Today’s guest post is by writing coach, workshop instructor, and author C. S. Lakin (@cslakin).
Writers are sometimes told not to write about weather. It’s boring, right? An unimportant element that adds nothing useful to a story. Dry details. Who wants to read about a dark and stormy night? No wonder Snoopy never got past typing that first line of his great magnum opus.
But weather affects us every moment of every day and night. We make decisions for how we will spend our day, even our life, based on weather. And weather greatly affects our mood, whether we notice or not.
Since we want our characters to act and react believably, they should also be affected by weather. Sure, at times they aren’t going to notice it. But there are plenty of opportunities to have characters interact with weather in ways that can be purposeful and powerful in your story.
Ways to use weather effectively
Weather can be used to convey moods in fiction because we tend to associate specific feelings with certain kinds of weather. Rainy days to many are gloomy. Sunshine makes us feel happy.
But characters in our fiction—just like you and me—might react to weather much differently than expected due to the mood they’re in. I love the fog and rain and cold of autumn—especially after a scorching hot summer. But someone with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) might find such weather depressing.
Weather is often used metaphorically and as motif in fiction. In my novel Someone to Blame, Matt is fighting his grief over the loss of his two sons. In this moment, the weather is used to show his unclarity about his life:
Matt brushed the remnants of broken glass off the passenger seat and got into his truck. Fog enveloped him as he left the parking lot, erased his surroundings. He leaned forward to find the road through his windshield. Gravel turned to asphalt; houses drifted by like ghosts.
As he drove back to town he searched his feelings, tried to assess whether he was upset, angry, or what. It wasn’t the lack of feeling that set him on edge as much as the realization that he didn’t care. His life had fallen into patterns of routine, of requisite conversation. Of measured responses and expected behaviors. He knew his heart was numb, all the nerve endings severed. He was sleepwalking through a different kind of fog. Somehow he couldn’t see a way to connect the dots of his life.
Note how weather is used strategically to both enhance and mirror Matt’s mood and feelings in that moment. The weather gets him thinking deeply about his life by the imagery used sparked by the weather.
Here is a passage from Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel The Shadow of the Wind, which brings mood and weather into play:
That Sunday, clouds spilled down from the sky and swamped the streets with a hot mist that made the thermometers on the walls perspire. Halfway through the afternoon, the temperature was already grazing the nineties as I set off towards Calle Canuda for my appointment with Barceló, carrying the book under my arm and with beads of sweat on my forehead. … A grand stone staircase led up from a palatial courtyard to a ghostly network of passageways and reading rooms. … I glided up to the first floor, blessing the blades of a fan that swirled above the sleepy readers melting like ice cubes over their books.
Zafón’s passage combines the elements of the weather with bits of physical description, setting a mood for the locale that affects what his character notices. He’s keenly aware of the heat, and though he never thinks Boy, it’s hot, we sense his discomfort by the beads of sweat, the appreciation for the swirling fan, and his observation of the “melting readers”—a strong and fresh image that sums up the impact of the weather.
Here’s another passage from the same book, again showing how the weather description helps set the mood of the character. I’ll put in boldface the masterful words used to paint a mood picture:
A reef of clouds and lightning raced across the skies from the sea. … My hands were shaking, and my mind wasn’t far behind. I looked up and saw the storm spilling like rivers of blackened blood from the clouds, blotting out the moon and covering the roofs of the city in darkness. I tried to speed up, but I was consumed with fear and walked with leaden feet, chased by the rain. I took refuge under the canopy of a newspaper kiosk, trying to collect my thoughts and decide what to do next. A clap of thunder roared close by, and I felt the ground shake under my feet. …
On the flooding pavements the streetlamps blinked, then went out like candles snuffed by the wind. There wasn’t a soul to be seen in the streets, and the darkness of the blackout spread with a fetid smell that rose from the sewers. The night became opaque, impenetrable, as the rain folded the city in its shroud.
Using strong verbs and adjectives will help you craft setting descriptions that are masterful. Every word counts. To borrow unfaithfully from Animal Farm: All words are created equal, but some words are more equal than others. Some words are plain boring, and others take our breath away.
And, of course, it’s not just the words but how they are used—a paintbrush in the hands of a master will create something quite different from the same brush in the hands of a toddler.
Throwing words and imagery around in a random, thoughtless way may present a tableau that resembles a Jackson Pollack modern art piece. It may be colorful but there’s no identifiable picture that emerges, no matter how long you stare at it. We don’t want readers scratching their heads trying to figure out what the mood of the scene is meant to convey.
Let’s take a look at a passage from James Lee Burke’s Bitteroot:
Early the next morning the air was unseasonably cold and a milk-white fog blew off the river and hung as thick as wet cotton on the two-acre tank behind my barn. As I walked along the levee I could hear bass flopping out in the fog. I stood in the weeds and cast a Rapala between two flooded willow trees, heard it hit the water, then began retrieving it toward me. The sun looking like a glowing red spark behind the gray silhouette of the barn.
Rain was moving out of the south, dimming the fields in the distance, clicking now on the asphalt county road at the foot of his property. … The air was dense and cool, like air from a cave, and the pine trees shook in the wind and scattered pine needles across the top of Kyle’s trailer.
A bolt of lightning crashed in a field across the road and illuminated the trees, burning all the shadows from the clearing, and Kyle saw the tinkling sound was only the wind playing tricks on him. A solitary drop of water struck his head, hard, like a marble, and he finished gathering the arrow shafts from the hay bale.
The weather in Burke’s novels is tactile, personal, evident, front and center. And this isn’t because the novels I’ve read of his are set in Montana, which is all about “big sky” and nature. Burke describes interiors just as deliciously as he describes exteriors.
Look at how Burke relied predominantly on visuals. But those bits of sound added the perfect texture to those sights. Bass flopping and rain clicking and tinkling (can you hear those?) and lightning crashing. The shift in focus to a single drop of water hitting his head hard, like a marble, makes the weather personal and tactile.
This is all about caring. Caring that every sentence uses the best words in a concise and specific way. You don’t need a lot of words to describe setting in a powerful way. Remember: mood has to reflect and inform the character in that moment of time.
Don’t discount the power of weather in your settings. Make weather an important element in your characters’ lives, just as it is in your life. And spend time choosing just the right words and imagery to reflect and inform your character’s mood. Your writing will soar to new heights when you do.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, check out C. S. Lakin’s new online course on how to craft powerful settings. Enroll before October 24 and get 30% off with coupon code EARLYBIRD.
C. S. Lakin is an award-winning author, blogger, copyeditor, and writing coach. She has taught thousands of writers how to improve their craft through her blog, Live Write Thrive, and her online school. She is the author of the Writer’s Toolbox series of books on novel writing and does more than two hundred manuscript critiques a year.