the explanation for specific behaviors — obsessive handwashing, quarantines, families separated, death on a mass scale, 
  • As the exposition for relationships — how characters are made orphans, widows, and widowers; how aunts and uncles or distant relatives become caregivers
  • As the “hand of God” — a symbol of something like fate that we cannot really escape, a not-so-hidden threat that raises the stakes
  • As a moral lesson teacher — people suffer because they’re sinful, people learn to care for one another because of these terrible circumstances beyond their control
  • As a plot device — it can force people together, can force decisions and examination of one’s own moral 

What other ways can we think of?

Segment 2

How about some examples?

  • The Stand – is a postapocalyptic horror/fantasy novel by American author Stephen King. It expands upon the scenario of his earlier short story “Night Surf“, and presents a detailed vision of the total breakdown of society after the accidental release of a strain of influenza that had been modified for biological warfare causes an apocalyptic pandemic, killing off over 99% of the world’s population. Published in 1978, The Stand was King’s fourth novel, and remains (in its “Complete & Uncut” edition) the longest stand-alone novel King has published.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera  In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs–yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.
  • A Journal of the Plague Year is a novel by Daniel Defoe, first published in March 1722. This novel is an account of one man’s experiences of the year 1665, in which the Great Plague or the bubonic plague struck the city of London. The book is told somewhat chronologically, though without sections or chapter headings. Presented as an eyewitness account of the events at the time, it was written in the years just prior to the book’s first publication in March 1722. Defoe was only five years old in 1665, and the book itself was published under the initials H. F. and is probably based on the journals of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe. In the book, Defoe goes to great pains to achieve an effect of verisimilitude, identifying specific neighborhoods, streets, and even houses in which events took place. Additionally, it provides tables of casualty figures and discusses the credibility of various accounts and anecdotes received by the narrator.
  • The Andromeda Strain, originally published in 1969 with latest editions as recent as 2012, is a techno-thriller novel by Michael Crichton documenting the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism in Arizona in 1969.   
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) — Almost twenty years after humanity’s population is nearly wiped out by a global plague, a small Shakespearean troupe travels through a desolate landscape, united by the motto, “Survival is insufficient.” I’ll be honest: I have some issues with the epidemiology here. (Any virus that killed as quickly as the one she describes wouldn’t be able to spread worldwide; as anyone who’s played Plague, Inc. knows, viruses need hosts to remain ambulatory and contagious for a good long while if you want to wipe out civilization.) But the mechanics of the fictional disease are so beside the point. The excellence of Station Eleven lies in its vision of the world after the plague—the ways in which society, culture and art change in order to endure.
  • The Survivors by Adam Frankel (2019) — A community of survivors struggle to stay alive in the wake of a global pandemic known as the Death that wiped out 99.98% of humanity.

Literally a list on Goodreads called “Post Apocalyptic Disease Books” so if that’s your jam, check it out.

Segment 3

Similar devices — what works like disease to change a plot? Create orphans? 

  • War
  • Famine
  • Earthquakes, storms, floods, or other natural disasters
  • 9/11 or terrorist attacks on a grand scale
  • Apocalypse — think The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • Car accident — or train, plane, or other devastating malfunction of machinery

In the same way that weddings and funerals bring together a crowd of people for a united purpose, terrible tragedies and disruptions of daily life can also make strange allies. The desperation of tragedy can make either heroes or enemies of people pretty quickly.

Can you begin with a disaster? Start off with a tragedy? 

This blog says yes and suggests there’s a three-act structure to it:

  • 25% — after we care about the characters but are ready to test them
  • 50% — once we’ve taken sides and the stakes are raised
  • 75% — when the main character is to a breaking point and we’re ready for the climax

Build these with escalating severity. Each should mark a psychological turning point for the protagonist. 

So how do you create a disaster? This blog offers these tips:

  1. Understand how each plot point is different — and escalating
  2. Empathize with the character as shit gets real — and remember the character doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, so his/her coping skills are only as good as you allow them to be
  3. Let your character get to a “lost” moment — things should feel hopeless, not for you, but for the protagonist
  4. Let each disaster touch each character — everyone has different things at stake, make sure to re-center the disaster on each person affected
  5. Let the antagonist use the disaster like a weapon — take advantage of the vulnerability of others, even if it’s only to press one’s advantage (become a bossier boss), or subvert someone’s authority, let the antagonist seize the opportunity to show just how bad he is
  6. Force the choice — protagonist can no longer avoid conflict or hope this blows over because disaster

Segment 4

News from the writerverse — all the work we’ve done for the SCWA Spring Conference has come to an end, it’s been canceled. 

And SCWA member Arthur Turfa is having a book event at The Coffee Shelf in Chapin this morning, 10 a.m. So go out there and support the release of his newest title, Saluda Reflections.

My bestie Jonathan Haupt had a birthday this week and he only asked for donations to support his beloved Pat Conroy Literary Center. So donate here and tell Jonathan how much we adore him and appreciate the work he’s doing in S.C.

AND — we’re on YouTube. What? Yep. Check out the recordings of our show on our very own YouTube channel. And who knows? The behind-the-scenes and outtakes may show up there, too. And just for fun, here’s our competition.

Ready to support Write On SC? Go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSCto become a patron!

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