How to Write a Disaster Movie Screenplay

With San Andreas opening today, there probably hasn’t been a better time to release a movie about California splitting apart than when the state is experiencing a massive drought. And even though it’s not completely predicated on actual science, the timing of its release might make it more appealing to moviegoers who keep up with the news.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes happen all the time all over the world, so disasters movies can be considered as “in season,” year round. Movies like Twister, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and Noah all have stunning visuals of the Earth seemingly trying to destroy itself, or mankind, and audiences love filling theaters to see them.

When writing your own disaster movie, keep these tips in mind.

Establish the Characters & Their Story World

A disaster movie is mainly about the characters we’ll see as the movie unfolds (explosions and all). Since it would be too large and ineffective a task to show masses coping with a natural disaster, writers stick with a small cast of characters to exhibit. In 1998’s Armageddon, we meet NASA scientists and the group of American deep-sea oil drillers they call on to destroy a giant asteroid that’s threatening the Earth. Early on, the audience is introduced to cities around the world that are in peril as meteors rain down on them, NASA personnel, oil driller Harry Stamper, his oil-drilling crew, and his daughter, as the main characters.

Once the story world is set and the stakes have been established, the movie can progress with the characters doing whatever is necessary to pursue their desires. The fate of the world and, more importantly, our characters’ fates rest in their own hands as they battle the elements for survival. In your disaster movie screenplay, start strong by introducing the disaster and the characters that will weather it in interesting ways.

Show Us The Plan & Have It Fail

In Noah, the plan is to weather the storm and remain safe in a giant wooden ark. In several disaster films, the plan the characters try to execute is survival. In Armageddon, the plan is to survive by fighting back against the natural disaster adversary, which is the giant asteroid that’s accompanied by tinier meteors. When writing your disaster movie screenplay, be sure to have the main characters express their plan for dealing with the natural disaster. In Armageddon, NASA scientists come up with the plan and Stamper and his crew attempt to carry it out.

But what would a screenplay be without a little conflict? There is personal conflict between Stamper, his daughter Grace, and A.J. who is a part of Stamper’s crew and is Grace’s boyfriend. There is also the more pressing matter of the drilling plan falling apart while meteors continue to hit the Earth. Having the main characters experience failures raises the stakes and makes the audience less sure that everything will be OK in the end. Grip your audience with unpredictable turns that make the plot interesting and keep your main characters in a constant struggle for success.

Show Some Successful Heroics

In Armageddon, some of the drillers face a life-and-death situation on the Russian space station Mir when a fire breaks out during refueling. The crewmembers involved, including a Russian astronaut Lev, make a daring escape and live to help save the world. Showing your characters survive in your disaster screenplay rewards the characters for braving the constant danger and rewards the audience as they care more and more about your characters.

In the end, members of Stamper’s crew sacrifice themselves so that the rest can escape and go back to Earth when the asteroid is split in two. When writing your screenplay where lives hang in the balance as a giant force of nature threatens to destroy everything, show your characters be heroic in the face of danger as they save the other characters that you’ve presented to the audience as beings to care about. Speaking of which…

Emphasize The Humanity Over the Chaos

Disaster movies are less about large-scale CGI disasters and grisly deaths than they are about people coming together and how they survive those disasters. If you present realistic of depictions of characters who are imperfect but invested in each other and the complicated relationships they share as the world falls apart around them, the audience will become invested in them and will want to see how their stories play out.

Creating compelling characters and giving them believable temperaments amidst natural chaos will catch the audiences’ attention and hook them for all of your screenplay’s pages. When your characters cheer, so will the audience. And when they cry, audience members had better have their tissues ready. Even though you’ll be writing a disaster screenplay, there will be nothing disastrous about that.