COVID and Creative Writing: Pandemics and Disease in Fiction, Plays, and Screenplays

We’re living in the time of Covid, of pandemic, but should you write a novel, play, or screenplay about your experiences of the pandemic, or provide your audience with a piece of escapism, to give them a break from the world of disease? 

First of all, it’s important to understand that disease has played a central role in many different genres of story from the earliest times.

Below we discuss the history of pandemic literature, what function disease plays in story, and offer some thoughts about whether you should write stories based on your experience of Covid. 

Examples of Stories that Feature Pandemics and Disease

Writers have been depicting disease in stories from the very beginning. Homer’s Iliad begins with a plague that has been sent by the Gods to punish the Greeks for enslaving a woman named Chryseis.

Religious stories also often feature plagues as punishments too.

In the modern world we have developed a scientific method that helps us to understand and treat disease, but up until very recently (antibiotics became widely available in the 1930s) the cause of disease was terrifyingly unknown. The smallest cut could get infected and morph into a death sentence.

This is perhaps why disease does not feature in our creative imaginations to quite the same extent as it once did. Although when a new disease arises like the AIDS epidemic texts such as Angels in America blend in religious themes to recapture that absolute dread that lurks at the heart of life threatening disease. 

Black Death: Bubonic Plague

In the middle ages (1353) Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (which is a fun read!) tells the story of ten people who escape plague in their hometown of Florence.

This is thought to have influenced Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which is the influential 14th Century tale of individuals undertaking a pilgrimage across Europe during a time of disease.

Daniel Defoe wrote a gripping fictional account of the Black Death in England called ‘A Journal of the Plague Year.’ It was written in 1722 but depicts events in 1665. I’d highly recommend reading everything possible by Defoe. I think his energetic and charming prose style has been hugely influential on contemporary literature (and I think many people agree – he wrote Robinson Crusoe!).

Cholera and Tuberculosis in Creative Writing

Camus’ work The Plague is thought to have been influenced by outbreaks of Cholera in the 19th Century – and is a great example of how disease can be mobilised to generate reflections and commentary on philosophical themes.

Tuberculosis has been present since ancient times, and was still the number one cause of death by infectious disease (1.5 million) in 2018 if you can believe that.

It’s killed A LOT of writers, and therefore pops up in fiction as you would expect … the poet John Keats was killed by TB at the age of 25 (if you can believe it) and had this message placed on his tombstone “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” I quote that to people all the time.

Check out this list of writers affected by TB as a starting point 

Fictional Disease in Creative Writing

If none of the available diseases get your creative juices flowing, just make up your own!

Remember that vampirism and werewolfism are technically diseases too, passed on via biting.

Many science fiction stories feature diseases that are yet to exist. And remember you can also make up maladies that arise as a result of emergencies, like the way John Wyndham has everyone in his tale lose their sight from the blinding light of a meteorite in Day of the Triffids.

He also explores the impacts of disease in The Chrysalids by showing us how communities try to understand and organise themselves around genetic mutation in a world destroyed by nuclear war. 

The Role of Pandemic and Disease in Story Telling

Raises Tension: First of all, tension in a story should generally go up. Diseases in fiction tend to get worse as the plague spreads, or as the effect of the disease intensifies in the body of the affected party. Therefore there is an inherent tension raising quality to disease which lends itself to story tellers! 

Provides Obstacles: After your inciting incident, your story will mostly be composed of your protagonist overcoming obstacles on the way towards their super objective. Disease is endlessly generative of obstacles. For instance, perhaps food has to be found because global food supplies have been disrupted by disease. 

Creates Horror: Horror or a feeling of mild horror is present in many / most good tales. Letter Review recommends you check out Edmund Burke’s ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’. In this he argues that dark pleasures arise from things that give us terror, and that these pleasures are much more intense and enjoyable than pleasures that come from beauty. It’s worth considering!  

Creates the Opportunity for Heroism: Heros are people that sacrifice themselves to help others, right? People who put the needs of others before their own. Disease and plague provides the perfect opportunity for protagonists to demonstrate this heroic quality, and save the day!   

Philosophical and Thematic Exploration: Disease and pandemics can be mobilised to help you make effective social commentary and philosophical points in your fiction.

Take for instance the debate around ‘individualism versus society.’ In a pandemic the ability of the individual to function independently is compromised, as the state must work to contain the disease (for example the lockdowns during Covid).

Times of disease are a good opportunity to question the role of the state in the life of the individual, and an individual’s rights and responsibilities in relation to the state. 

Divine / Supernatural Punishment: Consider disease as a representation of divine punishment. Humans have long believed that if they live a good life they will be rewarded, and if they live a bad life they will be punished. How can you utilise disease to comment on this pattern of thought?  

Escapism or Realism in the Time of Pandemic? 

Do audiences / readers want disease in their entertainment during pandemic times, or do they want to escape? It’s said that during economic depressions that alcohol sales and sales of tickets to musicals go up! Is this because people love escapism in their entertainment? Is it because they want to get away from their own troubles for a short while? 

Arguments can be made in both directions. Letter Review believes that Covid will remain the subject of highly successful creative writing projects, so why shouldn’t you be the one who authors such stories? 

Final Thoughts, Should you Write about Covid? 

Letter Review thinks that if you want to write about Covid, you should!

Disease has always been a very popular element of story telling, and you have lived through an experience that is worth documenting.

Remember you don’t have to convey the overall global experience of the pandemic, your own private experience of isolation (or not) and fear will be enough.

And remember you can draw on your experiences to create a new fictional disease!

Or just draw on the emotional experiences to enrich tales completely unrelated to disease altogether.