These may be the dog days of summer, hot, humid and seemingly never-ending. But weather is treacherous—and can change in a minute.
The bright skies of a summer morning can erupt in an afternoon thunderstorm. Rains can flood over the banks of a river, endangering homes and lives, in a matter of moments. In winter, a snowstorm can turn roads icy, putting drivers in peril.
With all that weather does and can do, are you using it effectively in your novels? If not, consider these three ways you can use weather in your book:
You don’t want to be trite or use clichés when writing about setting (how many times have we heard about rain lashing down?), but you do want to at least establish a sense of the weather. This is, after all, not an insignificant part of our lives. I once taught a news literacy college class in which the students had to maintain a news blackout for an entire week – and that included social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Yes, it was torturous for them on many levels! But one thing that many of them mentioned, semester after semester, was being caught in rain without an umbrella, because they didn’t know it would rain that day. Or not wearing a jacket on those fall mornings that had unexpectedly turned chilly. Hopefully, your characters will be more clued in to the weather (or maybe they won’t, which could be even more interesting).
And the old advice of not opening a story with weather? Ditch that. If it’s good enough—and done right—it can immediately establish a sense of place, as J.K. Rowling did in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”: “The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were once emerald green lay parched and yellowing; the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-moving pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown wide in the hope of tempting in a nonexistent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flower bed outside number four.”
Right away, Rowling puts you in the middle of a suburban, bland neighborhood—and immediately sets her protagonist, Harry Potter, apart from the other residents.
Beyond just establishing a place, weather can add other layers to your story.
2) Reflect or affect the character’s emotions, or even show a character’s mettle.
Award-winning author Jenny Milchman has made weather a major force in her books, “Cover of Snow” and “Ruin Falls.”
The first one is set in the small upstate New York town of Wedeskyull during a fierce, bone-piercing winter. In an interview I conducted, Milchman said the protagonist’s story “was so intense that she needed to be in weather that presented almost as much of a force opposing her as the town.”
With inches of snow on the ground, her protagonist Nora must step carefully—literally as well as figuratively. Even in the very first lines of “Cover of Snow,” Milchman uses weather to bring an ominous tone: “My husband wasn’t in bed with me when I woke up that January morning. The mid-winter sky was bruised purple and yellow outside the window. I shut bleary eyes against light that glared and pounded.”
The weather, inches and inches of snow, serves as a deterrent as Nora tries to uncover secrets in a small town that has seemingly closed ranks against her.
In her second book, “Ruin Falls,” the story is set during an oppressive heat wave. Said Milchman, “I felt like Liz was so bogged down by her own passivity and marriage to this man [her husband], that the heat kind of saturated her in the same way. It was like a blanket she couldn’t get out from under, and it starts cooling down in Wedeskyull as she begins learning to fight for herself and her children.”
Not surprisingly, the climax of the story happens during a rainstorm, in a wooded area. The protagonist must again battle the elements as she faces the bad guys.
“All of us have been in a situation where we have been out of control, and tried to regain it,” another author, James M. Jackson, said during a panel discussion on writing and weather. “Weather can do that. A stroll in the woods can become a struggle…It’s interesting to see when a character is under stress, and severe weather can provide stress.”
3) A plot point, or almost as a character itself
In Nancy Pickard’s “The Scent of Rain and Lightning,” the author uses weather to both foreshadow and obscure what is happening to the characters. The story concerns a murder and the disappearance of the murdered man’s wife; right before that happens, however, there’s a torrential rainstorm that closes local roads and isolates family members.
Pickard ratchets up the tension beforehand and adds foreshadowing: “ ‘Get a move on,’ Hugh Senior ordered himself, with another glance at the storm that looked like a dark gray wall moving toward him. He saw telltale vertical streaks of rain in the distance, heard rumbles of thunder, saw flashes of lightning still a few miles away. The rain they’d had earlier was only a preamble. Now the real thing was coming, and it looked as if it meant business.”
This torrential rainstorm come and goes in a night. During that night, like lightning that briefly illuminates a dark sky, we get glimpses of what each pivotal character is doing. But we never get the full story—not at that point. The weather helps drives the plot and, without that massive storm, the story would have been a very different one.
Weather is a great way to inflict conflict and tension into your story. Will a boat make it back to land when rough seas suddenly hit? Will the car driving on a slick highway in rain make that curve coming up in the road? As fog rolls in, will the woman spot the man lurking in the shadows?
Weather, and other forces of nature, can be the catalyst for a story. Look at real-life stories around us: hikers stranded on mountains because of an avalanche, victims of hurricanes or tornadoes who lose their homes, and even the sinking of the Titanic. Any of these can, and have been, the center of novels and movies.
Next time you need to inject something extra into your story, just look to the sky.
Lourdes Venard is the founder of Comma Sense Editing and a newspaper editor with more than 29 years of experience writing and editing at major newspapers, including The Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Newsday. Her freelance editing includes crime fiction, science fiction, YA, memoirs, general fiction, and nonfiction; several of the books she has edited have been picked up by notable small presses.
She has spoken at national conferences about editing and has run training sessions for young journalists. Currently, she teaches a course for the University of California, San Diego’s respected copyediting certification program.
She is a member of the American Copy Editors Society, Editorial Freelancers Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Sisters in Crime. She is currently writing her own book, a guide for new authors.