Are you afraid of using the weather in your writing? If so, you aren’t alone. After all, if we aren’t careful, weather description can be a minefield of clichés. The sunny, hot afternoon at the beach. The gloomy rainstorm at a funeral. There is also the danger that comes with using weather to mirror a character’s inner emotional landscape. Mishandling this technique can quickly create melodrama. Agents and editors also say that starting with the weather may kill your chances of having your story read past the first page. Why? Because done poorly, it can sound like a weather report. It may also delay the introduction of your hero, and readers are not always patient. They like to meet your characters and see what they are up against as soon as possible.
Wow, weather sounds like a recipe for disaster! It’s no wonder that some writers are so nervous about using anything weather-esque, they avoid it entirely.
But here’s the thing…avoiding weather entirely can be a fatal mistake!
Weather is rich. Powerful. It is infused with symbolism and meaning. And most of all, weather is important to us as people, affecting us in little ways. To illustrate this, I’m going to put you in the character’s shoes.
Think about walking down a street. It’s late afternoon, crystal bright, and a hot breeze blows against you. School’s out and kids run willy-nilly down the sidewalk, laughter ringing the air as they race to the corner store for a grape slush. Your sandals click against the pavement as you turn down between two brick buildings. The side door to an Italian restaurant is just past a rusty dumpster, and your fiancée’s shift is about to end. You smile, feeling light. You can’t wait to see him.
Now, let’s change the scene.
It’s sunset, and the weather has soured. Dark clouds pack the sky, creating a churning knot of cement above you. The sidewalk is deserted, and the wind is edged in cold, slapping your dress against your legs as you walk. You wish you’d worn pants, wish you’d brought a sweater. In the alley, garbage swirls against the greasy pavement and the restaurant’s dumpster has been swallowed by thick shadow. The side door is only a few steps away. You can’t quite see it, but all you have to do is cross the distance and knock. You hesitate, eyeing the darkness.
The same setting, the same event. Yet, the mood and tone shifted, all because of the weather I put in the backdrop. What was safe and bright and clean became dark and alien.
Were you able to imagine yourself in the moment? Did your emotions change depending on how I described this scenario? I hope so, because this is the power of weather--changing how people feel about their surroundings.
Weather is a tool to evoke mood, guiding the character toward the emotions we want them to feel (and by extension, the reader as well). By tuning into specific weather conditions, a character may feel safe, or off balance. Weather can work for or against the character and be used to foreshadow, hinting that something is about to change (often for the worse).
Because we have all experienced different types of weather ourselves, when we read about it within a scene, it reminds us of our own past, and the emotions we felt at the time. So, not only does weather add a large element of mood to the setting, it also encourages readers to identify with the character’s experience on a personal level.
So how do we write weather into our story in a clear way, and stay away from the pitfalls? Here are three ways.
Use Fresh, Sensory Images. In each passage, I utilized several senses to describe the effects of the weather. Here’s just a few: A hot breeze. Laughter ringing the air. Garbage swirling over the greasy pavement. A wind edged in cold, slapping against the legs. By describing weather by sound, touch and sight, I was able to make the scene feel more real.
Avoid Direct Emotion-to-Weather Clichés. There are some pairings we should avoid, like showing a crying character in a rainstorm or quaking with anger as thunder and lightning rages. There are many different types of weather elements, so think past the usual ones. (Need brainstorming help? Try the Weather Thesaurus HERE.) Avoid mirroring and instead show the character’s reaction to the weather as I did above. This is a stronger way to indicate one’s emotions without being too direct.
Choose Each Setting With Care. Setting and Weather should work together, either through contrast or comparison. In the first scene, we have beautiful weather and an alley as a final destination. These two are contrasts—one desirable, one not, but I chose to show enthusiasm and anticipation for the meeting to win out. In the second, the weather becomes a storm. Now we have two undesirable elements, and as such, they work together to build unease.
Weather can have a positive or negative effect on setting and change the character’s reaction to it, so don’t be afraid to use it! Just remember that with something this powerful, a light touch is all that is needed.
Your Turn: Do you use weather in your stories? How do you go about it?
Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with seventy-five different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. Angela also writes on the darker side of Middle Grade and Young Adult, and is represented by Jill Corcoran of The Herman Agency.
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