Tips for Writers—How to Use Weather to Enhance a Story

blizzardHere on the east coast, Winter Storm Stella poured over a foot of snow onto my town yesterday. We had impassable roads, blizzard conditions, accumulating ice, and intense winds. The governor declared a state of emergency, so most businesses closed, kids stayed home from school, the only vehicles on the roads were snowplows and the occasional adventurer, and the snow fell for most of the day in a steady white curtain, occasionally whipped around by a vicious gust of wind.

You don’t visit this blog for weather updates, so let me bring things around to our favorite subject: thrillers. Watching the snow through the window of my writing room got me thinking about the role weather can play in a story. Seems like a good topic for my Writing Tips series.

Weather as mood-setter

One way a writer can use weather is to help set the mood. Like a soundtrack in a movie, a few well-chosen details about the weather can put readers in a specific emotional frame of mind without interrupting the story. For example, yesterday there was a blizzard outside my window, but I was warm and safe inside my house. Imagine a scene in which a character goes through a familiar breakfast routine with his family, while outside, the wind and snow beat against the walls. Juxtaposing the family’s safe, familiar routine with the wild, dangerous world of nature beyond their walls creates a mood of cozy intimacy.

By contrast, imagine if the storm brought down the power lines and the house lost electricity. The heater stopped working. The internet and the phones went down. Now, instead of cozy intimacy, we have isolation and fear. Stephen King used weather to create this type of mood in The Shining, in which the members of the Torrance family found themselves alone and isolated in an empty hotel during a winter storm. King did it so well that weather is one of the most memorable parts of a very memorable novel. (Seriously, if you haven’t read The Shining, get it now!)

Weather as an active antagonist

When weather moves from background to foreground, it can serve as an antagonist in the story. To use Winter Storm Stella as an example again, imagine if our character needs to drive in the storm. His car gets stranded, and he is forced to leave its warm confines and face the elements. This is a conflict known as man versus nature, in which nature becomes the bad guy. Our character faces pain, frostbite, and the threat of a slow, terrifying death by freezing, if he cannot overcome the weather through his skill, ingenuity, and perseverance. Many disaster movies use weather as an antagonist. The Perfect Storm, for example, dramatized the conflict between a deadly storm at sea and people on a ship trying to survive.

Weather in the real world

In the real world, all the weather meant for me yesterday was that I had to bundle myself up in snow pants, coat, and hat, fire up the snow blower, and dig us out. It was a chore. Mundane and unpleasant. Not fun. As with so much in life, the real world is rarely as exciting as a thriller.

But that’s a good thing. I’d rather curl up on the couch with my wife and kids than battle frostbite in a high-stakes battle of life and death. I’ll save that scenario for my Kindle.