Stop that screeching. The world is not ending. If this wasn’t an election year in the United States, COVID-19 would get about thirty seconds of media coverage a night, and that’d be it. And yet, here we are, with schools and businesses closing, flights from Europe suspended, and a large portion of the population running around with their hair on fire. And a shortage of toilet paper, of all things.
What is a writer to do?
Well, if you write your manuscripts longhand on TP, you’re screwed. But for the rest of us, this can be an interesting experience. I, personally, have never witnessed The End of the World! ™, or at least, not to this degree. But I write about catastrophes, and characters’ reactions to said catastrophes. I assume many of you do the same.
The main thing I’ve learned about panic is that people aren’t rational. Go figure. What I mean is, they panic about things unrelated to the real problem. See above about the shortages of toilet paper. Definitely something you want to have in the house if you’re stuck there for a fortnight, but you probably don’t need a year’s supply, unless this turns into a cholera outbreak.
But people have been on edge for a long time, and buying pallets of TP is a socially acceptable way to express those feelings. Without getting too political, Americans- and the rest of the world, to a somewhat lesser extent- have been increasingly wound up over the state of the world for the past decade, and it’s accelerated rapidly in the past four years. All that emotion has to go somewhere, and people are shoving it through the tiny gap of expression labeled ‘panic buying.’ Hey, at least it’s less destructive than shooting at each other, which is what I honestly thought was going to happen. Still might. Or people might channel it in a different direction, and the lampposts will have new decorations. Or it might all blow over in a month, and we’ll all be wondering what to do with our stockpiles of hand sanitizer.
Which is another point. Panics are inherently volatile. They rev up quickly and often disappear just as quickly as they began. The bottom falls out from under the panic market when people look around and go, “Wait; what am I doing? I just drove to five stores, looking for bleach, when I already have ten gallons at home. This is stupid.” Then they go back to their normal lives, some faster than others. Adrenaline doesn’t last forever, and when there’s no immediate reason to panic, because your friends and relatives aren’t sick or dying, people usually settle down. Their neighbors see them settling down, and do likewise.
Another interesting thing of note is that panic exists in small, dense pockets. If I didn’t have internet, and hadn’t gone to the grocery store only to find that all the shopping carts were in use at once, I might not know there was an apocalypse on. If I hadn’t seen empty store shelves and talked with friends who work in retail, I wouldn’t know that supplies were getting low. It’s quite possible to live, happily ignorant of panic, if you don’t know what’s happening (I already sort of knew this, after a tornado hit five miles north of my house about ten years back, and I just thought we were having a bad thunderstorm until my brother mentioned it had gone right past his workplace).
We’re so used to living in an interconnected world that it’s easy to forget: all that information comes through your eyes and ears. If you don’t see or hear it, it may as well have never happened. Even if it comes through the internet; you had to watch that video or read that article to know what’s going on, no matter how detached you feel from the actual situation.
This is important for continuity and realism in stories, especially if it’s pre-modern. You might have a gigantic battle in this valley, but unless the shepherd in the next valley hears the fighting or wonders why the vultures are circling and goes to investigate, he might never realize a bunch of dudes were killing each other.
Your characters are not omniscient (usually) and they don’t all know the same things. Poor communication, or simply talking past each other, is great for conflict. And if they’re in an intense situation, even simple information might not make it through the fog of adrenaline.
If you want to avoid this, to stop the story getting bogged down, make your characters train and practice for intense situations. Some people are naturally and culturally prone to hysteria, but anyone can be trained out of the tendency. Eventually. And with varying success.
But poor communication, fog of war, and the limited spread of panic make for excellent conflicts- the meat of the story. Use that to your advantage, dear writer.
Supply chains are fragile, unless you purposely make them robust. As I write this, the grocery store in my upper-middle class suburb has almost no milk on the shelves. Milk. The cows are still giving milk, and the drivers are still delivering it, but because everyone grabbed a second gallon, ‘just in case!’ there’s none left.
Most readers, even if they haven’t experienced The End of the World! see shortages as a sign of crisis. Add an empty shelf or a starving army into your story as shorthand for ‘things are going badly.’ How your characters react is up to you.
People and institutions reveal their true colors during a panic (impossible to keep this bit from getting political; keep it civil in the comments or I’ll hit you with my axe). Amid the governors and local politicians locking down their cities and closing businesses, there have been a few instances of deregulation, mostly related to medical testing and supply chains. And there are rumors, with some but not overwhelming evidence, that certain countries are getting rid of political dissidents and attributing those deaths to the Wu-Flu. A cynic might say that everyone in power- a.k.a. employed by their constituents- has been waiting for a crisis, so they can implement the agenda they want. Your fictional characters and institutions should do the same.
I’m able to see this panic from a slightly detached perspective, because of my work and home situations. If I had children, lived closer to my elderly grandparents, or was obliged to go out to work, I might see it differently. Either way, some of this is going into a story, because no one will believe it otherwise.
What weird things have you noticed about this particular catastrophe? Does it line up with other panics you’ve witnessed? How do you plan to incorporate the experience into your writing, if at all?