In many stories (and even in real life), disaster strikes. Plans fall apart. People die. The Dark Lord triumphs. Kingdoms fall. Relationships are ruined. Cars break down. Your cooking doesn’t turn out right. You get yelled at by your boss. You get fired. Your savings run out. You fail a test.
Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. In literature, the reader’s usual response to crap hitting the fan for the hero(es) is usually “Welp, he/she is screwed.” But then the writer thinks of a way to make them not screwed, merely scratched or wounded, still ready to come back and fight in the next couple of chapters/novels.
No doubt you’ve made use of a few good disasters yourself. They happen to be very useful: instilling a sense of hopelessness or dread in your reader can cause suspense, especially when they had seen the disaster coming (Let me put it this way: there are two kinds of disaster. One is the amateur tightrope walker on a frayed line, and the line snaps; the other is the confident tightrope walker on a good line, which suddenly snaps. The difference between the two is that it seems obvious that it might happen in the first, but disaster strikes out of nowhere in the second. The first one draws more suspense than the second because the buildup is higher and more sophisticated.)
But I’m not here to talk about disaster, because I’m pretty sure I already addressed that at one point (be sure to check out the Archives if you want to read more!). I’m here to speak of its delightful counterpart: eucatastrophe.
For my word nerds out there, the prefix “eu” on “eucatastrophe” comes from the Greek, meaning “good”, so “eucatastrophe” could be translated as “good catastrophe” or “catastrophe in reverse”. This makes sense as the word was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien (better known as the author of Lord of the Rings and patron saint of word nerds).
But as a literary technique, what does “eucatastrophe” mean? The general sense of it is an unexpected and dramatic shift in events that ensures the survival or even victory of the main character(s), much like the way a catastrophe works but for villains. Something that, against all odds, works to the advantage of the good guys.
This can be the sudden reappearance of an old champion, the fulfillment of a prophecy, timely reinforcements, a malfunction in the villain’s time bomb, or even something as small as a slip of the antagonist’s speech or blade. Anyone or anything that spells D-O-O-M for the bad guys (usually at the tip of the climax) and shows up unexpectedly could be branded as a eucatastrophe.
Most people like to use a popular scene from Tolkien’s novel as an example, so I’ll repeat it and add one of my own: when Gollum steals the Ring from Frodo, he accidentally signs the Dark Lord’s death warrant as he accidentally plunges into the fiery depths of Mount Doom only moments later, taking the One Ring with him and inadvertently destroying it. As soon as the Ring is safe in Gollum’s hand, the victory of the heroes is complete (however, we don’t know it at the time, which is an excellent turn-of-events technique by Tolkien: staging a eucatastrophe and then revealing it to be so at the last minute).
Another example from popular film: in the final film of the series in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (the sequels do not exist as far as I’m concerned), Luke Skywalker is saved by Darth Vader’s repentance and betrayal of Emperor Palpatine, and in doing so saves the Rebel Alliance by killing the Emperor. This twist is one that watchers could have seen coming, but is still “twisty” enough to be thrilling and exciting.
Some people criticize eucatastrophe as being a form of Deus Ex Machina. In truth, they are only similar in that they resolve the plot: eucatastrophes, in order to work, must have good setup (Gollum was tracking Frodo and Sam before they reached the summit of Mount Doom, and Luke continuously insisted that Vader had the capacity for repentance). Otherwise, they fall into the same traps that other plot resolutions do, but a eucatastrophe is not poor storytelling in and of itself.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!