5 reasons to include weather in storytelling
Here in England we’ve had a pretty dynamic week – and I’m not talking about Brexit. With almost fifty percent of voters wanting to remain but the exit voters winning, I’m now living in a country divided by political opinion. It’s impossible to open my mouth and say anything without the other person having an opposing reaction to the referendum result, so it’s wiser, much wiser, for me to keep my thoughts to myself. Hence, I’m going to talk about the other British obsession, the weather.
In the past fortnight we’ve had rain, rain and more rain. We’ve had floods, train stoppages due to excess water on the tracks, and trees uprooted by storms and high winds. This is summer in England, a time of changeable weather. For me to sit down and write a story taking place at this time of year without including some mention of rain would be laughable, unless I’m basing it in 1976, one of the hottest, driest summer’s on record. But the Met Office weather forecast isn’t the only thing that’s promoted me to write about rain.It was dawn, they were on a beach, and the only description he’d offered was, ‘It was cold.’
At my writers’ group this week a member read out an exciting chapter from his novel, and my only comment during feedback was, ‘What was the weather like?’ In his story, a WWII thriller, his two main characters were landed by submarine on the Scottish coast. It was dawn, they were on a beach, and the only description he’d offered was, ‘It was cold.’ In all honesty, that one word didn’t cut it for me. What I wanted to see was the blush of dawn on the horizon, or the watery sun hidden behind threatening grey clouds.
You don’t need to give a full weather report
If it was cold, then I needed to know how cold. A simple sentence such as, “John, pulled his collar up against the chill wind whipping round his neck,” is enough to let me know that there’s a biting wind, and the rest I can fill in with my imagination.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re story is taking place in England, Africa or planet Zod, the reader still needs some idea of the ambient temperature, likelihood of precipitation and available light. This will immediately suggest to your reader how your characters might be dressed, plus it gives you an opportunity to create additional tension and drama.
Here are 5 good reasons to include the weather.
1) Make the weather a central feature of your story
If your story is entirely based around apocalyptic events, then the weather will play a central role.
The film The Day After Tomorrow starring Dennis Quaid is a disaster movie focusing on global cooling. When the sudden ice-age sweeps in, the central family we’re involved with are already in different locations, which adds a substantial storyline and emotional connection with the audience. Without the human drama the viewer would be left with nothing but ice and snow blizzards, so although the weather makes the movie, it’s also a device for the viewer to explore family relationships.
Many famous historic battles were severely affected by the weather, which, many historians say, changed the outcome. Before the Battle of Agincourt it had been raining continuously for two weeks and the recently ploughed land, on which the battle took place, was a sea of thick mud.
After the Battle of Trafalgar British ships returning home were caught in some of the worst storms at sea ever recorded. Men who had survived war lost their lives to the greater force of nature. They also lost their bounty ships, part of their expected financial reward, and thus ended up dying paupers.
If we use these plot-lines in fiction, many of our readers might view them as wild plot-devices and we’d risk losing credibility. However, if our entire story revolved around one sailor desperately trying to reach home after the Battle of Trafalgar to be with his wife and children, then we could be onto a winner.
Here we can use dynamic interaction between the characters and the weather, such as people pitting themselves against the elements.
2) Using weather to enhance seasonal themes
This may sound obvious, but in winter the reader is anticipating snow, frost or rain, while in summer they’re expecting sunshine – unless all the action takes place in England.
For example, if our character, Fred, starts a new job in autumn, he would drive to work amidst falling leaves. The tumbling orange and yellow leaves can be creatively described to echo his mood. If they’re splatting on the car windscreen and marring his vision, he might grow anxious at being late for his new job because he’s driving so slowly. If they’re falling like bright jewels in the morning sunshine, then Fred might imbue them with symbolic meaning and believe they’re a positive omen for his new job.
Neither of the above examples need to be lengthy descriptions within your story, they’re merely incidentals that offer a sense of time.
Believe it or not, but I have read several Christmas themed stories in which the heroine has bundled up in Wellington boots, a scarf and a woolly hat, only to step outside her front door and not encounter any weather description that warranted such heavy clothing. Yes, I know it’s Christmas, yes, I know it’s winter, but a little wind on her cheeks wouldn’t have gone amiss.
I’ve also read the opposite in which the heroine washed her incredibly long hair and within five minutes stepped out into a bitingly cold night to attend a Christmas party. I’d love to know which hairdryer she used!
3) Using the weather to add atmosphere
A sprinkling of weather can add a huge amount of atmosphere. It doesn’t always have to be overly dramatic prose, the type in which the heroine gasps as she sees the hero looming out of the mist and thinks he’s a hunk.
For example, on a sunny day you can have your hero, Dave, choose to drink his coffee at an outside table rather than staying in the café. It also adds a little to his character description.
If two friends are taking a boat down the river on the same sunny day, the reader wants to be able to feel the warmth on their cheeks and smell the water. Let us see the clear blue skies and hear the buzz of insects along the river bank.
4) Using weather to create a sense of place
Every location has its own unique weather. If we’re shown clouds on mountain tops, then we need to know whether it only ever rains up there, or if it ever comes down to the valley. When a character enters a new landscape the weather can help describe the change of place. So, if John lives at the bottom of the mountain and ventures to climb it, describing the damp mist as he climbs ever higher, enhances our understanding of the location.
If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction then world-building is incredibly important. You’re inviting the reader to step into a completely different landscape, and this unknown environment needs to be credible, otherwise you’ll lose your reader’s belief in your world.
Planet Zod may be cold, but how cold is it?
‘Maisie curled her fingers up to warm them, wishing she’d worn the thermal gloves Pete had advised her to wear on Zod. From a distance the planet’s orange surface had appeared warm and inviting, but as soon as she’s stepped off the landing craft an icy blast of wind had swept dust into her eyes. This was going to be one hell of a journey.’
In this short example I’ve not only let you know that the planet is cold, but also given an initial clue as to what the terrain is like by using the word ‘dust’. Not once did I use the word ‘cold’.
5) Using weather to show your character’s emotion
If we go back to example 3) and our character Dave who’s drinking coffee outside in the fresh air on a sunny day, we can assume that he’s reasonably happy. If he’s feeling unhappy then we can have stay inside, and hide away from the sun. We don’t need to say, ‘Dave was depressed’; the fact that he’s chosen the back of the café away from a window is enough to tell the reader that he’s troubled – BUT, only if we’ve already mentioned what a lovely day it is outside.
We can have happy people walking in the rain, and unhappy people walking in the rain. How your character interacts with the weather develops characterisation and subtly lets the reader know more about how they tick. Happy Man doesn’t care that it’s started to rain, but Unhappy Man swears under his breath and is stroppy with the next person he talks to. We don’t need to say that he’s in a bad mood, we show it by his reaction to the rain.
There are so many ways that we can enhance mood and theme by simply adding a sprinkling of snow or sunshine. The trick is not to overdo it with swathes of purple prose, but to artfully weave it into the context of our story. So next time, don’t tell me it’s cold, let me feel the bite of the wind on their cheeks.
What are the best, or worst, weather descriptions you’ve ever read? Write a comment and let me know.