Writing the Weather
The weather is both ever-present and always changing, but more importantly is something we have no control over. It can add atmosphere, change the mood, and dictate activity and response, yet it does not bend to our will.
When setting a scene, the weather is an element that needs to be taken into account, but equally should be acknowledged as unmanageable. That is assuming you aren’t writing about a character that can control it, either through technology or superhuman abilities or magical powers, but even then its natural state before intervention should be treated as such. All too often, nefarious activities occur on dark and stormy nights, meaning either your characters have checked the forecast and planned accordingly, or they are extremely lucky that the tone of the weather matches their intentions.
As a general rule, describing the weather should only be necessary if it impacts the scene. A car chase on a slightly overcast day should not involve a detailed account of the cloud coverage as it will not affect the action, but heavy rain would result in characters driving differently as they struggle to keep their vehicles on the road in wet conditions. An interview in an office block would not need a description of the angle of the sun in the sky unless it happens to be shining through the window, blinding the protagonist as they attempt to make eye contact with their interviewer.
When writing a description of the weather, focusing on characters will always be more interesting than meteorological details. The exact temperature during a particularly hot day is less engaging than the sweat it causes on the executioner’s hands as they attempt to lift an axe. Similarly, the depth of snow that has fallen will not compare to the blanketing sensation it brings to the walker who has to pick their way through a silent forest that suddenly feels much brighter and safer, despite being the same feared location as it was the last time they were chased through it by bandits.
The weather can influence situations and change the narrative, but rather than deus ex machina it can be done through chance. Fog will lower visibility, and whilst that may stop a sniper taking out his target, one would expect any assassin worth paying to check the forecast and adjust their plans. An estate agent would be less likely to keep such a keen eye on the climate, and so fog could cause them to fail to notice the potential buyers who had arranged a viewing of a property but were waiting on the wrong side of the street.
Matching the weather to a scene can be difficult to do well, as although it may be tempting to have thunder and lightning in the background as the wealthy host of the party is murdered after a dinner party, a calm and clear night where the stars are visible would make the killing more unexpected. Inverting the cliché can serve you well to maintain tension and keep your readers guessing. Why does your protagonist meet their love-interest in a sunny day in the park when it could be a dull, miserable day? Would that not give the moment more impact?
The weather can add a lot to a scene, but also detract from it. Writing it sensibly and effectively, without devolving into cliché, can enhance the fictional world you are building. Just remember to keep it as part of the setting and not the focus of your writing.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.