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Setting the Scene: Weather

This article is part of a continuing series on setting the scene in fiction. Through this series, I will explore elements critical to creating a compelling setting, including landscape, plants, animals, atmospheric phenomena, and architecture.

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Weather. Whether it is sunny, or snowy, or drizzling, weather is always there. More often than not, it seems to blend into the background of our lives. Yet even in our world of air conditioned housing and heated cars, weather effects our day to day decisions. And in fantasy- a genre which often explores themes of exposure, vulnerability, and desperate times – weather cannot be escaped. It is this simple reality that makes weather a powerful, but oft overlooked literary device. And while the mundane passage of overcast days and frosty nights is nothing to write about at length, there are a number of fascinating weather phenomena which serve as potential catalysts for plot development, and a bit of mayhem.

Golden Sunbeams by DebiBishopMore than most other elements of setting, weather serves as a means of capturing the emotions of a scene. After all, even the most desolate and barren swamp will appear manageable on a sunny, temperate day. And even the most beautiful tropical valley will seem miserable under three feet of snow.

There are a few important visual elements that come together to truly use weather to prepare readers for the emotions they should feel in the scene: lighting, color, temperature, precipitation, wind, visibility, sound, smell, and consistency.

Lighting is at once one of the most immediately noticeable and most subtle elements of a scene. Bright, hard, direct light brings to mind stress and discomfort. Bright, soft light brings to mind comfort and ease. Dim, soft light elicits a mood that is somber, almost holy. Dim, hard light brings to mind light that is far away, creating a sense of isolation.

Northern Lights by bomobobColor is another critical element of using weather to set a scene. There are generally three colors we consciously associate with weather: gray, blue, and gold. Yet weather offers a broad array of intense and psychologically significant colors. Clouds turn an eerie milky green right before severe storm. Skies are stained a hard, crystalline red right before darkness falls. Sunlight can be silver in the morning and brilliant yellow at noon. Lightning can be a bright, clear blue, or a dark, musky purple. Consider all of these color options as you paint your weather into your scene.

Temperature is another important consideration as you work weather into a scene. Even with simple “hot” and “cold”, there are variations. A dry, intense heat is draining, but a wet, sweltering heat is far worse. A steady, damp chill is deeply unpleasant, but a shaking, burning bitterness is almost intolerable.

Red Riding Hood in Blizzard by PhotographyDreamPrecipitation pairs with temperature to capture the mood of a scene. A steady, slow drizzle is certainly not welcome, but it is nothing compared to a torrential downpour. Snow flurries are often a welcome, lighthearted sight, but an outright blizzard wears on every sense.

Wind offers another important descriptive factor that shapes the scene. While we barely notice it, wind is almost always present. The absence of even the faintest breeze is unsettling at times, creating a sort of surreal stillness, which mirrors the silence of birds and animals. Small breezes are playful, large ones are uncomfortable, and the effects of hurricane force winds on the morale of a character are rather predictable.

Visibility is critical, particularly when it comes to building tension. A dark, foggy night is, after all, a stereotype in horror stories for a reason. Lack of visibility creates a sense of intense foreboding, just as bright, clear weather offers a sense of security and certainty.

Autumn Cottonwood by rrobertsphotoSound adds another layer of sensation to the weather in a scene. Soft sounds, such as the rustle of approaching rain or the hush of wind may be soothing, but certain quiet sounds, such as the low, guttural rumble of a distant tornado, create an instant, visceral need to freeze and listen for more information. Loud sounds, on the other hand, inspire fight or flight responses, filling your reader with as much of a need to escape the bangs and howls of a violent thunderstorm as the characters themselves.

Smell, while not often a conscious part of weather observation, is another means of capturing the depth of how weather shapes a scene. Although it may sound superficially odd, weather patterns do have scents. Dust storms have an understandable dry, earthy flavor. Thunderstorms have a sharp, brackish scent of ozone which comes right before lightning. And blizzards come with air as cool and clear tasting as a mountain spring.

Lightning Storm by WildTilesFinally, it is important to consider the consistency of weather in setting a scene. Erratic, unstable weather creates a sense of unease. Shifting clouds and rapidly dimming sunlight create a sense of impending chaos. Conversely, clearing skies and winds that fade create a sense of returning to peace.

Throughout all of this, it is important to consider how weather interacts with the landscape as well. Imagine the patterns clouds throw onto the ground. Picture the way light filters through the trees, and the way that the wind combs through tall grasses. Capture the subtle interplay between land and sky. Be conservative in your word use, but clear in your descriptions, and your readers will gladly follow you through your story.

Title image by WildTiles.

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8 Comments

  1. Great article Tegan. Describing the weather and using it to set atmosphere and drama are a great tool when writing Fantasy. Your article is a great resource. Thanks for sharing.

  2. J.L. Mbewe says:

    I love weather. The way the sunset bounces off the clouds, storm clouds brewing, snow falling, dense fog, etc…So weather plays a big part in my stories, but I want it to be believable. Of course, I could always have the sorceress mess around with the weather, but wouldn’t that be like utilizing the deus ex machina? Do you think that weather could become one of those stereotypical “characters” like the wise old sage or the young, orphaned boy on a hero’s journey? “It’s raining, oh no, something bad is going to happen.”

    Anyways, enjoyed your post! I like how you connected emotional responses to the types of weather, lighting, etc. Thanks for sharing!

    • Tegan Beechey says:

      I absolutely agree- weather can be used as a fallback for lazy writing, just like all tropes. But just like all tropes, it can also be used to tremendous effect!

  3. Edi says:

    I’d agree that weather can be used as a fallback, but I also think that it’s affects are hugely underplayed. Often characters plow on through hideous weather as if it were a sunny day. I think some writers don’t pay enough heed to just how profound even a drop of a few degrees could be to the psyche when travelling. Just looking at Scott’s last expedition and the weird cold snap they experienced on their return journey is a great reason why weather should be a serious consideration to writers.

  4. Great post. The weather can have such an impact when used in the right way, not just to fluff out pretty descriptions. It is true there is a lot to be said about it being a great tool for advancing plot. If I am looking for inspiration in writing about the weather I usually go out to take notes about the little details. In the beginning of my novel my world is in drought so I went for a drive and took note of the crunchy dry grass, the brown hills, the cracked creek beds full of ants and the sparse blue sky. This can be hard if you can’t go and find places where the weather is similar to what you are trying write about. Using all five senses seems to make things more believable… 🙂

  5. Ryan says:

    I always remember this line from McCarthy Blood Meridian. “Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow… ”
    I’ve never read a writer who could evoke so much emotion and feeling with so few words.

  6. Very thoughtful post! Weather is so important for so many things : art, photography, video, drawing…
    Thanks a lot for sharing my winter photograph to illustrate your post!
    All the best,
    Yann – PhotographyDream

    • Autumn2May Autumn2May says:

      You’re very welcome and we’re glad you liked the article! You have beautiful work. 🙂 Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      Jennie 🙂

      Autumn2May
      Assistant Editor | Forum Mod

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